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Wilmington redistricting plan gains State Board of Ed. approval

Delaware Public Media

The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission won its grueling three-round battle with the State Board of Education on Thursday, sending its plan to improve education for the children in Delaware’s largest city on to an even tougher challenge, gaining approval from the General Assembly.

The state board, following intervention earlier this month by Gov. Jack Markell, voted 4-3 to endorse the plan, with board President Teri Quinn Gray casting the deciding vote at the end of a tense roll call after board members Nina Lou Bunting, Gregory Coverdale and Patrick Heffernan cast their no votes.

“We should come away strengthened,” Daniel Rich, the University of Delaware professor who serves as the commission’s policy director, said after the vote, noting that this was the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that a Delaware state entity had voted affirmatively to improve educational programs for minority children.

The plan’s key component is a redistricting that would transfer the portion of Wilmington now served by the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District, starting with the 2018-19 school year. The plan also includes provisions for financing the transition and to increase funding to city schools that serve high percentages of students classified as low-income or English-language learners.

As approved, the plan now includes a modification brokered by Markell to remove the board’s control over its implementation should funding issues develop in the future.

Thursday’s vote climaxed a tense and sometimes bitter struggle that began in January, when the board voted 4-3 to send the plan back to the commission for modification. After changes were made, the board voted last month to approve the plan, again by a 4-3 vote, but with a potentially deal-breaking condition that changed the word “shall” to “may” in a crucial paragraph. That adjustment would have removed a requirement that the state board halt the redistricting if it determined that funding was insufficient and given it discretion to make the move – a change that Red Clay and Christina officials feared could lead to dumping the additional costs the state would have picked up onto the backs of district taxpayers.

Through Markell’s intervention, that section of the plan was changed to give the commission, rather than the state board, authority for scuttling the plan if funding concerns emerge. At an emergency meeting Monday, the commission approved the revision while adding several conditions of its own, including one stating that, if either Christina or Red Clay considers funding insufficient, the commission would suspend implementation.

The board’s usual meeting place, the Cabinet Room in the Townsend Building, was filled to capacity Thursday, with a few more attendees sitting or standing in the hallway outside.  Unlike the previous two meetings, this session lacked tumult and confusion. The board took no special breaks to consult with its attorneys, and there were no complaints or backlash from the audience, but Coverdale appeared taken aback when Gray abruptly cut him off as he tried to explain his reasons for opposing the plan.

Gray noted that the commission had addressed several of the concerns expressed by the board in January and February by committing to meet with the board at every stage of the implementation process, to update the board semiannually on the commission’s progress and to provide an annual analysis on the state of Wilmington education.

During the board’s discussion, the strongest and lengthiest objections came from Patrick Heffernan, the husband of state Rep. Debra Heffernan, a close ally of Markell on many issues.

In his view, the plan “gets at best a grade of C…. Our kids deserve better.” He contended that “as part of this entire process, there should be clear goals around academics” – raising graduation rates, increasing literacy rates and performance on Advanced Placement exams. Instead, he said, the plan placed a higher priority on redrawing district lines for Christina and Red Clay, even though there are no significant differences in the academic performance of low-income and English-language learning students in the two districts.  The plan, he said, “cannot clearly connect redistricting with improving academic performance.”

Although the board did not permit comment on the plan from the public or the commission during the meeting, commission members have repeatedly stated that reducing the number of school boards having responsibility for educating Wilmington children would facilitate efforts to improve school programming.

Board member Barbara Rutt, who had expressed misgivings about the plan in previous meetings, said she would “look past the politics of the matter” and give it her support.

Board Vice President Jorge Melendez, before announcing his support for the plan, chastised unnamed individuals – people “who have been part of the problem … who now want to be part of the solutions” --  who had said the board could not be trusted, saying “they don’t have a clue.”

“Don’t come back with excuses. Come back with success stories,” he said.

“I think we have to get moving on a plan,” board member Terry Whittaker said.

“It’s very important that we get it across the street [to Legislative Hall],” Rutt added.

With the board’s approval, the commission’s fight approval moves into a larger ring, the General Assembly, where a coalition of downstate and suburban New Castle County legislators have the potential to deliver a knockout punch. Under terms of the legislation that created the commission last year, the General Assembly now has until June 30 to pass a joint resolution approving the plan and sending it to Markell for his signature.

Downstate lawmakers have expressed concern that, at the start of implementation, the plan calls for supplemental funding only for schools that serve Wilmington residents even though many schools in Kent and Sussex counties have significant populations of low-income and English-language learning students. Some upstate legislators, especially those representing the suburban portions of Red Clay, are questioning whether the plan would benefit their constituents. They are also worried about its long-term impact on district taxpayers.

“There’s still a long road ahead,” said Kenny Rivera, commission vice chair and president of the Red Clay Board of Education.

Not only does the General Assembly have to approve a resolution endorsing the plan, it must also include funding to begin transition planning in the next state budget. The commission has set some parameters on how much would be needed, but the numbers are not hard and fast. “We need enough to make a difference,” Rich said.

He said the commission will have to closely engage with downstate legislators because “this is a statewide issue.”  While the commission wants supplemental funding statewide for students with special needs, its plan calls for gradual implementation, starting with schools that serve Wilmington residents. “We have to start somewhere,” he said.

In a broader sense, more work needs to be done in the next two years, which will be devoted to transition planning and taking the first steps toward implementation.  “I would say ‘no’ is not a strategy for anyone.   We’ve offered a plan and we’ll keep trying to improve that plan, to carry it out – and we’ll do so immediately.  We’ve been working on it now for nearly two years and we’ll keep working on it by going forward together, collaboratively with the districts,” Rich said.

Christina students won’t be moving into Red Clay schools until the fall of 2018, at the earliest, said Red Clay Superintendent Mervin Daugherty, adding that he hopes that any reassignments would have minimal impact on students living in suburban areas of Red Clay.

Daugherty expressed satisfaction that the plan had won the state board’s approval. “As long as we get the funding for the support of the students, we’ll be in good shape,” he said.

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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