Task force calls for property reassessments

DOVER — A task force looking at merging school districts isn’t recommending consolidation.

But it is urging the state’s three counties to reassess property values, something not done in decades.

In July state legislators passed a resolution establishing a group to study whether significant savings could be achieved by reducing the number of school districts, an idea that has been tossed about over the years but seen little action.

After extending the due date in January, the task force is set to present its report to the General Assembly and Gov. John Carney next month.

The task force held its final meeting Monday and spent more than two hours discussing the final product, with members voting to approve all the recommendations crafted by subcommittees, although some were modified.

The recommendations, if enacted, would make several changes to Delaware’s education funding and support system, such as placing mental-health counselors in all schools, offering more money for English language learners, changing the transportation funding formula and fostering greater cooperation among districts.

Most notably, the report will encourage New Castle, Kent and Sussex to update property values.

“It’s time the General Assembly needs to stand up and do it,” Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat who chaired the task force, said afterward.

The call for reassessment is not likely to be popular with the counties, which would be responsible for conducting the examination and bearing the costs — millions, if not tens of millions — unless the state opts to chip in.

Property values were last assessed in Kent in 1987, New Castle in 1983 and in Sussex in 1974. According to a report on reassessment put together by the General Assembly in 2008, “Delaware’s statewide assessed value represents just 21 percent of the market value.”

Because the General Assembly finishes session in slightly more than two months, Rep. Jaques said he expects lawmakers will not take a serious look at reassessment this year but will revisit the issue in 2019 and 2020.

He anticipates legislators will also discuss consolidation over the next two years.

With about 138,000 public school students, not counting the 15,000 attending charter schools, Delaware averages around 7,300 pupils per district.

That’s in sharp contrast, some will note, to other jurisdictions. Philadelphia, for instance, has 199,000 public school students and just one district.

The state’s 19 districts, three of which are vocational, range in size from 16,000 students in Red Clay to 1,200 in Polytech.

A task force subcommittee focusing on cost discussed several options in previous meetings, such as creating county-wide districts, merging some adjacent districts or combining the vocational districts. The subcommittee concluded there would be “minimal savings at best” in county-wide districts, noting it would “create numerous problems related to facilities management, personnel and salary issues and transportation and other logistical issues that would more than negate the benefit of any savings.”

The group did not rule out combining a few districts. One hypothetical mentioned at a prior meeting would merge Appoquinimink and Colonial, Caesar Rodney and Lake Forest, and Seaford and Woodbridge, although it saves just $1.11 million.

Joining the vocational districts together is probably the most likely option for consolidation.

While many Delawareans are supportive of combining some districts, they often object to changing the one closest to them. Prior studies have also indicated there may not be significant cost savings.

Rep. Jaques said he intends to present several of the recommendations as legislation soon, although he has not decided exactly which ones he will push.

“There’s a couple ones in here I think might have a chance that I’ll look at and try to see if I can move them forward,” he said.

He singled out a proposal to offer more help for students impacted by trauma or other circumstances as particularly important.

Gov. Carney has called for providing trauma-informed care to Wilmington students, many of whom come from poverty and are surrounded by violence.

Other recommendations would give substitute teachers pay increases, pay bus drivers with significant experience more and work to improve communication between non-English-speaking communities and Delaware schools.

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