Delaware Judge Upholds Election Approving Tax Hike - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Delaware Judge Upholds Election Approving Tax Hike

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DOVER, Del. (AP)- A Delaware judge on Wednesday upheld a local school district election in which residents approved a property tax increase, despite finding that the district's advocacy for the tax hike violated a provision in Delaware's constitution aimed at ensuring free and equal elections.
    
In a 186-page ruling, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster said the Red Clay district violated the constitution's elections clause by holding 75 family-focused events at 23 school building polling places on the day of the vote. The events, he said, served as targeted rewards for families of Red Clay students and drew them to the polls "en masse."
    
"An election is not 'free and equal' when the government provides targeted rewards for voting to a group it believes will support its favored position," wrote Laster, who noted that the events also resulted in crowded parking lots that interfered with access to the polls for some elderly and disabled residents.
    
"An election in which the government obstructs the ability of elderly and disabled voters to access the polls is not 'free and equal," Laster wrote.
    
The judge also said Red Clay violated the elections clause by engaging in an aggressive, one-side campaign in favor of the tax increase that exceeded the limited advocacy permitted under state law.
    
The district's tactics included using confidential information about Red Clay families to promote voting by parents, assigning each school a goal for "Yes" voters, and having teachers place stickers on their elementary school students on election day as a reminder for parents to vote.
    
Despite such conduct, Laster upheld the election results, saying there was no evidence that officials acted with ill will or in bad faith, but instead had the laudable goal of ensuring adequate school funding.
    
"Although this case focuses on Red Clay's election-related conduct, it stems from dysfunction in Delaware's system for funding public schools," the judge wrote.
    
Laster noted that, for a variety of reasons, New Castle County has not reassessed property values since 1983. Similarly, Kent and Sussex counties have not updated their assessments since 1987 and 1974, respectively.
    
Laster noted that if a county conducts periodic reassessments, as called for in state law, the underlying tax base would rise as property values increased. Accordingly, the same tax rate would generate more money for school districts, which would not have to seek tax increases as frequently.
    
"In my view, Delaware's statutory framework is not supposed to force school districts into a vicious cycle of regular referendums," the judge wrote. "But without action by the political branches, school districts must resort to the only tool they have: the referendum process."
    
Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of a district resident and her elderly parents, described Wednesday's ruling as a victory for democracy.
    
"Government, including school districts, cannot use their power to rig elections in violation of state law ... School district and other officials up and down state are now on notice that Red Clay's conduct crossed the line," she said.
    
The Red Clay election, in which residents voted 6,395 to 5,515 for the tax increase, resulted in a failed effort in the General Assembly to mandate that all school elections in Delaware be conducted by mail and be limited to registered voters. The bill also would have limited school districts to one tax referendum per year.
    
A Red Clay spokeswoman had no immediate comment.

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