Less Than 7,500 Delawareans Voted In School Board Elections Yesterday…How Do We Fix This?

Yesterday, citizens and residents of Delaware lamented the very poor turnout for local school board elections. All told, based on unofficial results from each county’s Board of Elections, less than 7,500 people voted. Those numbers are a source of ire for many this morning on social media. Everyone is asking why.

As myself and others pointed out, school board elections are held every single year on the 2nd Tuesday of May. The polls are open at various schools in each district from 10am until 8pm. Current legislation would change the start time to 7am in an effort to be consistent with other elections in Delaware. In competitive districts, such as Red Clay and Christina, signs are placed by candidates all over the place.

Some folks said doors were locked at schools when they went to vote. Others said they didn’t even know the elections were taking place. The state’s biggest newspaper, The News Journal, did not give out surveys to candidates and did not give the elections the coverage they deserve. Some people said it was the job of the candidates to get the word out.

Not every district had an election due to only one candidate filing. This was true in Dover, the capital of Delaware. Capital Board President Sean Christiansen ran unopposed. This is the first time that happened in Capital School District in many years. But in Red Clay, where only 1,724 votes were cast, and Christina, which had 2,246 between two elections, those numbers pale in comparison to the actual populations they represent.

School boards are very important to communities. They make decisions for the children that attend their schools as well as decide how much folks pay in school taxes. Those numbers are set by the business leaders in the districts based on their budget but the school board votes on it. It is a rare occasion where a school board does not pass their budget and tax matters. School boards also vote on when a school district has to go out for a referendum. By the time a school district feels they have to go out for a referendum, it is because they know they won’t have enough money in a certain area whether it is for operating costs or construction (known as capital costs). But they are the public face of a school district. Most of the big decisions have already been decided on by the district. The school board just votes on those decisions. In many cases, the board votes on the whims of the district with few exceptions. Some parents attend board meetings religiously but most do not. Parent engagement is something all school districts strive for but unless it is a sports or entertainment event, turnout tends to be low.

In some situations, school board members listen to the voices of parents or other residents and put forth policy for their board to vote on. This can be controversial at times with matters such as parent opt out of standardized testing, what books can be read in a district, or even how a board feels about current legislation or regulations such as the very controversial Regulation 225.

Not every decision in a school district is decided on by a school board. State law and federal mandates demand schools follow certain rules and protocols. Those are things, like the IDEA special education law or state testing requirements, that a school board can not tweak or change. At times, local school board members can develop a strong voice in opposition to certain state and federal laws. This can cause discontent amongst school board members. While many school districts tend to rubberstamp action items desired by the district, other districts like Christina can have lively board meetings where members openly challenge each other and do not always agree.

Charter schools, which represent about 15% of Delaware public schools, do not hold elections for their boards. It is decided on by the board itself. Charters can draw students from different districts so holding an election to the general population would be very tough to do.

For parents that reside in school districts but do not have children in those schools, whether they attend private schools, charter schools or homeschool, how do they even become aware of school board elections? If they don’t subscribe to the News Journal or other local media and do not follow school districts on social media, how would they even know a school board election is taking place? The same can be said for residents who do not have children such as the elderly. Many of these residents do not feel they have skin in the game so why should a local school board election matter?

What makes school board elections different is they are not based on a certain political party. It truly doesn’t matter whether you are Republican or Democrat as party affiliation should not play a factor. What drives many folks to vote in the General Election is whether or not the candidate is Republican or Democrat.

Like myself, there are others in the state who follow education like pollen to a honeybee. We tend to vote and write about education all the time. But we are not the norm. Unless you are actively involved on social media and follow things, you may not be acutely aware of things like school board elections or referenda. As well, the timing of school board elections is somewhat odd. It is in the heart of Spring during a time when many students are involved in spring sports. It is during a work day. But these are things that still occur during the General Election in November each year. What is the difference? State and national politics are written about in the media more extensively than school boards. There is more money that flows into candidate coffers during their elections. School board members do not get paid for their service whereas legislators and other elected positions do. That changes the landscape and the stakes for candidates. For some legislators, that is their primary source of income so they have to get out there and rally for votes.

I won’t pretend to have an answer to this question. Changing the start time could have a difference in votes, but to truly win the hearts and minds of Delawareans and why they need to vote in these elections is the challenge of the day. Some have suggested holding school board elections during the General Election while others feel candidates would lose their voice if they had to compete for attention against other elections. Personally, I feel the Department of Elections should place billboards up and down the state informing people of when school board elections are. Some have said the school districts need to make more parents aware but that limits the voting populace. In some districts, there could be more voters who don’t have children in the local school district than those that do. Why not hold school board elections on Saturdays instead of during the work week?

In a state with almost a million people and over 130,000 children in public education, 7,500 votes is nothing. It is a drop in the bucket. Even though they don’t make state-wide decisions, they do make major decisions for the communities we live in.

