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State Board of Ed. puts off vote on Wilmington redistricting plan

Delaware Public Media

The State Board of Education on Thursday deferred action on the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s plan for redistricting public schools in Wilmington, telling the commission that it should return an improved plan to the board within 60 days.

The vote followed a discussion of nearly 30 minutes in which board members said they would like to see more details and clarifications of numerous topics covered in the plan, which would transfer operation of the Christina School District’s five schools within the city to the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

“I was disappointed,” said Tony Allen after the board’s vote. Allen was appointed by Gov. Jack Markell to chair the commission, which was created by legislation passed last year by the General Assembly.

During the meeting, State Board President Teri Quinn Gray refused to permit Allen to read a brief statement before the vote was taken, saying that a presentation from the commission was not on the agenda. Allen said he had been told before the meeting by the state board’s staff that he would be allowed to read a statement.

Following the vote, Gray apologized what she termed “a misunderstanding.”

Now the commission must revise its plans based on a letter the state board will write by the end of the month that will summarize concerns expressed at today’s meeting. Those concerns touched on a variety of issues, including funding structures, timelines, parent and community involvement and collaborations among school districts, as well as a desire by some board members for stronger assurances that the plan would have a positive impact on students whose lives are negatively impacted by conditions outside of school, including crime, poverty and having parents working more than one job in order to pay their bills.

Although commission members have said the plan is replete with details, board member Nina Lou Bunting said, comparing it to spaghetti sauce, “unless I can see it, taste it and smell it, I can’t be sure it’s all in there.”

“We’ve got to start somewhere,” board member Terry M. Whittaker said before Gray interjected that, despite the hours the commission spent on its work, “the feeling is that it isn’t enough.”

“We agree that this work is critical and that change is necessary, but we also believe that we must exercise our due diligence and ensure that the fruits of this labor are as actionable, impactful and meaningful as possible,” Gray said.

After the meeting, Allen pointed out that the commission’s work included a 200-page report with 500 pages of appendices and preparing responses to 50 additional questions from the state board – all after holding six public hearings and 10 town hall meetings.

“I won’t begin to try to get into the heads of the state board,” Allen said, saying the commission will wait until it receives the letter from the board to determine how to respond to its concerns.

The legislation creating the commission set a March 31 deadline for the state board to take final action on its report. Depending on how quickly the commission responds to the board, the final state board vote could come at its regular meeting on March 17 or at a special meeting later that month.

“We will do what we have to do. It’s process. It’s been going on for 60 years or more,” said Dan Rich, the University of Delaware professor who has been serving as the commission’s policy director.

Rich was referring to Delaware’s long and tortured history with the issue of segregation in its public schools. A case from Delaware was one of five that were consolidated into the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling in 1954. The Delaware case was the only one of the five in which the lower court had ruled in favor of desegregating public schools.

The WEIC plan, as written, is designed to become the most significant reorganization of public education in the state in nearly 40 years.

Enactment of the WEIC plan would end the Christina district’s role in educating students who live in Wilmington – and also end the busing of city students to Christina schools in the Newark-Bear-Glasgow area.

Since the start of court-ordered desegregation in 1978, Wilmington students had been assigned to attend suburban schools for up to nine years of their elementary and secondary education careers. Since 1981, responsibility for educating Wilmington students has been divided among four school districts, Christina, Red Clay, Brandywine and Colonial. A variety of state actions since the early 1990s, including legislation authorizing the creation of charter schools in 1995, the development of a school “choice program” in 1996 and passage of the Neighborhood Schools Act in 2000, as well as the lifting of the federal court desegregation order in 1995, has reduced the number of years Wilmington students are bused to the suburbs, and suburban residents to the city. In the process, demographics in Wilmington schools – in terms of racial composition and percentage of low-income students – have returned to levels close to those that existed before desegregation began.

Currently, the WEIC plan states, “Twenty-three separate governing units, including 17 located in the City of Wilmington, now are responsible for delivering public education to 11,500 Wilmington children with no unified plan, little collaboration, and no requirements for coordination.”

Those 17 governing units include four K-12 school districts, a vocational-technical school district and the boards of public charter schools operating in the city.

Using current enrollment and employment figures, the plan, if and when implemented, could impact more than 4,500 students, about 175 teachers, 10 building-level administrators and about 120 other employees, including custodians, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, secretaries and bus drivers.

Of the students potentially impacted, more than half attend charter schools or a traditional school through choice or another special program. The remaining 2,000 or so the total go to the school to which they are assigned through Christina’s designated attendance zones.

Reassignment of both students and employees is one of the key issues facing the commission should the plan move forward. Other issues described in the plan which would ultimately have be ironed out include financing additional supports for low-income and English-language-learning (ELL) students, gradually extending these additional supports to schools in other parts of New Castle County and eventually throughout the state and improving collaborations between traditional and charter schools.

The plan’s phase-in would be gradual, starting with planning this year and concluding with Red Clay assuming responsibility for the former Christina schools for the 2018-19 school year.

Approval by the state board would be but the first of many steps on the path to implementing the plan. According to the legislation passed last year, the second step would be for the General Assembly to approve, and Gov. Markell to sign, a joint resolution confirming the state board’s action.

After that occurs, more work would be required on funding, reassignments of students and teachers and determining whether it will be necessary to build new schools or renovate others within Red Clay’s boundaries in order to accommodate the students.

While Allen said he hoped today’s decision was merely “a bump in the road,” he noted that ”there has always been the option to do nothing. That has been the history of Wilmington public education dating back to Brown.” 

In the past 60 years, he said, “the state actors – the state board, the governor, the General Assembly – have never acted to provide more equitable educational access [to minority students].”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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