Young v. Red Clay Consol. Sch. Dist., C.A. No. 10847–VCL

CourtCourt of Chancery of Delaware
Citation122 A.3d 784
Docket NumberC.A. No. 10847–VCL
PartiesRebecca Young, Elizabeth H. Young and James L. Young, Plaintiffs, v. Red Clay Consolidated School District, Defendant.
Decision Date07 October 2015

122 A.3d 784

Rebecca Young, Elizabeth H. Young and James L. Young, Plaintiffs
Red Clay Consolidated School District, Defendant.

C.A. No. 10847–VCL

Court of Chancery of Delaware.

Date Submitted: July 10, 2015
Date Decided: October 7, 2015

122 A.3d 789

Richard H. Morse, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Delaware, Wilmington, Delaware; Counsel for the Plaintiffs Rebecca Young, Elizabeth H. Young, and James L. Young.

Barry M. Willoughby, William W. Bowser, Michael P. Stafford, Margaret M. DiBianca, Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware; Counsel

122 A.3d 790

for Defendant Red Clay Consolidated School District.


LASTER, Vice Chancellor.

On February 24, 2015, Red Clay Consolidated School District (“Red Clay”) sought approval from voters to increase the school-related property taxes paid by owners of non-exempt real estate located within the school district. The referendum passed with 6,395 residents voting in favor and 5,515 against.

The plaintiffs are residents of Red Clay who opposed the tax increase but did not vote because they were unable to access the polls. They contend that to secure a favorable outcome, Red Clay encouraged and facilitated voting by families with children, who Red Clay believed would support the tax increase because of their desire to fund the schools that their children attended. At the same time, Red Clay discouraged and raised impediments to voting by elderly and disabled residents, who Red Clay believed would oppose the tax increase because many of them live on fixed incomes. Framed as legal claims, the plaintiffs assert that Red Clay deprived them of their right to vote without due process of law and denied them equal protection under the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. They separately argue that Red Clay violated Article I, § 3 of the Delaware Constitution, which states that “[a]ll elections shall be free and equal.”

Red Clay has moved to dismiss the complaint for failing to state a claim on which relief can be granted. This decision denies Red Clay's motion. This ruling does not mean that the plaintiffs ultimately will prevail on the merits, only that they have pled sufficient facts to move beyond the pleading stage.

In the course of analyzing the plaintiffs' claims, this decision concludes that the plaintiffs would not have been able to state a claim for relief if Red Clay only had engaged in certain limited types of election-related conduct. This ruling creates an opportunity for Red Clay to address this litigation by calling a new special election and limiting the scope of its electoral interventions during that election. If Red Clay's voters ratify the result of the February 2015 special election by again voting in favor of the tax increase, then this litigation would be moot.


The facts for purposes of the motion to dismiss are drawn from the verified supplemental and amended complaint (the “Complaint”) and the documents it incorporated by reference. At this stage of the case, the Complaint's well-pled allegations are assumed to be true, and the plaintiffs receive the benefit of all reasonable inferences.

A. The Special Election

Under Delaware's statutory scheme for funding public schools, a portion of each school district's funding comes from property taxes paid by owners of non-exempt real estate located within the district. See 14 Del. C. § 1902. The Delaware Code empowers the school board for each district to set the amount of the tax that property owners must pay, but the school board cannot levy the tax unilaterally. The school board first must “call a special election to be held at the polling place or places designated by the Department of Elections conducting the election.” Id. at § 1903. The outcome of the special election determines whether the tax can be levied: “If the majority of the votes cast at

122 A.3d 791

the election ... shall be for additional tax, the tax shall be levied and collected as provided in this chapter.” Id. at § 1911.

The Board of Education of Red Clay (the “Board of Education”) is the school board that oversees Red Clay. The Board of Education called for a special election that took place on February 24, 2015 (the “Special Election”). The purpose of the Special Election was to obtain authority to raise the tax rate on non-exempt real property in the district by a total of 35 cents per $100 of assessed value. The proposal called for the rate to increase over a three-year period, rising by 20 cents in 2016, 10 cents in 2017, and 5 cents in 2018. At the time, the average assessed value of a taxable parcel of real estate in Red Clay was $80,100, resulting in the owners of an average taxable parcel paying $1,419 per year in school-related property tax. After the three-phase in, the owners of an average parcel would pay approximately $280 more per year, or roughly $23 more per month. The proposal thus contemplated an approximately 20% increase in the school-related taxes paid by the average property owner. The first year increase alone would generate an incremental $15 million per year for the schools in Red Clay. Compl. ¶ 14. When fully implemented, the increase would generate an incremental $26 million per year.

Obtaining approval for the tax increase was important to Red Clay. Patti Nash was a Red Clay employee who acted as a spokesperson for the district in connection with the Special Election. On April 9, 2015, after the referendum passed, she told a news reporter from NBC10 that without a successful vote, Red Clay “would not have had the money to pay [its] teachers.” Compl. ¶¶ 20–21.

Going into the Special Election, Red Clay had particular reason to be concerned about whether the referendum would pass. Governor Jack Markell's proposed budget for the 2015–16 fiscal year reduced the credit that Delaware provides to senior citizens for school-related property taxes. Under the status quo, Delaware provided a credit for 50% of the school-related taxes paid by a property owner 65 years of age or older, up to a cap of $500. The proposed budget contemplated either lowering the percentage to 25% or reducing the cap to $250. A news article submitted by Red Clay reported that even though the Governor's budget was only a proposal, supporters of public schools were worried that senior citizens would be anxious about the change, which would make it “harder to get the votes to approve tax increases” and “harder for school districts to pass tax referendums.” Matthew Albright, Markell Proposal Could Make School–Tax Votes Tougher, News J. (Feb. 6, 2015). The article quoted Yvette Johnson, identified as the co-chair of Red Clay's steering committee for the Special Election, as saying she was “not thrilled” about the proposed budget. Id. She was further quoted as saying, “If a senior citizen reaches out, I think we just have to explain to them [sic] what's at stake.... If this referendum doesn't pass, we could lose after-school activities, the police officers in our schools and other things that are really important.” Id. According to the article, “Johnson said she was confident Red Clay's referendum would still pass because of the efforts its supporters have made.” Id.

B. Red Clay's Get–Out–The–Vote Efforts

To enhance the likelihood that the Special Election would be successful, Red Clay engaged in what its personnel described as “get-out-the-vote” efforts. Red Clay has engaged in similar get-out-the-vote efforts

122 A.3d 792

for special elections in the past. Compl. ¶ 32.

On February 18, 2015, Red Clay's superintendent, Mervin B. Daugherty, sent a letter to families with children living in Red Clay. It stated:

I'm writing today to make you aware of a critical upcoming vote that will have a very direct impact on our children. On Feb. 24, 2015, Red Clay residents will go to the polls and decide whether to increase the operating tax rate by 35 cents over a three-year period. At its height, the increase will mean an additional $23 per month in school taxes for the average Red Clay homeowner.
You may ask, why a Referendum? Believe, us, [sic] raising taxes is about the hardest thing to ask any community but this is the only mechanism for a school district to raise local revenues. About 40% of our district's funding is based on property taxes assessed at 1983 values. It is a near fixed tax base and has not increased since our last referendum in 2008....
As a future Red Clay parent, you have perhaps the largest stake in this referendum and ensuring our schools offer the highest quality education to our children. The operating funds generated by this referendum pay for the people and programs in our schools. They fund classroom teachers and keep our class sizes smaller, fund after school activities and sports, reading and behavior specialists, arts and music programs, library and classroom materials, police officers and security measures in our schools and on our buses. Operating funds pay for the special

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