Delmar Events
Thursday, November 4th. 1999
Stone: School finances are healthy
By Lynn R. Parks
Dr. George Stone is not concerned about the health of his school district's finances. Instead, he is worried about the tax burden being placed on residents of the Delmar School District.
"Our finances are very healthy," said Stone, superintendent of the district. "This is not about a financial problem for the district. This is a tax issue for taxpayers."
Stone is talking about the tuition tax, collected by districts to pay for students who, because of special needs, have to be sent to schools outside of the district. Delmar has about 18 students who attend schools like the alternative school in the Woodbridge School District, the school for the orthopedically handicapped in the Seaford School District and the Sussex Consortium in the Cape Henlopen School District.
The district's tuition tax rate, which can be raised by the board without referendum, went from 70 cents per $100 property assessed value last year to 82 cents per $100 this year. The same tax in the Christina School District is 1 cent.
"Ours is the highest rate in the state," said Stone. It is so high, he said, because Delmar has a very small tax base when compared to other districts.
"Our tax base is only $32 million," he said. "So a one penny tax on $100 assessed value only raises $3,200. If you need $32,000 to send a child to one of the special schools, you have to raise the tax 10 cents."
Stone is particularly upset because after they voted to approve a $1.49 tax increase in order to construct a new school, taxpayers were promised that as interest rates changed and the principal was paid down, their tax rate would go down. And it has; the bills this year were for $1.30 per $100, down almost 20 cents from the original $1.49. But the decrease in that tax has been eaten up with increases in the tuition tax.
And he sees additional tuition tax increases down the road. "Tuition in all these special schools is going up," he said. "With new federal laws mandating a wide range of services as well as mainstreaming of the kids, it will go up. And we get a lot of people moving into our district from Wicomico County because Delaware has really good special schools."
Stone said that there are two solutions, both of which have to be legislated by the state. The state could equalize the tuition tax through much the same procedure it uses in current expense money for schools: if taxpayers are willing to pay a certain percentage of the tax, the state agrees to pick up the remainder. Under that plan, Delmar residents would pay 6 cents in tuition tax.
The second plan would have all districts pay the same rate of 3 cents. The state would collect the money and then pay tuition for all special students. "Either one would be good for us," said Stone.
State Sen. Robert Venables (D-Laurel) said that legislation was drawn up several years ago in cooperation with school administrators that allowed districts to pool money for emergency tuition money. "If a district was hit extra hard, it would be able to use the money without raising taxes," he said.
For some reason, the legislation was never introduced. Venables said that he intends to introduce it to the Senate when it reconvenes in January.
Legislation that was passed several years ago calls for the state to pay 85 percent of some tuition, Venables added. But, he said, it applies only when a child is sent out of state.
"Most of our kids go to in-state schools," he said. "We've got to have relief."