Sussex Tech tax debate close to compromise

Sussex Technical High School’s property tax rate, the subject of much debate over the past year-plus, looks to be resolved now with a new bill. (Submitted photo)

Sussex Technical High School’s property tax rate, the subject of much debate over the past year-plus, looks to be resolved now with a new bill. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — After two years of debate, it appears the Sussex Technical High School tax issue may be in line to be solved.

Sponsored mostly by Sussex County legislators, House Bill 100 would raise the area’s property tax rate for two years, setting it to 29 cents in fiscal year 2016 beginning July 1 and 30 cents the following year before it sunsets down to 23.5 cents. The enrollment cap for the ensuing years also would be lowered, and admission standards would be altered.

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives Thursday with very little debate and just one “no” vote. The proposal now will be assigned a date for a Senate committee hearing.

Like the state’s other technical high schools, Sussex Tech draws its student base from the county at large where it resides. The three technical districts act as autonomous units, setting their tax rates not through referendums but with approval of the General Assembly.

As the school’s enrollment has grown, revenue has declined — a result of falling property values. The school district brings in funds from the property tax, which is currently set at 23.5 cents for all $100.

The Sussex Tech rate was last changed in fiscal year 2010. In comparison, Polytech School District’s level of 14 cents has not been changed since fiscal year 1993, and New Castle County Vocational Technical School District’s rate has remained at 14 cents for 32 years.

Sussex Tech district officials have sought to raise the total, much to the consternation of some residents and lawmakers. Efforts to increase the rate to 50.5 cents, according to legislators, drew criticism.

“The school’s leadership was pursuing a goal of their own making,” Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, said in a statement. “There was no directive from the state. There was no plan approved by county residents.

“Sussex Tech officials set out on their own quest for their own reasons. They pressed ahead, even when the financial implications of their decisions made it clear they needed to take their foot off the gas.”

School board President Patrick Cooper, however, believes many critics did not properly understand the situation or look at everything involved.

“There was lot of misperception out there,” he said.

With House Bill 100 moving on to the Senate, several obstacles have been cleared.

Perhaps the biggest simply was finding an acceptable compromise. A committee formed by lawmakers in January provided several options, and a series of recent meetings over six weeks allowed legislators and district officials to hash out the best options.

According to Mr. Cooper, some lawmakers sought to give Sussex Tech no increase while others favored allowing it to raise the rate to a higher level.

“You always want more, but I think in this climate, I think that that’s probably the best we could get,” he said.

Pivotally, he noted, no faculty members will be laid off.

The tax rate change, which would cost residents a total of $19.33 over two years, is not the only part of the bill.

Enrollment, currently at 1,545, according to lawmakers, would be required to drop each of the next three years, bottoming out at 1,250. A lottery also would be created when the applicants outnumber the available spots, although no more than a certain percentage of students in each class could come from a district. That percentage, Mr. Cooper said, would be set at 20.

Priority would be given to siblings of current students and children of faculty members, as opposed to present or former students, the current practice

The district also would be barred from denying hopefuls who have failed an eighth-grade class or have a grade point average below the 70th percentile. Another restriction would prevent officials from kicking out students for disciplinary reasons without concurrence from guardians except for select expulsions.

That last section of the bill, Mr. Cooper noted, would not be a change at all. He said he does not remember anyone being forcibly removed without parental consent.

Although it’s not intended as the ultimate solution, said Rep. Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, it is a “reasonable path forward.” He’s the chief sponsor of the bill.

On the House floor Thursday, Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, praised the legislation and said he believes the bill could be a model for the other two counties.

Mr. Cooper thinks the proposal provides a solid fix at least for locals.

“All in all, it’s fair,” he said.

Delaware State News staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com.

Matt Bittle writes for the Delaware State News. Reach him at mbittle@newszap.com

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