Residents have expressed disapproval for a potential tax increase. School board members said asking for a district tax increase is the only way they can legally raise school funds.

The board said they wouldn’t be asking unless they had to.

The Appoquinimink School District is rapidly growing, the state cut its yearly funding and the board put a referendum on the ballot for Dec. 17 to help with needs.

Residents have expressed disapproval for a potential tax increase. School board members Richard Forsten, Matt Burrows and Michelle Wall said asking for a district tax increase is the only way they can legally raise school funds.

“We can’t have a bake sale and raise funds to build a school,” Wall said. “It’s our job as the district to tell people this is our only way.” 

In October, the school board decided to take a three-part referendum to public vote. It is for operational and capital expenses, such as teacher salary increases, land acquisition, new school buildings and a roof replacement.

As area population has exponentially increased, the district had to find ways to support new students.

“People’s immediate reaction should be ‘Why are my taxes increasing?’” board president Forsten said. “At some point push comes to shove and we have to do what we have to do to maintain our schools.”

The board members said they are working with one of the lowest operating costs in New Castle County, and it is time to ask taxpayers to help maintain the quality of education people want.

“We are delivering excellence on a shoestring,” Wall said. “But at some point you run out of laces and that’s where we are at. We are not making an exorbitant ask. We are making a thoughtful intentional ask for what the need is.”

Forsten said the board has had about 25 public meetings discussing what they should ask for in the referendum. 

He said they are doing everything they can to spend money wisely.

“There was a lot of planning that went into what we should build and ask for,” Forsten said. “We wouldn’t be asking unless it was necessary.”

Lilian Miles, public information officer for Appo, said the Delaware Department of Education only approves capital construction they consider critical. The DOE said this is accurate.

District growth

Burrows said the Appo district grows the equivalent of an elementary school every year, a middle school every two years and a high school every three.

He said they have almost added 1,900 students in five years. When this kind of increase happens, building new schools is what the district has to do.

“If you had a business and you had a 19% growth in five years, that would be great,” he said. “But we have to build buildings and the only way we can increase revenue is by going to referendum.”

Wall said in any other industry there is revenue, but in education there is only expense.

Residents at board meetings and on social media have expressed frustration with increased community growth.

Cyndi Clay, a lifelong MOT resident and co-chair for the referendum campaign, said she has witnessed a lot of growth since she was a child. Now as a grandmother, she sees how hard of a time the district has had keeping up with it.

The former Appo district teacher thinks in the long run, the community will benefit from passing the referendum maintaining a strong school district means higher property values for residents.

“People move here for two reasons: great schools and lower taxes,” Clay said. “We are able to still do that with the increase in property tax we are asking for.”

Miles said this is likely not the end of growth and the district will be again asking for taxpayers to help keep up with it.

“You might not like that there is growth but then you should talk to the county about that,” she said. “You shouldn’t punish the educational system or our children.”

Forsten said much of the reason they have to come back and ask the residential taxpayer to help with the cost is that the MOT area does not have as many big corporations to contribute to property taxes compared to northern New Castle County.

“While we have residential growth, we are not getting a lot of commercial and office growth, so that’s why our tax base isn’t keeping pace with our growth as it does with other school districts,” he said.

He said a lot of people live in the district, but drive out of town for work.

If it doesn’t pass

Wall said if the referendum doesn’t pass, they will not be able to ask again until June because of the presidential primaries. Usually, they are allowed to try to have another vote 60 days later.

She said districts who have been unsuccessful in passing a referendum, the state has denied its portion of the funding when asked again. The DOE confirmed this true. 

“We would have to plan [for the next school year] in deficit,” she said. “It could mean cuts to personnel and funding.”

If it doesn’t pass, Burrows said schools could see increased class sizes, decreased programs and reduction in staff. 

Forsten said this is worst case scenario.

State cuts funding

The Appo district has a 10-year three-phase building plan to address their growth needs. This included the referendum from 2016, one in 2019, and one in a future year

Six months after the 2016 vote that included an operational expense request, the state cut $2 million in annual funding, according to the district’s referendum flyer.

“A third of our referendum is to make up for those cuts,” Forsten said. “We were doing the best we could, we adjusted for it. We had some surplus money we used up trying to adjust for those cuts. But at the end of the day, there is only so much we could do.”

Wall said as the state continues to cut their portion, local tax is the only way to make up for it. 

If all three parts of the referendum are approved, the tax increase for a home with an average assessment will be $21.06 per month or $252.72 per year.

Burrows said home values have not been assessed since 1983 and the average home in Middletown has a market value of about $290,000 assessed value of about $89,000.

Miles said people should make sure to use the assessed value of their home, not their market value.

Visit www3.nccde.org/parcel/search to look up your property assessment and visit apposchooldistrict.com to accurately determine the projected increase.

Ballot breakdown

The school district is asking eligible voters to approve a three-part referendum Dec. 17. They will have the option to vote for or against on each part.

The three proposals amount to about an $81 million project, $74.8 million for capital and $6.2 million for operational expenses. About $44.1 million is coming from state contribution and $36.9 million from local taxpayers.

Part 1 includes a $6.2 million operational request for staff retention and salary increases, safety and security enhancements, sustained technology and classroom supply funding and increased athletic and classroom supplies for enrollment growth.

Part 2 includes a $58 million capital request.The school is asking for funds to buy land on Summit Bridge Road for a campus for kindergarten to 12th grade for $5.4 million, construction of an elementary school at the Summit Bridge site for $37.1 million, and construction of an early childhood center next to Brick Mill Road Elementary for $15.4 million.

The Appo district is asking for a local contribution of about $13.9 million, 24% of cost. The state will contribute about $44.1 million — 76% — to the projects if approved. This is the only part of the referendum the state is contributing toward.

Part 3 includes a $16.7 million capital request that would be funded 100% from local taxpayers. The district is asking for funds to replace the roof and HVAC system at Middletown High School for $12.3 million and replacing the turf at four athletic fields for $4.4 million.

People who have attended their public meetings have asked about why replacing four turf fields is in the referendum after getting it 10 years ago. Forsten said it has reached its life expectancy and has started to wear down, so it’s important to update it for student safety.

“We can’t ask kids to play sports and blow out their knee [from bad turf],” he said.

Burrows compares the money for capital projects to a house mortgage. The local taxpayer would be paying for the projects over 20 years. As this tax rolls out other items, such as a school built 15 years ago, will be paid and that portion will no longer disappear from their tax payment.

Originally, the school district said the proposal would only be in two sections, but the Board of Elections had them put the vote into three, Miles said.

Polls are open Dec. 17 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.