Washington, D.C. (May 11, 2020) — In a landmark ruling involving a challenge to the fairness of school funding in Delaware, the Court ruled that Sussex County, Kent County, and New Castle County use assessment methodologies that violate the True Value Statute and the Uniformity Clause of the Delaware Constitution. The Court also ruled that by providing inaccurate assessments and certifications to the City of Wilmington (also a plaintiff), New Castle County’s assessment methodology also violates the Assessment Roll Statutes.
Richard Smith, Delaware State Conference NAACP President, noted that “It is undisputed that when preparing their annual assessment rolls, the counties use valuations from three and four decades ago. And two of the three counties don’t even use their full base-year evaluations. The Court said this is not the same as assessing properties at their present fair market value.”
The plaintiffs argued that Delaware’s public schools fail to provide an adequate education for students from low-income households, students with disabilities, and students whose first language is not English (collectively, “Disadvantaged Students”). Vice-Chancellor Laster in the Court of Chancery found that the “failure to provide an adequate education for Disadvantaged Students is not just a problem for Disadvantaged Students. It affects the in-school educational environment for all students, including non-Disadvantaged students. Ultimately, it affects the larger community of which we are all apart.”
Scot X Esdaile, Delaware NAACP Administrator and National NAACP board member, said, “In the midst of a pandemic, the judge saw merit in our collective efforts to reform inequitable funding that existed long before the pandemic.”
“This decision does not reach the issue of remedy, which will require further proceedings,” said Jai Street of Delawareans For Educational opportunity. While the Court was considering the parties’ evidence and arguments, the novel Coronavirus emerged, resulting in the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the major consequences of the pandemic was to place many households, businesses, and local and state governments under financial strain.
While the effects of the pandemic do not mean that the counties can continue indefinitely to operate a local tax system that violates the Delaware Constitution and the Delaware Code, the effects of the pandemic likely will introduce additional and significant considerations for the remedial calculus, particularly regarding the timing of a remedy. Evaluating those and other issues must await the remedial phase.
Janette Louard, Deputy General Counsel of the National NAACP, said she was pleased with the decision regarding the Counties. “Access to equitable school resources has been a challenge for blacks for hundreds of years. NAACP units also have equitable resource litigation based on state constitutions in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.”
Plaintiffs are represented by Richard H. Morse, Community Legal Aid Society, Wilmington; Karen Lanz, ACLU Foundation of Delaware, Wilmington; and Saul P. Morgenstern, Peta Gordon, Jessica Laguerre, and Travis W. Clark, ARNOLD & PORTER KAYE SCHOLER LLP, NYC.