Lawmakers, Sussex Tech Reach Compromise on Financial Aid Bill - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Lawmakers, Sussex Tech Reach Compromise on Financial Aid Bill

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(Photo: Sussex Technical H.S.) (Photo: Sussex Technical H.S.)

DOVER, Del. -- State lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday to repair financial and enrollment issues threatening the operation of Sussex County Technical High School.

The consensus legislation filed in the State House of Representatives seeks to restructure the school's finances and enrollment, giving the district's leaders time to make further needed adjustments.

Sussex Tech parent Kelly James is relieved.

"This is very essential for the school districts that don't have a lot of income and it's an option when you can't afford other options," said James.

The measure will grant the district a 5.5 cent tax increase beginning July 1st. The following year (FY 2017), the district will get an additional one cent bump, raising the overall rate to 30 cents per $100 of assessed value. The tax hike will cost the average homeowner $8.86 in the first year, rising to $10.47 the following year.

The property tax increases would then disappear July 1, 2017 (FY 2018), with the rate resetting to the current 23.5 cents.

But the additional revenue the school would be able to collect from a property tax hike would come with conditions, according to House Minority Leader Danny Short.

"They got some tough things to do," said Rep. Short, R-Seaford, "I think it's the best deal we could get."

"We put some requirements in there to get this, which is to [change] the enrollment, change the lottery system up, change the legacy program -- the who can get in where their brothers and sisters have gone to school there," said Rep. Short.

The legislation also proposes reversing course on enrollment. It would reduce the student population by 295 over the course of the next three academic years, cutting 100 students in 2015-16; 100 students in 2016-2017; and 95 students in 2017-2018.

According to the HCR 2 report, if no action is taken, Sussex Tech's expenses will exceed income by $2.53 million in the upcoming fiscal year and by more than $3.34 million the following year.

Sussex Tech's board president says a proposed tax hike is a small price to pay to educate the state's incoming workforce.

"There is a value to it," said Pat Cooper. "I know there's going to be people upset. Anytime you raise taxes a little bit it's not good and that was the reason why there was a lot of discussion with the representatives."

Three of the bill's reforms impact how students are selected to attend Sussex Tech.

The first requires a lottery to be held when applicants exceed the number of available slots for the new freshmen class. The available openings would be filled in the order the applicants are drawn. **

The bill would also prohibit Sussex Tech from excluding from consideration any freshman class applicant eligible for promotion to the 9th grade.

If Sussex Tech administrators wish to return a student to his or her original school district for disciplinary reasons, the bill would prohibit them from doing so without the consent of the student's parents and officials in the home district.

Lastly, the bill seeks to eliminate one aspect of so-called “legacy” selections. Currently, the sibling of any current or prior Sussex Tech student is given preference for admission. The bill would only allow such a preference if the sibling of an applicant was currently enrolled at the school.

Both Reps. Schwartzkopf and Short stressed an existing labor contract with the school's teachers prevented legislators from any consideration of altering Sussex Tech's salary structure, which is among the most generous in the state. In fact, Sussex Tech teachers will receive a three percent raise in the upcoming year, the last year of the labor agreement.

While conceding the bill will not please everyone, Reps. Schwartzkopf and Short said it does provide a reasonable path for returning the school to a firm financial footing.

The sponsors say they intend to work quickly to enact the proposal. There are reportedly more than 700 applications pending for admission to the next fall's freshman class. Consideration of those applicants, as well as other decisions that need to be made in advance of the new academic year, have been in limbo pending resolution of the school's difficulties.

The chair of the House Education Committee, State Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, said his group will hold a hearing on the measure April 29th.

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