A Delaware judge found Red Clay guilty of violating the state constitution during a referendum vote in 2015.

Officials at Red Clay Consolidated School District in northern Delaware violated the state's constitution requiring "free and equal" elections when they successfully won a voter referendum to increase property taxes in 2015, a Chancery Court judge ruled Wednesday.

While Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster decided not to invalidate the election, his opinion criticized Superintendent Merv Daugherty and other administrators for orchestrating a plan to reward families of students and encourage them to vote "yes" by holding 75 events on election day at schools that served as polling places.

Those events, many with food for attendees, drew at least 6,383 people, and likely many more, to the school events. The referendum passed, 6,395 to 5,515.

"When a government provides a targeted reward for voting to a group it believes will favor its position, the election is not 'free and equal,' " wrote Laster, who presided over a three-day trial last fall.

Laster wrote that the "election day events also had the unfortunate consequence of interfering with access to the polls'' in large part by "jamming parking lots."

Red Clay officials also violated the constitution "by engaging in four months of one-sided get-out-the-vote efforts," Laster wrote.

The lawsuit was brought by residents, some elderly and disabled, who "did not vote because they could not find accessible parking," Laster concluded.

Despite finding illegal behavior, Laster wrote that "a balancing of multiple factors,'' including the "potentially catastrophic consequences'' for Red Clay's finances, convinced him that the election should stand.

Despite the ruling that his administration violated the state constitution in its "zealous'' attempt to raise money from voters, Daughtery claimed victory for district students because the district won't have to hold a replacement relection or return the nearly $26 million of additional money it has raised since the illegal vote, 

"We are frankly relived that Judge Laster recognized that Red Clay acted in good faith in its public campaign asking our community for additional funding," Daughterty said in a written release.

Judge: Time to reassess property values

Laster also pointed out a structural problem that some Delaware education officials and political officials have been discussing this spring to address Gov. John Carney's proposed $37 million in funding cuts to schools.

He noted that a reassessment of property values statewide, which could pave the way for the funding stream school districts need without resorting to frequent voter referendums, has not been done for decades.

For example, New Castle County Council voted against a reassessment in May 2015 – four months after Red Clay conducted its illegal election.

Red Clay officials resorted to drastic and illegal measures in large part because lawmakers have failed to reassess property values in New Castle County for 34 years, Laster wrote.

Delaware's 15 other school districts that must raise taxes through referendum also face similar challenges, he wrote. Sussex County's last general reassessment was in 1974 – 43 years ago. Kent County's last was in 1987.

In Red Clay's case, Laster wrote, "the high-stakes pursuit of a laudable end caused well-intentioned people to resort to improper means. No one should infer from this decision that anyone involved in the Red Clay campaign acted in bad faith or with an ill motive.

"They sought to achieve what I regard as an unmitigated public good: adequate funding for our state's public schools. Unfortunately, Delaware's current system for conducting property tax assessments puts school districts in the untenable position of having to ask residents to raise their taxes on a regular basis."

Daughtery concurred in his statement.

"It's my hope that this lawsuit opens the door to a conversation about school funding in Delaware,'' the superintendent's statement said.

"As Judge Laster said, the system is broken and the solution to these issues is a reform of the school funding mechanism, which should be carried out by the General Assembly."