The Milford School District is one of the few districts in Delaware that lies in two different counties. For Milford, both Kent and Sussex County have parts of the district. As a result, their tax pool is different. A couple of years ago, Milford, like many other districts, had to raise their tuition tax. This is a portion of property taxes the public does not get a vote on. The money is for special education costs. Milford raised their tuition tax considerably and the public got sticker shock when they opened their tax bill. As a result, it forced the district to become very frugal with their spending. The district has the second lowest amount of administrators over $100,000 based on their student count. New Superintendent Kevin Dickerson inherited the previous Superintendent’s mess but is doing a decent job of putting the district back on solid ground. The district has 104 less students than they had four years ago and three less administrators making over $100,000. Continue reading
Imagine getting your tax bill in the mail and it goes up by $500.00 for the year. For citizens in the Milford School District in Delaware, this was the new reality they faced last week. Much of the controversy surrounds their referendum which passed last year. A referendum and tuition tax are two very different things. With a referendum, that is asking citizens to support increased taxes for operating expenses or capital costs. A Delaware school board can’t just raise those taxes on their own. The people need to vote on it. But for tuition tax, as well as what is called a match tax, the school board can vote on an increase for that.
For newer readers, tuition tax is based on special education costs that exceed the funding provided by the state, the feds, and what the local school district appropriated for these costs. This could mean increased funds for teachers and staff to accommodate students with disabilities or it pays for out of district placements for more complex needs of students. Delaware has seen a dramatic increase in students sent to either day treatment centers or residential treatment centers. Some of these treatment centers are out of state which causes the costs to increase even more. It seems to have risen dramatically in the last year, and I’m beginning to really wonder why this is going on.
What happened in Milford was their board passed on raising the tuition tax for a number of years. Meanwhile, they passed their referendum which would give the average citizen in the district an increase of $120 in their tax bill. But in June, the board passed a tuition tax increase. This double whammy dramatically changed how much of an increase citizens saw in their new tax bill.
Milford Live covered this increase on August 23rd. A big issue surrounding the tax increase at the June board meeting dealt with transparency:
A review of the addendum for the June 20 meeting that is posted online did not indicate that there would be discussion about a tax increase at the school board meeting. However, when visitors arrived at the meeting, there was an addendum to the agenda with the presentation included, something that is common at Milford School Board meetings.
Milford has its fair share of senior citizens, and the sticker shock caused them to speak out in large numbers. One commenter on the Milford Live article stated that when their annual income is $6,000-$7,500, an annual increase like this really puts a dent in their wallet. What makes Milford unique, along with three other school districts in Delaware, is that they are located in two counties. This means residents of both Sussex and Kent County have two different amounts based on property assessments in each county. For Sussex residents, their new tax bill went up to $5.39 for every $100 of their assessed property value. Previously, it had been $3.56. For Kent County residents, the burden wasn’t as large as it went from $1.26 to $1.90.
Back in July, I questioned Appoquinimink on their huge tuition tax increase. While the information they gave to the press indicated one thing, the reality was very different. Appo said the rise in special education costs was dramatic last year and put a large emphasis on out of district placements. But the increase in out of district placements was not a large percentage of their increase. It was mainly for in-district special education services.
In Milford, their budgeted amount for their tuition tax was $2,100,000 as of July 2015. That would include both their out of district placements and in-district special education services that are in excess of state and federal funding. What they spent in FY2016 was $2,676,902 for these placements. While I can’t see the difference between what they budgeted for out of district placements and in-district special education services because their FY2016 budget is not posted on their website, the amount they paid in out of district placements is more than they budgeted for the entire category. As a side-note, their website does not have their monthly financial statements for either June or July of 2016 which puts them out of compliance with state law.
It really worries me that all these students with disabilities are being sent to places outside of school districts, in rapidly growing numbers. I hear a lot of people blame parents for student behavior. While that could certainly play a factor, how come no one is talking about education itself. Since Common Core came out, I am seeing a rapid rise in these placements. And it seems to have really gone up in the last school year. I would be very curious how these students scored on the Smarter Balanced Assessment in the 2014-2015 school year. I hate to go there, but does it become easier to send a student out of district if they were not proficient on this test? Is the “rigor” and “grit” having a bigger psychological impact than we think?
The price for these students may wind up being higher than the rise in tuition taxes across the state. And I’m not talking financially…
This is an important message for ALL Milford School District parents: You need to opt your child out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment. If they started already, do not let them take one more second of this test. Refuse The Test! The Network of Public Education is calling for a National Opt Out of these high-stakes tests. They aren’t effective at all, and everyone knows it. These tests are being used for nefarious purposes. Do not believe the lies coming out of Governor Markell and the Delaware Department of Education. They care more about corporate profit than your child. It doesn’t matter if your kid is smart. It doesn’t matter if you are Democrat or Republican. What matters is your child, and their education. This is not education. It is a mockery of education.
Please give the principal of your child’s school a letter on Monday morning indicating you are opting your child out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Let the school know you want your child to receive academic instruction while the other kids are taking the test. If they tell you that you can’t opt your child out, look them in the eye and say “Yes I can, and if you make my child take this test I will call the police.” To get support from other parents, please join the Opt Out Milford Facebook page.
Last May, citizens in the Milford School District elected Yvette Dennehy to the Milford School District Board of Education. As I reported at the time, Dennehy won by a landslide.
Milford: Dennehy 386, Evans 149, DelRossi 44
But was there something going on behind the scenes? Milford resident Jenn Cinelli-Miller thinks so. She wrote a complaint to the Delaware Attorney General’s Office of Public Trust for a legal opinion (which does not appear on the Attorney General website). The opinion, seen below, was dated July 20th, 2015.