Appoquinimink Having A Holly Jolly December 20th Referendum

Merry Christmas Appo Citizens!  Santa might bring you a tax increase for the holidays!  Appoquinimink School District is holding a referendum for capital projects and operational increases on December 20th, from 10am to 8pm.  The State of Delaware approved their request.  I find December 20th to be a very odd date for a referendum.  People are getting ready for the holidays and celebrating.

The capital cost part of the referendum will call for the following:

A new High School and Middle School at the Fairview Campus

A new Elementary School at Whitehall

Renovating and expanding Silver Lake Elementary School

Rebuilding and expanding Everett Meredith Middle School

If the referendum passes, the state will pay 75% of the costs and Appoquinimink will pay 25% out of the referendum tax increase.  As well, they are also having a second part of the referendum to deal with operational costs in the following areas:

Enhancement and replacement of instructional technology

Staff recruitment and retention

Operating expenses associated with enrollment growth

The referendum would see taxpayers in the district paying an average of $17.36 more a month in school taxes based on an average assessed home price of $88,500.00.  Keep in mind, this is the assessed value of a home and not the actual value of the home. I find the new elementary school at Whitehall to be ironic given that the Delaware State Board of Education approved a charter school at that location but the Mapleton at Whitehall Charter School board decided to try their luck in Dover but then gave up unexpectedly and turned in their charter.

Big Issues In Indian River: Upcoming Referendum, Pending Audit Inspection, Federal Discrimination Lawsuit, and A Shrinking Budget

indian-river

The Indian River School District has seen better times.  While the embattled district faces an upcoming referendum in November, they must also contend with a huge influx of new students, a discrimination lawsuit, a budget that cannot handle itself, and an audit coming out this month from the Delaware Auditor of Accounts office.  Hopefully the last will answer the question of what their former Chief Financial Officer Patrick Miller was up to.  As I reported last month, sources contacted me under anonymity that Miller somehow absconded with millions of dollars in his time as CFO of the district.

Coastal Point reported on September 23rd that Indian River is not the only school district under review by the state Auditor’s office.  But, as usual, they are not ponying up any details.  I get that, but at the same time it gives them the capability of making things disappear when things get too hot in the kitchen, like the charter school petty cash audit.

“We like doing these things quietly (and make the announcement) when we’re done and we have a report for the public, so there’s not speculation out there,” Wagner said. “People get into wild speculations, and we try to avoid all that.”

On November 22nd, the district will attempt an operating expense referendum, as detailed on their website:

The district is proposing a tax increase of 49 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The measure will raise $7,350,000 in additional local revenue. The average district taxpayer will see an increase of $95.41 in his or her annual property tax bill.

But Coastal Point indicates this may not be the only referendum the school will ask for this school year:

More students means less space for each, so IRSD is working with the Department of Education to potentially build new schools and classrooms. That could possibly mean another referendum in the spring of 2017, for major capital improvement (to build new schools) and current expenses (if more money is needed for continuing costs).

Taxpayers in the district, especially elderly ones, are not going to like the proposition of two tax increases in less than a year.  In the Coastal Point article, Delaware State Auditor Tom Wagner indicated the investigative audit against Indian River School District will most likely be released to the district first for them to review.  After that it will be released to the public.  Will it come out before the November 22nd referendum?  That could be important for many reasons.  If the audit comes back finding something bad, and it comes out before the referendum, that could cause voters to vote no.  If it comes out after, taxpayers will say they felt cheated.  As well, a post-referendum release could assure a failure of the potential 2nd referendum vote next spring.

The district was very clear about the ramifications of a failed referendum on November 22nd:

If the referendum is not approved by voters, the district could face cuts to school safety, a significant reduction in staff due to an inability to meet payroll, larger class sizes, further discretionary budget cuts, the loss of staff to other school districts and inadequate instructional supplies and materials.

But financial issues are not the only crisis in the district.  There is also the matter of what happened earlier this week.  On Tuesday, October 4th, it was publicly announced the Coalition for Education Reform filed a federal lawsuit against Indian River.  Their allegations claim the district sent a disproportionate number of African-American students to an alternative special education school called the George Washington Carver Academy.  According to Randall Chase with WDEL 101.7FM:

The Coalition for Education Reform claimed that the district is using the George Washington Carver Academy, a special education school, as a “punitive dumping ground” for black students branded as “troublemakers.”  The group says black students are being removed from mainstream schools and sent to Carver in disproportionate numbers on flimsy pretexts and for arbitrary periods of time, while their educational needs are neglected.

As a parent of a special needs child, I can’t even begin to express how much this concerns me.  Shuffling off any students to different schools over discipline issues has become the quick Band-Aid for many Delaware school districts.  And some charter schools either expel the student or counsel them out.  While a federal lawsuit may not play out for a long time, I have to wonder if the district knew this was coming and is beginning to look at this in future budgets should they lose.

It looks like the Christina School District is not the only district in the state facing an avalanche of issues all at once.

 

Is There A Conflict Of Interest With A High-Ranking DE PTA Member Involving Christina School District?

