Delaware Public Media

Judge: Red Clay broke election law, but 2015 referendum stands

May 24, 2017

The results of a 2015 school referendum in the Red Clay School District won’t change, despite a court ruling saying district officials violated state law.

Instead, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster says Red Clay acted out of desperation, which “…stems from dysfunction in Delaware’s system for funding public schools.”

The state pays between 60 and 65 percent of public school operating costs, while individual districts must make up the difference through property tax referendums.

But counties have avoided the political land mine of reassessing property values for decades. New Castle County, for example, hasn’t reassessed homes there since 1983.

Facing a looming deficit, Laster says Red Clay administrators were under “a great deal of pressure” to deliver a win.

“Unfortunately, their understandable desire to obtain adequate funding to fulfill their mission led them to undermine the electoral process,” he wrote.

Much has changed since 1983, Laster days. Ronald Reagan was president and Gov. Pete DuPont (R) was in office.

"A new Star Wars movie was in theaters, but it was Return of the Jedi. MTV still played music videos, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller made its premier. The two teams in Super Bowl XVII were the Washington Redskins and the Miami Dolphins. On a personal note, I started high school," he wrote.

Despite Laster finding Red Clay violated Delaware election law, he won’t order a new referendum, saying, “A court must balance multiple considerations before invalidating an election.”

The suit stemmed from Rebecca young and her parents, Elizabeth and James Young, who claimed Red Clay purposefully made it difficult for older and disabled residents to vote more than two years ago.

Laster found that Red Clay didn’t provide enough parking spaces or access to school buildings that substituted as polling places.

The district held 75 events at schools on election day as a way to draw families with children to the polls.

“They recognized that the events would generate crowded parking lots, and they took some steps to mitigate this effect, but they failed to anticipate the serious problems that elderly and disabled residents would face,” Laster wrote in his 165-page opinion.

The Delaware chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit for the Young family shortly after the referendum, which raised taxes by 30 cents per $100 of assessed property value over three years.

Laster said Red Clay also used public money to “aggressively target” Red Clay families instead of using broad channels.

Such a move, Laster says, “…resulted in the Special Election not being ‘free and equal.’”

“But their actions must be evaluated in light of the difficult situation they faced,” he said.

Despite Laster not ordering a new referendum, ACLU Delaware executive director Kathleen MacRae, called the ruling, "...a victory for democracy and free and fair election in Delaware."

MacRae says her organization is still reviewing the ruling and hasn't decided whether she will appeal, though she agrees that the school financing scheme "is badly broken."

"Our schools should not be forced to choose between holding free and fair elections or facing budget shortfalls that prevent them from fully and efficiently educating our children," MacRae said.

Red Clay Superintendent Merv Daugherty called the ruling "a victory," noting "it would have been catastrophic" if the district were forced to return the nearly $26 million in tax revenue its collected.