Editor's note: This article has been updated to include district clarifications regarding the amount that would be raised by the May 9 referendum, and the savings realized through building closures. The new version also includes more information from district officials on how the referendum money would be used.
The Appoquinimink School District will attempt to stave off an anticipated $2 million shortfall next year with a three-part plan that would include a tax hike, spending cuts and temporary school closures.
The school board voted 3-2 Wednesday night put a referendum before voters for the second time in four months. The new referendum, scheduled for May 9, will seek a 15-cent increase in the district's current school tax rate of $1.60 per $100 of assessed value, less than half of the full 31-cent hike over four years that voters defeated in February.
If approved, the referendum would raise $2.79 million a year.
According to district officials, those funds would be used to cover anticipated shortfalls in each of the next three years, meet the state mandated minimum in reserve funding to cover two payroll periods, and restore previous funding cuts for textbooks, technology and building maintenance.
The district plans to supplement that revenue increase with $645,000 in savings by keeping Townsend Elementary School closed for an additional year and temporarily closing the Appoquinimink Early Childhood Center in Middletown through the 2013-2014 school year.
The school board also instructed Superintendent Matthew Burrows to come back to them with a proposal for another $300,000 in spending cuts to be approved at a later date.
"There are no easy choices," school board member Richard Forsten said before offering up the proposal for the second referendum and a combined $800,000 in spending cuts. "I'm concerned because that (Feb. 28) referendum didn't just fail. It got thumped, so I think we have to demonstrate to voters we're doing everything we can."
School board members Edna Cale, who will be up for re-election just five days after the referendum, and Norman Abrams both voted against the proposal. Forsten and Charlisa Edelin voted in the affirmative.
That left school board president Julie Johnson to break the tie.
"It was a difficult decision we made tonight, but one I think had to be made," she said afterward.
At the start of Wednesday's meeting, the district released a list of potential spending cuts that would be required to make up the $2 million shortfall without a referendum.
Those cuts included increasing elementary school class sizes, layoffs for middle and high school teachers and staff, reductions to the district's foreign language programs, the elimination of high school freshman sports, a 15-percent cut in other sports programs, a 20-percent in high school extracurricular activities, the elimination of extra-curricular activities in elementary and middle schools, a suspension of bus camera purchases, deferred building maintenance, increased fees for community groups to use school buildings and cuts to various teacher and student awards and recognitions.
Page 2 of 2 - Those proposed cuts also included keeping Townsend Elementary School closed for an additional year beyond the current yearlong closure for renovations, and closing AECC for a year while it is converted to a pre-kindergarten program, both of which were incorporated into the approved plan.
"It is very important that all of us in this room are very clear that we cannot spend money we do not have," Edelin told the more than 150 community members, teachers and school staff who attended Wednesday's board meeting. "These cuts do not represent the Appoquinimink School District and I am very afraid of what will happen if we do not take action now."
The 20 audience members who spoke during the meeting offered a range of questions and concerns about the proposed spending cuts, the ultimate fate of Townsend Elementary and the potential cost a scaled-back referendum would mean to district residents.
"I will not support any referendum that raises my property taxes," said one woman who identified herself only as a retired teacher. "My income is going down every year and I can't afford it."
Conversely, Rob Stout, who opposed the February referendum, said he would be willing to support a 15-cent hike.
"My vote no [for the previous referendum] was not because I couldn't afford the tax increase … or because I'm a bad parent," he said. "My vote no was because we needed to be more responsible and be good stewards of the people's money, so I will support (the May 9) referendum because I see the board has come back and sharpened their pencil."
Others, however, had concerns beyond tax bills or funding shortfalls.
"When you closed Townsend [Elementary], you said you were doing it for a year and I supported you on that," said Kim Geiger, the parent of two students who were relocated to Old State Elementary School when Townsend Elementary was closed for renovations. "But by closing it for another year, you lose your faith in the district, your faith in the board and you lose the community."