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…