School Board Votes for Referendum, Against Match Tax

By Terry Rogers

On Monday, June 22, Milford School District Board of Education voted to hold a referendum on October 6, 2015. The referendum would be for an operations increase only and not for the construction of any new school buildings. At a workshop on Wednesday, June 17, Dr. Phyllis Kohel, Superintendent of Milford School District, said that the district realized they needed to do “a whole lot of work in the community before we request funding for any type of building.”

According to Dr. Kohel, the operations referendum is urgently needed in order to keep the district financially sound past the 2019 school year. The district has cut more than $1.4 million from their operations budget over the past two years, but still faces a budget shortfall for 2015-16 of $819,543. The operations referendum would bring in an additional $3 million in revenue for the district.

If the referendum passes, it would be the first operations referendum passed in Milford since 2005 when citizens voted for an operations increase and to build two new schools. According to a letter presented to the board by Dr. Kohel, the referendum would allow the district to not only address their annual budget deficit of $1.2 million, but would also support school security and student safety initiatives. The city is currently in negotiations with the City of Milford regarding a two-year contract for the district to pay $200,000 per year for two additional School Resource Officers. The city has indicated they are not willing to let the district out of that contract.

The passage of the referendum would also replace the programs that have been cut over the past few years and allow the district to replace outdated technology in classrooms. In addition, the funding would support increased costs of energy, align curriculum with state standards and allow the district to expand career pathways at the secondary level as space would allow.

“I am asking the board to approve a salary increase for teachers if this referendum passes,” Dr. Kohel said. “We did not offer an increase as part of the recent contract negotiations and we have lost excellent teachers as a result. Just this week, four teachers left the high school for higher paying positions. They deserve a raise. They are one of the lowest paid in the state and, if we pass a referendum, we can show them that we value them as teachers.” Board member, Renate Wiley, also asked if tuition reimbursements could be added back into the budget if the referendum passes. Dr. Kohel said that there were many benefits that could be returned to teachers if the public supported the operations referendum.

Dr. Kohel said that, although current space was limited due to school overcrowding, she would like to see the district implement new pathways for high school students. These pathways would be designed for students who may not want to attend college, but instead wanted to learn a trade to enter a specific profession after graduation from high school.

“Although we cannot add a Certified Nursing Assistant or Junior ROTC program as they require additional space we do not have, we could add a food service or other smaller program with our existing buildings,” Dr. Kohel said. The board approved the date of the referendum unanimously.

Later in the meeting, Sara Croce, Chief Financial Officer for Milford School District, presented the board with two proposed budgets for 2015-16. One included match taxes that would allow the district to generate local money without the need for a referendum. The funds are restricted and can only be used for capital improvements, technology, maintenance and extra-time costs like after school programs. For the 2016 fiscal year, the district was only considering assessing the tax for minor capital improvements. If the board approved a match tax, there would be an increase of just over almost $0.08 for property owners in Sussex County per one hundred dollars of assessed value and just over $0.03 for property owners in Kent County per one hundred dollars of assessed value.

“With the match tax levied, the district would still see a budget deficit of $469,543,” Ms. Croce said. “Without adding the match tax, the district’s deficit will remain at $819,543. However, that deficit does not include the deduction of $200,000 for School Resource Officers if the city does not cancel our contract.” Board member, Pat Emory, said that it seemed to be the consensus at the workshop that the public was against the approval of a match tax.

Mr. Emory pointed out that several of those in attendance at the June 17 workshop felt that levying the match tax could be detrimental to the operations referendum. However, if the board chose not to levy the tax, they would have to wait until July 2016 to add the tax as part of local property taxes, while the district’s deficit would continue to grow.

“I think, though, as a board, we were against adding the match tax,” Ms. Wiley said. “I think the public just reconfirmed what we already knew and that is forcing a tax like this was not the answer.” According to Ms. Croce, if the board did not implement the match tax and the referendum did not pass, the district would be out of money in 2018 rather than 2019.

The board voted unanimously not to implement the match tax.

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