With the recent struggle to get funding to relieve overcrowding at several Sussex County schools, Gov. John Carney says he understands why people downstate might be frustrated at his multi-million-dollar proposal for Wilmington schools, but he argues that it’s a situation unlike any other.

In an exclusive interview with Coastal Point on Feb. 12, Carney explained his $50 million proposal for several education projects, including a new school on Wilmington’s east side, to replace the Bancroft School. It would be the first new city school in a generation.

Ultimately, Carney explained, it was the only way to bring the schools up to par in order to prepare for a realignment of the Wilmington school districts. It started with a (rejected) redistricting proposal that would have moved some Christina schools into the Red Clay Consolidated School District, which was rejected for two reasons: “The facilities that they would be giving them would be in bad shape — the district had not really met their obligation to recapitalize the buildings — and secondly, they didn’t have additional resources to help educate the students,” Carney said.

“The one thing most people believe is that those schools don’t belong in the Christina School District. So, if they don’t belong in the Christina School District and Red Clay wouldn’t take them because the buildings were in terrible state, it makes complete sense for the State to recapitalize those buildings with 100 percent State funding,” Carney said. “Are you going to ask the Christina School District to pay for it and then give it to another district? That just doesn’t make any sense. It’s just a very unique and different circumstance than any other.

“There’s a commission [currently] set up that’s to determine what district to put those schools in. So, in order for that to have a chance of getting done, we need to recapitalize those schools,” Carney explained.

The Redding Consortium for Educational Equity is currently brainstorming how to improve public education and funding in Wilmington and northern New Castle County. One branch of that mission includes facilities: potentially adding alternative educational facilities in Wilmington and redistricting the whole area. The consortium was tasked with making recommendations to state government.

Part of the $50 million proposal would also build upon previous years’ appropriations to renovate Stubbs Elementary and Bayard Middle schools; establish a dual-generation center at Stubbs Elementary school for students and families; and establish a workforce-training center for the Gulftainer/ILA partnership at Palmer Elementary. Meanwhile, other Wilmington schools are also consolidating.

“One could argue, I think correctly, that Christina hasn’t met its obligation to keep those schools up like other districts have, but that doesn’t help the situation that we’re in today,” Carney concluded.

In Sussex County, it was frustrating for local taxpayers to have to battle for a referendum when another school might be entirely state-funded. In Delaware, public schools are typically built with 30 to 40 percent of funding coming from local taxpayers, which also requires public referendum approval. The State pays a majority of those costs, but typically, only special-needs schools are 100-percent state-funded.

“But you don’t know which taxpayers to tax, because you don’t know where they’re going to go,” Carney said of the Wilmington proposal and the eventual determination of districting.

He also pointed out that Delaware would be giving Indian River School District nearly $90 million (which is 60 percent of the overall price tag) for its referendum construction project — if the public passed the following day’s referendum, which they did.

Moreover, the IRSD is such a geographically large district that each penny of the local tax rate produces more money in collections than many other places, because there’s more property to assess taxes upon. It might be tough to raise taxes, but it’s easier to spread the cost.

In January, IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele denounced the Wilmington proposal, which came just as IRSD officials were in the final few weeks of campaigning for a critical and somewhat contentious public vote for new school construction.

“I believe it sets a very, very bad precedent, because you’re going to have 18 other districts wanting to know why we don’t get the same thing and why we’re out banging our heads against the concrete … to try to support the referendum,” Steele said. “… And to know that we still, to this day, are paying $2 million back to the State every single year is a little bit disheartening,” he added, referencing cuts in State funding that resulted in a give-back from prior funding levels.

It also stung because some IRSD schools were first built in the 1930s and are still in great shape.

“This still has to pass legislatively. It may not pass. But it is a strong concern with the other districts, that this could actually hurt us in the future for future referendums. … We do not agree with this strategy,” Steele said.

“From what I read, they desperately need it,” acknowledged IRSD School Board Member Donald Hattier of the Wilmington school situation. “But … people are going to start saying, ‘Why are we voting for a tax increase when the State’s going to give it to us anyway at some point?’ Frankly, I don’t think the governor’s going to recommend anything for us down here.”

Although some board members individually decried the Wilmington proposal in January, they have not issued a unified resolution on the topic.

Details of Carney’s entire Recommended Budget for Fiscal Year 2021 are posted online at https://governor.delaware.gov/budget2021. Next, the General Assembly must examine the proposal and vote on an official budget.

