Education Dept. pushes for 6.5% hike in spending

DOVER — Delaware’s Department of Education is seeking an additional $102 million in its next budget which would mark an increase of nearly 6.5 percent over the current year’s spending.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting laid out her agency’s spending needs Tuesday as part of the preliminary budget request process. A few more state entities will present their asks to budget officials Thursday, concluding this step.

Taking department requests into consideration, Gov. John Carney will unveil his budget recommendations in January. The General Assembly will then review and modify that proposal over the next five months before the fiscal year concludes at the end of June.

Among the agencies presenting to Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson Tuesday were the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Social Services, which collectively make up about 63 percent of General Fund spending this year.

The Department of Education’s current budget totals $1.57 billion, while DHSS’ comes to $1.23 billion. For the fiscal year starting July 1, DHSS asked for about $40.4 million more — a relatively modest sum compared to what the Department of Education is seeking.

Nearly $90 million of the Education Department’s request consists of “door-openers,” increases to existing items or programs Delaware is obligated by state and federal laws to fund.

“I don’t think that’s a point that should be taken lightly,” Mr. Jackson said.

That sum includes $31.8 million for salaries, $9.2 million for contractually mandated pay raises for educators, $10.3 million for school transportation, $17.1 million for projected enrollment growth and $7.6 million for higher-than-expected enrollment this year.

Susan Bunting

That spike in the student population is higher than the past few years, according to Mr. Jackson.

Delaware budgets for education growth using units — basically classrooms, with a certain number of students generating one unit and thus a new educator.

The exact number of pupils in a unit varies, with 16.2 students equaling one unit for kindergarten through third grade and 20 students for fourth through 12th grade. It takes fewer special education students to generate a unit, ranging from 8.4 to 2.6 depending on the severity of their needs.

Delaware has budgeted 190 additional units per year in recent years, with much of the growth coming from special education students.

That population has risen from 15.1 percent of the public school enrollment at the end of the 2014-2015 school year to 17.5 percent earlier this year.

To put it a different way, from 2015 to 2019 public school enrollment rose by 5,348. The number of pupils receiving special education services, meanwhile, climbed from 21,361 in 2014-2015 to 25,614 for the most recently completed school year.

In other words, almost 80 percent of the gain came from students with extra needs — and that comes with an added cost.

Education officials have acknowledged the trend for several years, speculating it could be due to a combination of families moving to the state because its special education programs are highly regarded, existing students being designated as special needs and other pupils qualifying for more intensive services.

The Department of Education’s capital request, largely for construction of new schools, totals about $168 million. Almost $135 million is allocated for the agency this year.

Door-openers make up about $27.1 million of DHSS’ request, including $8.2 million more for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Also presenting this week were the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. UD is aiming to add $6 million to the $125 million allocated to it this year, while DSU requested about $5.2 million on top of the $36.5 million it is earmarked in the current budget.

Delaware State’s ask would cover a variety of areas, such as an expansion of its nursing program and new police cars. More than half of the sum sought by University of Delaware would go to scholarships for in-state students.

“As we have discussed over the past year, our proposed program — tentatively called Delaware Promise — would cover full tuition and mandatory fees for Delaware students, including transfers, whose families earn less than $61,000 a year,” President Dennis Assanis told budget officials.

“Covering transfer students would cost UD about $5 million to $7 million annually above what we are spending now on financial aid for Delawareans. Covering students, including transfers, from families with incomes under $75,000 would cost UD about $9 million to $10 million more per year.

“The program would include laddered support for housing and dining costs for students with the greatest financial need. We cannot implement this program without the state’s help.”

Delaware provided an initial appropriation for the plan this year. Should UD get the requested $3.3 million, it would be back asking for $2.5 million more in each of the next two fiscal years to cover the program, according to Dr. Assanis.

DSU’s public hearing included kudos for President Wilma Mishoe, who is retiring at the end of the year after about 18 months in the role. Provost Tony Allen will succeed her.

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