December 12, 2001

The Red Clay school board agreed to stretch out the district's proposed building and renovation program through a sixth year, a move which will result in a $5.6 million increase in its cost. 

A referendum was scheduled for Mar. 6, 2002, at which residents will be asked to authorize borrowing $78.1 million through the sale of long-term bonds to finance the local 40% share of the cost. The state will be asked to finance the other 60%. 

Total price tag for the plan, which provides for improvements at all schools and construction of a new 600-student elementary school in the Hockessin-North Star area, is $195.3 million. Both that figure and the local share would be state records for capital financing of schools in any district.

Chief financial officer Richard Moretti told the board at its meeting on Dec. 12 that it would be "completely unrealistic" to expect the state to agree to provide the nearly $18.5 million Red Clay had asked for a month earlier to cover costs in the first year of a five-year program. Instead, he said, the district hopes Delaware Department of Education will agree to put up $3.3 million to address its top two priorities -- acquiring property for the new school and air conditioning Highlands Elementary so that school can begin a form of  year-around schooling in September, 2002.

Every other project has been pushed back a year. As things now stand, the program will begin in the fiscal year which begins next July 1 and continue through the year which ends on June 30, 2008. 

The board agreed to the revised plan and set the referendum date by unanimous vote without any substantive discussion.

Moretti said he has been in continuing touch with DelDOE officials about the situation and added that he understands the problem they face in a weak economy. Because the state finances capital spending partly by selling bonds and partly out of the general fund, it is anticipated that  fiscal belt-tightening will severely impact how much money is available to spread over several districts.

But, he added, the district is ready, if voters approve the local share of the financing, to appeal to the General Assembly to get authorization for the priority projects. The legislature has the final say on the governor's capital budget. "The bond bill is flexible. It's not decided until June," he said.

Although DelDOE has been unresponsive to Delaforum requests for comment, an official of the state budget office said earlier that the bottom line on capital spending in the next fiscal year will be determined by estimates the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council comes up with next April and May.

Moretti said that the Mar. 6 referendum date will give Red Clay officials and supporters an opportunity to "get our story out to the public" on the need for additional student capacity and improvements to school buildings. If this proposal is rejected, as an earlier version of essentially the same plan was last April, "the board is going to have to make some tough decisions about what the community really wants."

He warned the board that that financial restraints could continue into a second year, but did not speculate on what the result of that might be.

2001. All rights reserved.

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