State drops opposition to Del. school funding suit depositions

DOVER — Attorneys for Gov. John Carney have dropped their opposition to Delaware’s education secretary and budget director being deposed in a lawsuit alleging the state is failing to provide adequate educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.

A judge had planned to hear arguments Thursday on a requested protective order preventing Education Secretary Susan Bunting and Management and Budget Director Michael Jackson from being deposed. The hearing was canceled after attorneys for the state informed the court that a dispute over the depositions had been resolved.

A spokesman for Carney confirmed Thursday that the state had dropped its opposition to the depositions. A revised scheduling order signed by the judge calls for all fact depositions to be completed by Feb. 28.

Attorneys for the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society have said the two cabinet officials have knowledge and information about school funding issues that can’t be obtained from others. They also previously requested that Carney’s attorneys provide dates in late January for the governor’s possible deposition, but they have not yet filed a notice with the court to depose Carney.

Attorneys for the administration had argued that state and federal courts have recognized that depositions of high-ranking government officials are prohibited, absent extraordinary circumstances.

An attorney for the administration also told plaintiffs’ attorneys in an email late last year that their request to depose Carney and Bunting were “highly irregular” and appeared to be nothing more than an effort to “harass and annoy.”

The lawsuit points to the dismal performance on standardized assessments among children from low-income families, children with disabilities, and children whose first language is not English. It also alleges that the state has failed to provide adequate funding for those students, who number in the tens of thousands and are collectively described as “disadvantaged.”

In addition to Carney and Bunting, other defendants in the case are Delaware’s state treasurer, and the finance directors for the state’s three counties.

The judge is holding separate trials for the county defendants and state defendants. A post-trial hearing in the county-track litigation is set for Friday.

The lawsuit against county defendants said school property tax collections based on outdated assessments are partially to blame for the lack of funding.

State law requires that property be assessed at fair market value, but the law does not require that counties conduct reassessments on any particular schedule. Kent County in central Delaware last reassessed property values in 1987, while northern New Castle County’s current assessment dates to 1983. Sussex County, home to million-dollar beach homes in southern Delaware, last reassessed property values in 1974.

After the lawsuit was filed, Carney and state lawmakers agreed last year to set aside $75 million over three years, starting this year, for low-income students and English language learners in public schools. The funding also will support additional mental health and reading support services in 49 “high need” elementary schools.

In an amended complaint, the plaintiffs said the extra money approved by lawmakers last year was welcome, but not “sufficient.”