Last Spring, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation was House Bill #454. This bill was a gift to Buccini-Pollen, a developer in New Castle County. It waived the Voluntary School Assessment tax for a large portion of the Concord Plaza development project. Not many were in favor of this present to the developer and eventually the bill was stricken. They felt, and rightly so, it would cost regular taxpayers more and it was a gimme to the developers. But behind the scenes, folks like Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting were hard at work making sure Buccini-Pollen would get their waiver no matter what.
House Bill #454 was stricken on June 30th, 2018. After weeks of controversy and opposition to the bill, everyone thought the matter was dead. But Secretary Bunting, the Delaware Department of Education, and Brandywine Superintendent Dr. Mark Holodick made sure the Voluntary School Assessment waiver got through by crafting an illegal memorandum of understanding between the Delaware Department of Education and the developers of the Concord Project.
While many who opposed the bill frantically awaited word on the status of the bill, Holodick and Bunting had already crafted the MOU. This was in the planning stages as of June 24th, six days before the bill was stricken.
To give this context, this was the synopsis for HB454:
This Act promotes diversity of housing in Delaware by acknowledging that not all residential units warrant the same Voluntary School Assessment. Currently, single family residential subdivision projects are subject to the same per unit Voluntary School Assessment as an apartment project, regardless of size and number of bedrooms. The current framework can place an undue burden on multi-family and smaller unit residential projects. This Act seeks to mitigate this burden for redevelopment plans by eliminating the Voluntary School Assessment for one-bedroom apartment units, such that the per unit Voluntary School Assessment would be charged only for each residential unit containing two or more bedrooms, and further by reducing the Voluntary School Assessment cap to 2.5 percent of the total cost of the residential unit. This Act further recognizes that relief in support of the above-mentioned policy is most appropriate for redevelopment projects where any financial burden on the school system potentially caused by reducing the Voluntary School Assessment is mitigated by taxes previously paid to the school district for the prior development.
In other words, let’s give the big old mega-rich land developers more money and charge the taxpayers more. But how did Bunting specifically break the law? It has to do with existing language already embedded in Delaware state code.
(c) The Secretary shall calculate a Voluntary School Assessment, which applicants shall have the option of paying in lieu of any school certification required by 2661 of Title 9 or 842 of Title 22. Voluntary School Assessments shall be calculated on a per unit basis for each project that seeks to pay such assessments in lieu of certification as follows by:
(1) Calculating the average cost (including land or, if the school district already owned such land, the fair-market value of such land at the time of construction), per child, for the average new public schools (1 elementary school, 1 middle school, 1 high school) constructed with state assistance in New Castle County as determined by the State of Delaware School Construction Technical Assistance Manual prepared by the Delaware Department of Education (as such manual exists as of June 30, 1999, such manual to be updated for purposes of this calculation no earlier than July 1, 2005, and thereafter updated as the Department normally updates such manual;
(2) Multiplying that number by the local percentage share then required by state law of the local school district in order to receive state capital assistance;
(3) Multiplying the resulting figure by 0.50, representing the average number of school-aged children projected to be housed within each residential unit, provided that in no event shall the Voluntary School Assessment exceed 5 percent of the total cost of the residential unit.
Updated, 12/14, 7:17am: Apparently Bunting gutted this whole section of the law with a Secretary-Only regulation finalized in September. The MOU is STILL a violation of the law. Click here for the details.
So how can a Memorandum of Understanding go around existing state law? Easy. It can’t. If they thought it could the above public document would have been widely circulated and this wouldn’t be a big deal. It was done with no one the wiser.
Just how much did this MOU give to Buccini-Pollen and the developers associated with this project? The original impact had the MOU not been signed would have been $2.4 million dollars they had to pay in Voluntary School Assessments. But because of the MOU that whittled down to $720,657, a savings for them of nearly $1.7 million dollars.
The key to all this is student capacity. When huge projects like this reach fruition, it means more students in the school district. The state pays their share of capital funding and the developers have to pay their share. What Brandywine did was somehow determine 240 of the 1 bedroom apartments should not be charged the Voluntary School Assessment fee but the remaining 101 1 bedrooms should. This affected three schools in Brandywine: Concord High School, Springer Middle School, and Hanby Elementary School. How Brandywine was able to read a crystal ball and determine this is unknown. The only restrictions from the VSA are age-restricted units (for the elderly). A project like this WILL add students to the district but Buccini-Pollen paid much less than what they should have. Instead of being charged for 341 units, they were charged for 101 units.
The sponsors of HB454 were State Rep. Deb Heffernan and State Senator Harris McDowell. Both of them live in the Brandywine School District. It should also be noted this bill was a Rodel legislative agenda item, meaning they wanted this bill to pass. Both Holodick and Bunting have served on the Vision Coalition, a Rodel sponsored education reform agenda. Rodel is always working behind the scenes to make sure the coveted members of the Delaware Business Roundtable get their profits. Education is many things but it is also a ton of real estate.
Those who wanted HB454 made many threats concerning the proposed legislation. The MOU was already in the works and if the MOU didn’t go through they would “run the bill” because they thought they had enough support in the General Assembly that it would pass. They didn’t and the bill was stricken. But they didn’t care because they already had this in the works. As a result of this, the Brandywine School District has screwed every single school district in the state by signing this MOU. They also screwed themselves by eliminating $1.7 million dollars from future funding. Dr. Mark Holodick betrayed his own school district by allowing his own district’s finances to be given to Buccini-Pollen.
Rumor has it a new HB454 will come before the General Assembly this year. This will be heavily promoted by Rodel and developer lobbyists who will make the kind of money Buccini-Pollen did. Many school board agendas need to be closely monitored in the coming months. Watch out for school boards trying to pass their own things to allow developers like Buccini-Pollen to profit and put the burden on the taxpayers.
How much did it cost the shady manufacturers of the MOU? A measly ten dollars for each party.
Where this gets really interesting is the date of the MOU. June 30th. I was there that night. In fact, I spent a good deal of the time within the vicinity of Secretary Bunting. I was with many folks who opposed HB454. I don’t believe any who were against it had any idea what Bunting was doing behind their back. At some point during the day, someone even got Chief Clerk of the Delaware House of Representatives Richard Puffer to act as the Notary Public for the Kent County part of the MOU.
This is classic Delaware back-door dealing. For anyone who trusts Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting, watch out! She could be looking to stab you in the back like she did every single Delaware taxpayer with this sneaky move.