Cape Henlopen School District to hold operating expense referendum

LEWES — To support increasing enrollment demands, Cape Henlopen School District will head to the polls next month to ask voters to approve a tax hike.

The average taxpayer in the county would see a $64 annual increase, said Superintendent Bob Fulton. The polls open March 31 at 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Polling locations are Cape Henlopen High School, Mariner Middle School and Rehoboth Elementary School.

“We’ve been trying to be very tight with our expenditures; we’ve cut over a million dollars from our budget for different programs and within our budget,” he said. “But our revenues haven’t kept up with the growth and the amount of additional money. It’s put a strain on the district budget.”

Mr. Fulton said, for the last three years, the district has grown 200 students a year. Revenues have increased “a very moderate amount,” he said.

“We’re hoping that does pick up, with the amount of growth in the area and construction projects in the area, but we haven’t seen that in the revenues from our property assessments yet.”

The tax increase, which is 25 cents per $100, would generate about $3 million for the district, Mr. Fulton said.

The funds would go to safety and security, curriculum and instruction, technology needs, energy costs and transportation, Mr. Fulton said. He added that staffing was another big factor.

“We want to make sure that when we do qualify for a teacher unit, based on our enrollment, that we hire those people,” he said. “There’s some districts that don’t hire every unit they qualify for because they can’t afford the local dollars to go along with it. We want to continue to do that; we’ve always done that, which has helped our class sizes be, in my mind, really good compared to other places.”

He noted that the district has reserves that have been depleted in the last few years because of the strain on the budget.

“We need to build those reserves back up again for summer payroll, for technology, facilities, curriculum, those types of things,” he added.

He said that the district committed to cutting their budget down several years ago and have cut $1.3 million from it, through canceling some programs or limiting spending for some departments.

“We were hoping it was going to be a short term thing and that we would have some additional revenues to hopefully delay going to referendum for current expense like this, but it hasn’t happened,” he said.

While the district saw a 3.1% increase in assessed value last year that generated $750,000 more, staffing expenses exceed a million dollars, he said.

Last year, the district grew by 20 teachers or employees. While the state contributes to funding those positions, the local portion is about $30,000, he said.

“So 20 units times $30,000 — that adds up pretty quickly,” he said.

He also cited the decrease in state support, which has amounted to $3.6 million lost to the district in about three years.

“That has been also a challenge to us trying to overcome that,” he said.

Without the additional revenue, Mr. Fulton said, the district will have to “do things differently and slow things down,” he said.

“That is not good for keeping momentum and keeping our standard the way we feel it should be. We want staff, students and families to want to be here and move here because of what we’re doing and the type of environment we create for our kids and our community,” he said. “That’s what we want, and we know that if we don’t increase our operating monies and there will be a lot more difficult to do.”

The district’s last referendum, which voters approved, was in 2018. The referendum sought funding for a 400-student addition to Cape Henlopen High School and expansion of its cafeteria, as well as for a third middle school.

With the capital needs, funds were also raised for operating expenses to address energy and staffing for the high school addition.

Mr. Fulton noted that a portion of that referendum also addressed operating expenses for the third middle school. While those funds have been approved by voters, that tax hike won’t occur until the middle school is a year out from being built, in 2022.

The community has been supportive of the district, Mr. Fulton said.

“With that support comes expectation that we’re going to do a really good thing so I want to just keep moving that direction,” he said. “We are doing great things. I want to continue that, I want to continue to build that positive energy here and that comes with being able to keep class sizes low, keep the technology working in the classrooms, hire every staff member that we qualify for, those kind of things are really important to keep things moving in the right direction.”