Milford School District responds to higher taxes

MILFORD — As Milford homeowners checked their mail this week, many found an expected tax bill with unexpected increases inside.

“We supported the referendum wholeheartedly,” David Markowitz began to tell members of the board of education last Monday night.

“You got a lot of support from us. We based it on what you told us the tax increase was going to be. $120-$140 was the number that we heard over and over again as the average increase. So imagine our surprise when we found out we were getting a $500 increase, which is a 100 percent increase.”

The school tax increase, which includes four separate components, was different for everyone based on the assessed value of individual homes, according to Chief Financial Officer Sara Croce.

The four components of the school tax rate include two which require a referendum: the current operating rate and the debt service rate as it relates to principal interests on bonds.

The other two components, a match tax rate and tuition rate, do not require the school board to seek out approval by the local public by referendum.

In the interest of keeping taxes low, the match tax rate was “taken away” in 2007 thanks to a referendum; the school board currently only uses this rate for minor capital improvements.

The tuition rate, however, remains “very unpredictable” from year to year, Ms. Croce said.

Unexpected costs: Tuition tax

“Over the past year, we saw a significant increase in the students who needed special placement whether that be services within our district or services at schools outside of our district,” she said during the school board meeting last Monday night.

These special services include special needs students and those using academic challenge or gifted and talented services.

“All of those are covered by our tuition tax here in Milford,” she said. “There are also some students who have significant enough special needs that the state of Delaware Department of Education determined that they need to be placed in a residential facility.”

After a committee decides who needs to be placed in those facilities, she added, the student’s local school district is charged for 30 percent of the cost which could be well over $100,000 each.

“The additional tax rates are due to the special needs,” she confirmed in a phone interview later in the week.

Information relating to an increase to the tuition tax was presented to the board during its June meeting when members “decided to alter the tax rate as a service to these students,” Ms. Croce said.

Continuing, she said, “We have a federal obligation to serve these students. This is not really a Milford-specific issue. This is a statewide issue.”

Operating Budget: 2015 Referendum

Unlike the tuition tax, the tax relating to the operating budget must go before a referendum which is exactly what happened last October when the district requested an increase to the operating budget by about $1.5 million.

The operating budget increase requested by the referendum, totaling about $3 million according to school officials, would also cover a $1.2 million deficit.

President of the board, Renate Wiley, said she, too, received higher taxes in her bill this year.

“No, I’m not happy about it but it’s part of the process and we feel the students need this,” she said during the meeting.

Incoming Milford School District Superintendent Kevin Dickerson said although communication is key, the district could have done more.

“We always have an obligation to communicate. We could have communicated more clearly about special needs before the referendum,” he said.

The latest operating referendum for the Milford School District was approved by local homeowners and residents Tuesday, Oct. 6 of last year. The tuition tax rate was changed by school board members in June, 2016.

Dr. Dickerson added, “We understand this year’s tax rate increase is very significant for our community. We very much appreciate the support of the community in the fall with the passing of the current expense tax rate increase, and will remain good stewards of the funds to best service our students. Compounding the current expense increase was an increase in the tuition tax rate. The tuition tax rate is set by the district each June and fluctuates year-to-year based on student needs. Though this is the toughest rate to predict on a yearly basis, we will work to make sure to better communicate any anticipated changes to the tuition tax rate in the future, whether an increase or decrease. As we go forward, we will continue to remain open to feedback or discussion, both positive and negative, from our community. The tax rate increase, as a whole, will help us best service all of our students.”

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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