After the Attorney General’s office ruled on Cinelli-Miller’s complaint, she wrote to the media. A letter appeared in the Milford Chronicle. Cinelli-Miller gave me permission to reprint her letter here for context in this article:
Throwing in the towel
I grew up in Camden and graduated from CR. I then attend Wesley College in Dover and relocated to the Washington, DC area. I spent almost 10 years working for the Federal Government before coming back to Delaware. When I decided to move back I looked at many areas but decided on Milford for many reasons. Milford reminded me of what Dover and Camden were when I was growing up – small and community oriented. I can’t say that now about where I came from but I can say it about Milford. But Milford has one really big problem – cronyism.
I always hope that we can get past this disease but I find, in Delaware especially, that it is impossible. I moved here in 2006. By 2008 I was involved with Morris Elementary’s PTO and helping with events. I continued to get involved in education statewide as well as locally. I served on the Citizen’s Oversight Committee (CBOC) for the Milford School District from 2010-2014 and continued to attend meetings until recently. I was invited to serve on the University of Delaware’s Autism Education Committee for the Blueprint for Action that was developed to improve services statewide for children and adults on the spectrum. I have attended Individual Educational Plan meetings with other parents and I have met with (then) Lt. Governor Denn, the Director of Delaware’s Homeland Security and State Board of Education member and numerous Senators and Representatives to discuss issues in education in Delaware.
Why am I providing all of this information? Because I am so fed up and angry with everything I have heard and read in regards to the referendum I want you to understand how I got to this point. One of the recent letters to the editor asked “Where Were You?” I was working hard and volunteering for education – where were you? Until a year ago I had never even heard of you. You and another board member, at the recent community meeting, responded to my pointing out that Buccaneer Tomorrow had not distributed flyers throughout the town – as you had claimed, stated that it was “my job” to help. No, no it isn’t. My job #1 is raising my child. My job #2 pays my bills. I am a volunteer and have been for years. Welcome to the party.
In regards to the other Board member, I don’t know him personally, but at a community meeting a few years ago he approached me and told me “change causes chaos.” Not sure I want anyone who believes that around educational decisions. With no change you remain stagnant. Education should be constantly changing and advancing especially with our constantly changing world and technology. Which leads me to the Board – you all are elected officials. If you can’t handle criticism and you keep remaining defensive you should not be on the Board. Your skin needs to be much thicker and you need to be less defensive especially when community members are making very valid points. This Board has made several bad decisions and failed to listen to the community as a whole. I personally can say “I told you so” about many of those decisions. Your failure to even listen to the CBOC – an advisory committee – is proof that you have no desire to hear anyone else’s opinion.
I can only praise one Board member – Renate Willey – for asking questions and trying to do what is best for the students and the District as a whole. The other letter to the editor was appalling as it insulted students. However, I would agree with a community member who posted on Facebook “consider the source.” This letter should not have received a response – most importantly not from the Superintendent of the District. I have asked repeatedly that she stop responding and stop putting comments out that are not helpful. She responds just as the Board does – defensive and alienating. Stop – just stop! I have tried for years to help. I have made points that have been scoffed at but then the same points are made by other community members and you ignore them as well. This District is dysfunctional. We need help and you refuse to ask for it from all members of the community. You ask for it from cronies. You ask for it from people who post pictures of them and their friends with the caption “We are Milford” under it and there are only 10 people all the same age in the picture. Really? Last time I checked Milford was made up of more than 10 people and of many different ages, nationalities, beliefs and personalities. That is what makes us a community. So it is with much sadness that I throw in the towel. Its someone else’s turn to take the wheel and try to steer this ship back on course.
With much love for Milford, the District and our Teachers, Staff and students
A few weeks later, she picked the towel back up and wrote a letter to several different media outlets in Delaware. Not one of the newspapers or websites posted her letter. She asked me to run it, which I am today. I’m also including the email she sent to Delaware media.
From: Jenn Cinelli
Date: Tue, Aug 18, 2015 at 9:42 AM
Subject: Letter to the Editor
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, Trish Vernon <email@example.com>, firstname.lastname@example.org, Publisher@seafordstar.com, email@example.com, Andy West <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, “Finney, Mike” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
It sounds like Cinelli-Miller isn’t willing to throw in the towel quite yet on this issue, nor do I think she should. What say you Delaware?
Referendum. Many school districts in Delaware fear this word. It can make or break a district. No where has this been more evident than the Christina School District. After two failed referendums last year, the district has been forced to make painful cuts to their schools and services. Now the virus has infected Milford School District. Like Christina, they experienced two referendums that did not pass. In the midst of this, their Superintendent Phyllis Kohel announced her retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.
According to the Milford Beacon, Kohel announced her intention to retire at the Milford School District board meeting Monday night.
“This is my 32nd year and it’s a very difficult position,” she said. “I like to think that I have, but I don’t know if I’ve ever worked so hard in my life as I have with this position.
“It’s very demanding and can be very disappointing at times, particularly when you’re in referendum mode as we’ve been in for the past two years.”
Mike Finney, the writer of the article, explained how Kohel served the school district for the past 31 years, and has been Superintendent since 2012. As the second district this school year facing Superintendent and referendum woes, this could be a sign of things to come with Delaware’s antiquated funding system. Meanwhile, in Wilmington, a commission of 23 will attempt to tackle this issue head-on and devise a new way of funding our schools. This school year will be one of massive change in Delaware, between a new Secretary, Smarter Balanced results, parent opt-out, redistricting, WEIC, and an upcoming budget battle in the General Assembly that promises to be controversial.