Yvonne Johnson serves as the Vice-President of Advocacy for the Delaware PTA, sits on the board of the National PTA, and in news that most people don’t know is also employed with the Christina School District as the Parent Engagement Coordinator.  The issue with this surrounds transparency.  Nothing has ever been officially announced with Johnson’s hiring in this role.  There is no official name on the Delaware Division of Corporations for Yvonne Johnson as a business.  According to her National PTA profile, Johnson is a self-employed education consultant:

YvonneNationalPTAProfile

She has also been very involved in several current initiatives with the Christina School District, including their upcoming referendum and the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.  The Christina referendum is on March 23rd.  As for the elementary school, Johnson is listed as the Christina Parent Engagement Coordinator in an announcement for a meeting at the school on March 1st:

MarshallInterestMtg

I looked on the Christina School District website, and it seems Christina already has someone else listed as their Family & Community Engagement Supervisor, Whitney Williams.  What is even more interesting is this idea for Thurgood Marshall in turning it into a Kindergarten to 8th grade school.  Quite simply, this is not in the district’s official plans for their upcoming referendum.  The current building for the school would not even be able to house a K-8 program.

As for Johnson’s role in this idea, is it proper for someone to be paid to have parents lobby the school board?  As the next three pictures show, taken from notes and a presentation on the “Marshall Plan”, Johnson has very specific ideas about this idea and the referendum.  Johnson also served as the head of the Referendum Committee for the Red Clay Consolidated School District last year.  Red Clay’s referendum was subject to a lawsuit that has not been decided on as of this date.

MarshallPlan1

We don’t see a Christina School District email address for Johnson, but that makes sense if she is self-employed and has some type of contract with the district.  However, no such contract exists on their website.

MarshallPlan2

This is where we see Yvonne Johnson actively soliciting parents to advocate for the “Marshall Plan” by essentially lobbying the Christina Board of Education.  But the next picture paints an even bigger picture:

MarshallPlan3

We see the line “Get out and vote for the referendum for planning $$”.  Should a paid consultant to the district be advocating for parents to “get out and vote” for increased money for the school district in which she is paid to consult for?  Is this plan even a part of the board-approved referendum?

The referendum does call for planning funds for potential grade reconfiguration in the amount of $100,000.00.  However, the “Marshall Plan” is looking at getting this going in the 2017-2018 school year.  That would require extensive capital costs to reconfigure an existing school that does not have the capacity.  If they shrunk the class sizes, the district does not have the ability to pay for that either.  The upcoming referendum is strictly for operating costs and not capital costs, which would be needed to move the school if necessary.  So my big question would be what in the name of Thurgood Marshall is going on with all of this?  While there is nothing in writing on the district website or in board documents indicating Johnson has a contract, several sources who wished to have their name withheld for this article have indicated Johnson has openly told them she is being paid for her services to the Christina School District.

In my opinion, Johnson’s capacity as serving on several different groups as well as her self-employed advocacy job, the Delaware PTA, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, several different Red Clay initiatives, and now her job with Christina, has far too many potential conflicts of interest for her to be issuing fair and impartial judgment on the Wilmington education scene.  As well, her position as a National PTA board member forbids her from advocating for opt-out of standardized testing but she is a consultant with a school district that had their board pass a policy honoring a parent’s right to opt out.

Don’t get me wrong here, I very much want Christina’s referendum to be successful.  I was not happy when their referenda did not pass last year.  But I also believe in full transparency, especially when a school district is asking for trust from their voters.  Trust is a two-way street.  Which means all aspects of school finances, contracts, and vendors need to be visibly apparent for all to see.

On a personal note, Yvonne Johnson is a great advocate.  There aren’t too many people in Delaware who have advocated for students as long as she has.  But the lines get blurry at times when people in Delaware jump on too many trains.  Yes, Delaware is a small state and if we had more parents taking on these kinds of roles, this wouldn’t be an issue.  But for those who do, they must recognize any potential conflicts of interest and act accordingly for the betterment of students.

Brandywine Board of Education Votes Unanimously For Referendum On March 23rd

Last night, the Brandywine Board of Education passed a resolution calling for a referendum to support additional capital and organizational costs for the district.  The referendum will be held March 23rd, 2016.  The unanimous board vote calls for a referendum to increase property taxes by approximately $240 per tax payer on an annual basis according to an article from WDEL last month.

The last time Brandywine held a referendum was in 2012 for operating costs.  The referendum passed with 4,624 yes votes compared to 4,013 voting no as per Hockessin Community News.

The new referendum was recommended by Superintendent Dr. Mark Holodick.  With school funding becoming a very controversial and hot topic in 2015, there is no mistaking that local funding is increasingly taking on more and more of a district’s operating costs.  Red Clay, Caesar Rodney and Milford passed much needed referendums earlier this year, while Christina failed in two referendum attempts.  Christina will attempt for a third referendum attempt in 2016 as well.