LAUREL – Pending approval, a monetary life-preserver is headed to the financially-plagued Laurel School District, which recently identified substantial staff layoffs.
State Sen. Robert L. Venables, D-Laurel, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Joint Capital Bond Committee, recently announced the committee has included a special $350,000 appropriation in state funding in the fiscal year 2013 capital bond bill.
Coined the Laurel School District Stabilization fund, the funding is an interest-free loan to be used as a line of credit to pay any unexpected costs during the next school year.
“The Laurel School District desperately needed a short-term financial solution to keep things from getting worse,” Sen. Venables said. “This $350,000 may begin repairing some of the damage that has already been created.”
Laurel’s financial woes resulted in layoff of 35 district employees, including 17 teachers.
Use of the money will be subject to approval by a financial recovery team of state officials that has been working with the district to help find solutions to financial problems, which Sen. Venables believes stems from the tax base in western and northern Sussex County not keeping pace with the growing financial needs of school districts in those areas.
That, Sen. Venables said, is part of a larger, long-term problem largely due to a shift in growth and development patterns in Sussex County over recent decades, which have seen much of the county’s old industrial and agriculture base, once dispersed relatively evenly across the county, give way to rapid residential and resort development in the county’s coastal areas.
In addition, some industries in inland Sussex have declined in size or in some instances shut down entirely, the senator said.
As an example, Sen. Venables said a one-cent increase in school property taxes in eastern Sussex County’s Indian River School District brings in approximately $138,500 in increased revenue, while that penny increase in Laurel brings in just under $11,000.
Sen. Venables hopes the funding will, among other things, help the district in its search for a new superintendent. Dr. Dorothy Nave has been serving as acting superintendent since Dr. John McCoy left the district near the end of the 2010-11 school year.
Sen. Venables stressed that Laurel schools have in general done a good job maintaining quality instruction in light of ever-increasing financial problems.
“While the figures aren’t in yet, I believe there is a good chance Laurel High school will be rated ‘Superior’ for the 2011-12 school year,” Sen. Venables said. “But that was last year. In the past month, 35 district employees have been laid off. Seventeen of these are teachers, including the district’s most recent teacher of the year. This has caused some families to withdraw their children from Laurel schools and move them either to other districts or private schools.”
Under terms of the appropriation, funding will be repaid to the state – interest free – within a 5-year period.
In addition, the Bond Committee requires Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy to establish a committee to review current financial issues facing “property poor” school districts and develop potential solutions.
Superintendents and business managers from Sussex County districts and DOE representatives will comprise the committee, along with the state Office of Management and Budget and Controller General’s Office – the financial arm of the General Assembly.
The committee must report its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor on or before May 1, 2013.