Delaware might have had a wind farm already

Carney on Feb. 12 also offered some more perspective on the issue of offshore wind farms. He had been noncommittal during the recent public comments process on the memorandum-of-understanding between the State and wind-power company Ørsted that would bring the transmission line from the proposed wind farm off the Maryland and Delaware coast onshore at Fenwick Island State Park, in exchange for park improvements.

First of all, he said, he supports wind power wholeheartedly, as part of the process toward carbon-free energy. He pointed out that Delaware was supposed to have offshore wind-power projects nearly a decade ago. That deal fell through because of economics and affordability, but if it had gone forward as proposed, it could have been built and operational by 2012.

Years later, the State of Maryland’s own deal with wind-power developers for wind farms in federal waters miles off the Ocean City shoreline is progressing, but that coastal community has voiced opposition to housing the infrastructure needed to bring the resulting power onto land.

As a result, Ørsted proposed a public-private partnership in which Delaware would get $18 million in improvements to Fenwick Island State Park, and Ørsted would bring the cable ashore and connect to the regional electrical grid there. So the company would lease federal offshore sites, Maryland would get the “green” electricity credits, and Delaware would get $18 million but have to house the wiring, while both states could have their Atlantic Ocean views impacted by the large turbines.

“I think, fundamentally, what it boils down to is ‘What is in it for the state of Delaware?’ And I think everybody needs to remember that that [offshore] site itself was originally to be the Delaware wind farm — Bluewater Wind. There was universal broad support for it … although there was some concern about the viewscapes.”

Carney said he has only spoken broadly on the topic with Secretary Shawn Garvin, who has the regulatory oversight at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC).

“I’ve not talked to him directly about the leeway he has within that. Certain regulatory decisions, he’s got criteria he has to use. … It either meets the criteria, or it doesn’t,” Carney said. “There are other things, including how much financial benefit will accrue to the park. That gives him broader discretion, and I think, basically, we have to look at all those things, taken together, and it will mostly be on that basis that he and I will consider more broadly than just a [permit]: Are those benefits worth whatever we’re conceding as far as infrastructure?”

Either way, DNREC is still sifting through mounds of the public comments. Some people don’t support wind power at all. Others don’t support wind turbines off the Atlantic Coast, or wind turbines within view of the Delmarva shore, or the onshore electrical hookup, or the Fenwick park proposal, or the parks deal altogether. And others support the proposal.

“But in terms of the sightscapes and things like that, we already signed off on that years ago, so in some ways, it’s like ‘Why are we going through this?’” Carney said of the ongoing debate. “And the reason is because it’s not our project — it’s Maryland’s project. So, fair enough — let’s figure out, with that in mind, whether there’s still benefits that make it worthwhile,” especially if Delaware might someday need a hookup point.

“If there’s a possibility of a Delaware wind farm out there in the future, it would make sense to use the same infrastructure,” he said.

At the local level, coastal towns have had varying opinions on the topic. Officials in most of the area’s coastal towns are unhappy that they weren’t consulted earlier about the state park proposal. Now, they want a seat at the table.

Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach and South Bethany town councils have now all passed resolutions acknowledging the public’s concerns, asking the State to carefully consider the project’s impact and, most importantly, to be given more notification and opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.

“The answer to that is always yes,” Carney said. “But with respect to park usage, park plans —there’s a huge amount of public input.”

Some of that input has included suggestions that the benefit the State would garner from such an agreement isn’t sufficient, as currently proposed. Is there any thought of requesting other compensation?

“I’ve not heard that, but it’s worth thinking about, for sure. I’ve not been involved, personally, in any of the negotiations,” Carney said. For now, he said, he’s left that with DNREC.

Town hall-style meetings planned on state government

The public is being invited to a series of GEAR Town Hall meetings, which Carney will attend. The Government Efficiency & Accountability Review Board (GEAR) was created to focus on continuous improvement across state government. As part of an ongoing review of state regulations, they welcome people’s thoughts about the regulation changes to make a more efficient and effective government for Delawareans. A constituent-relations team will also help address individual concerns.

GEAR Town Halls are scheduled for all three counties, including Tuesday, March 24, at 6:30 p.m. at Delaware Technical Community College’s Owens Campus, 21179 College Drive, Georgetown.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.