On Monday, September 19, 2016, Milford School District Board of Education allowed public comment at their regular board meeting which was moved to Milford Central Academy to avoid overcrowding. The district has received many complaints from residents when tax bills began to arrive, showing a significant increase in school taxes in the district. During meetings requesting support for a referendum that passed in October 2015, the board indicated taxes would increase an average of $120, but when bills arrived, the increases were as much as $500 higher.
The meeting began with Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, addressing the crowd of about 100 people in attendance, many of whom signed up to speak at the meeting.
“First and foremost, we have to accept responsibility for not communicating well enough to our taxpayers to provide a clear awareness of the entire school tax increase and, in particular, the tuition tax increase and its impact on the overall tax,” Mr. Dickerson said. “This communication should have been extensive throughout the community with our taxpayers, and much earlier relative to when residents began receiving tax bills. Our community, and especially our taxpayers, deserved better communication. We will make every effort to ensure that our communication improves for our taxpayers.” Mr. Dickerson then presented a slide show that explained the different tax rates and how they are determined. He said that approximately two-thirds of the increase was due to the operating expense tax referendum, which was approved by voters in the October 2015 referendum while one-third was due to a tuition tax increase voted by the board in June 2016.
After Dr. Dickerson’s presentation, members of the community were given five minutes each to present questions to the board. Although the board could not answer the questions at the meeting, Dr. Dickerson did issue a press release after the meeting that answered many of those presented by the public.
“It would be nice to see the trends for the tuition tax over the past few years,” John Pastier said. “The tuition line last year was $1.4 million and it has gone up to $4 million. How do we know what this money is being spent on and how could the district not have known these bills were coming?”
Dr. Dickerson said that the 2016 school projections were done prior to the setting of the tuition tax rate in June. He said that student needs are not static and that the needs for services of students change, students move in and out of the district, and disability identification does not follow a pattern. He said there is not necessarily a timeline or pattern as to when students will need certain services or for when students needing specific services enter the district.
“Throughout the school year, we had an increase in the number of students identified for services provided by our most expensive service placements, families requesting evaluations of their students and young children referrals from outside agencies,” Dr. Dickerson said. “There were also cost increases for some services, including an increase by one of our largest service providers. Some of our tuition bills were received in early spring through the end of May and costs of certain placements were not known until the bills were received in the spring.” Dr. Dickerson said that all tuition-related expenses follow the guidelines set by the state. The main driver of the increased tuition-related expenses was the increase in expenditures associated with students attending specialized schools to access certain programs to meet their individual needs.
Students served in out-of-district special needs placements has steadily declined over a ten-year period with 112 students placed in out-of-district schools in 2007 dropping to 86 in 2016, as the district continues to add special education programs within the district. However, the costs to support student needs has risen steadily, so it was not the number of students needing placement that caused the higher tuition rates, but the cost charged by the out-of-district programs. Approximately 90 percent of the tuition expenditures in Milford are for students with special needs with the remaining ten percent used for regular education students experiencing behavioral issues and for those who attend Academic Challenge at local colleges. Dr. Dickerson said that tuition-related expenditures were approximately $2 million in FY 2013 and have risen to $2.67 million in 2016. He said that the 2016 cost would have been closer to $3 million, but a provider agreed to waive their bill. It was estimated that costs for 2017 would exceed $3 million.
Milford School District, as well as other public school districts in the state, are required to hold, at a minimum, annual Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings to determine the appropriate educational setting for each student. A team of educators, families, advocates, related service providers and administrators convene as an IEP team. In order for a student to receive special education services, a valid explanation must be provided within the IEP. IN 2015-16, 13.9 percent of students in Milford qualified for special education services, lower than the state average of 14.4 percent.
“Federal law dictates that every student be served in his or her least restrictive environment placement,” Dr. Dickerson explained. “For every student, the least restrictive environment is a regular education classroom with typical peers. Special classes, separate schooling or other removals of students with disabilities from the regular education environment occur only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily for the student and is in accordance with the student’s IEP. In order for a student to be moved to a more restrictive setting, the IEP team must collect six to eight weeks of data demonstrating that, even with accommodations and supports, the severity of the disability does not allow the student to achieve satisfactorily.” Dr. Dickerson said that teams do not move students from a regular setting to an out-of-district setting until students engage with multiple other settings and each of those is evaluated. Residential settings require demonstration to the state that all in-district options have been exhausted.
In 2011, 2012 and 2014, Milford lowered the tuition tax, but the tax has been raised in 2013 and 2015. The increase in 2016 was significant, Dr. Dickerson said, based on the increase in cost to Milford from other districts.
“I would like to know if the district accounts get audited regularly,” said Peggy Reilly. “Is there a report anywhere that shows what is spent?”
Dr. Dickerson said that the district conducts internal audits of all student IEPs annually. In addition, there is a multi-tiered system of review for all out-of-district referrals. The State Department of Education audits the district and the state is audited by the federal government. All district finances are also audited throughout the year by the state. A construction audit is performed annually to be sure all major capital funding and expenses are properly managed. The district also goes through a local tax rate and revenue audit that looks at how the tax rates are set and that it is compliant with Title 14 of Delaware Code. All audit reports are available on the district website.
When a student must be provided services out of the district, all costs associated with that out-of-district placement fall to the school district who must pay 100 percent of those costs. If a student’s needs are so severe they require a residential placement, the state pays 70 percent of the costs and the district must pay the remaining 30 percent. For some students, 30 percent of a residential placement can be as much as $100,000.
“I am on the Parent’s Advisor Council and I have a special needs child,” Jennifer Cinnelli-Miller said. “I fight tooth and nail for every special needs child in the district, not just my own. Yes, this district is lacking in special education services, but it is not because of our teachers. It is because of the school funding laws in Delaware. It is criminal that Cape Henlopen has million dollar houses on the ocean who are paying taxes based on a 1970 assessment. Yes, the board should have been more open, but it is not their fault they have lost funding from the federal and state government. It is not fair that those cuts must fall on the shoulders of the taxpayers. I can tell you that this district does an amazing, incredible job with what they have to work with. I suggest that rather than point fingers at the board, you consider joining an oversight committee and help them guide the finances if you don’t like how they are doing it.”
Dr. Dickerson echoed Ms. Cinnelli-Miller’s statements about state funding. He said that Sussex County properties have not been assessed since 1974 and Kent County were last assessed in 1986. However, school taxes must be equalized for Milford School District since the district encompasses two counties. The equalization requirement insures that identical properties in the two counties are taxed at the same rate.
Taxpayers who are struggling to pay their property taxes may be able to set up payment plans with their county tax office, Dr. Dickerson said. Residents can call 302-744-2536 in Kent County or 302-855-7831 in Sussex County to learn what options are available to them. Senior citizens and the disabled may also be able to have up to 50 percent of their property taxes waived if they qualify.
Follow up public meetings will be held on the following dates:
Friday, September 30th, from 10AM – 12PM at the Annex Boardroom
Tuesday, October 4th, from 10AM -12PM at the Annex Boardroom
Tuesday, October 4th, from 6:00-8:00PM in the High School Cafeteria
Monday, October 10th, from 6:00-8:00PM in the Ross Elementary Cafeteria
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