On Wednesday, September 16, a community meeting was held to discuss the upcoming Milford School District referendum that is planned for October 6, 2015. The meeting was led by David Burton who supports the referendum as well as Yvette Dennehy, School Board member and Dirk Gleysteen, a former city councilman who was opposed to a referendum that failed in May 2015. Mr. Gleysteen supports the current referendum which will only be to raise taxes to eliminate an operations deficit in the district.
“We are standing in front of the greatest time in 50 years,” Mr. Burton said. “Bayhealth will be building a dynamic hospital. They are not just moving the old hospital to a new location. The new hospital is going to be significantly different than what we see today. If Milford was getting an Amazon, people would be excited. The new hospital is equal to five Amazons as it will offer good jobs and good pay with good benefits. There will be no pollution from the hospital and it is clean industry. But we need to be ready.” Mr. Burton said that he was not there to imply that Milford schools were bad, because they are not. However, he said it was time for the community to make Milford the best in the state, telling those in attendance to imagine what it would be like if Milford students were deemed the best.
Mr. Burton pointed out that the employees at the hospital needed to be highly-skilled. Not only will there be more doctors and nurses, but even the administrative and maintenance staff will need specific skills in order to perform their job well. He pointed out that employees who were recruited to take jobs at the new Bayhealth campus did not have to live in Milford. They could live in nearby towns and send their children to neighboring districts whose schools have been supported by their communities, demonstrated by the passage of referendums in those districts.
“During the last referendum, Dirk Gleysteen was openly opposed to the referendum,” Mr. Burton said. “He wrote letters to the paper and spoke critically about wasteful spending on the part of the district. I went to him and I asked him to talk to the financial department at the district. I wanted him to run the numbers because he is a numbers man. After meeting with Sara Croce, the Chief Financial Officer, Dirk came away with numbers that clearly show how desperate the situation is.”
Mr. Gleysteen handed out documents that demonstrated the importance of passing the referendum using numbers provided by the district. The facts showed that the district is currently running at a $1.2 million deficit and has attempted to resolve the matter through budget costs that currently stand at $1 million. The state provides 70 % of district funding, leaving the remaining 30 % up to the district. Of the 30 % in local monies used to support the district, 69 % is used for teacher salaries.
“I asked Sara to contact all the districts in the state to see where our teacher salaries fell in comparison to other districts,” Mr. Gleysteen said. “Of the 16 districts who responded, Milford ranked 11th in first-year teacher salaries. As they serve more years as teachers, we fall even lower with Milford teachers ranking between 14th and 16th out of 16 districts. That is unacceptable.” Mr. Burton pointed out that teachers were leaving Milford to go to neighboring districts who offered higher pay at an alarming rate and that those that were leaving were some of the best Milford had.
Mr. Burton pointed out that when many people looked at the numbers provided by the district, there were so many details that it became confusing. Sara Kate Hammer, a community member, supported Mr. Burton’s theory.
“Mr. Gleysteen had one message during the last referendum,” Ms. Hammer said. “Stop wasteful spending. One thing that the public could see and grab onto. The district had a litany of reasons why the referendum needed to pass and it became confusing. You need one message. Keep it simple. Support our teachers. That is easier for people to get behind than a list of things that the increase in taxes will bring.”
Angela Dorey, President of the Greater Milford Chamber of Commerce, said that she had two sons who attended Milford schools so she had a vested interest in seeing the district succeed. According to the documents handed out by Mr. Gleysteen, a home with an assessed value of $150,000 would see their taxes increase by $130 per year while a $250,000 assessed value home would see their taxes increase by $212 year. This amounts to approximately $10.83 per month for a $150,000 home and $17.67 per month for a $250,000 home.
“If you look at the breakdown of how much taxes will go up, it is a rather small amount,” Ms. Dorey said. “I waste more than that on pizza in a month. I attended private school as a child, but I can’t afford to do that with my boys. Therefore, I want them to get an excellent education from Milford and they won’t do that without quality teachers.”
Danny Vezmar who, along with Yvette Dennehy, were leaders of the Buccaneer Tomorrow group who vocally supported the May referendum, said that he was sure people had noticed the group had not been as vocal about the upcoming referendum.
“We decided to do this differently this time,” Mr. Vezmar said. “Instead of pushing the need for the referendum now, we decided to do a strong push during the week before the referendum.” Dwayne Powell, who worked with the Buccaneer Tomorrow group expressed that he felt that was a mistake.
Mr. Powell said that he felt delaying support for the referendum gave the wrong impression to the community.
“At that very first meeting, we said that we had to stay strong, win or lose,” Mr. Powell said. “You can’t sit back on your heels. You have to keep up the pressure. I don’t know that we have done that. I also want to know if there has been a strategic plan developed. This is a band-aid on a bigger problem. We know we will need to go back out for another referendum because we need a new school. There is no question about that. What is the plan to do that? How will we look five, ten, twenty years down the road?”
Several members of the audience said that they had spoken to people in the community who were not even aware there was a referendum on October 6. Many people in the community are unaware who is allowed to vote in school referendums, what they need to bring or where they go to vote.
For this referendum, there are only three voting locations and they are different than the locations used in May. Milford residents may vote at Milford High School, Banneker Elementary or Morris Early Childhood Center. You do not have to be a property owner to vote, but you must be a United States citizen and must provide photo identification in order to vote.
“Money is important, but it isn’t everything,” Mr. Burton said. “When we decided to create the Riverwalk, many people in town told us we were crazy to build a boardwalk along the river. At the time, the river was a dump. We didn’t listen and we built it anyway. Look at it now. It is a beautiful area that people enjoy on a daily basis. The same is true of our schools. Everyone in this room has a stake in getting this to pass. Talk to your neighbors and get them out to vote. There are a lot of people who don’t even know what is happening, those are the people we need to reach. We will probably not change the minds of those who are vehemently against it, but we can at least get the message out to others how important it is to support our teachers.”