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Wilmington school redistricting plan battles resistance in General Assembly

Delaware Public Media

After surviving a protracted battle with the State Board of Education by the narrowest of margins, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s plan to restructure public education in the state’s largest city must now pass muster from two bodies that have the potential to be even more critical – the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.

“If this was easy, it would have been done by now,” says Dan Rich, the University of Delaware administrator who serves as the commission’s staff director.

The WEIC plan, approved by the state board by a 4-3 vote on March 17, must win the approval of the General Assembly, in the form of a joint resolution, before the legislative session wraps up on June 30. That narrow endorsement, Rich says,  represented the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that a state-level body in Delaware had taken a positive action to strengthen education in Wilmington.

But it didn’t take long for the plan to hit the first bump in what is likely to be a rocky road. House Joint Resolution 12, sponsored by Rep. Charles Potter Jr., D-Wilmington, a member of the commission, was introduced May 5 and referred to the House Education Committee, which tabled the measure last week. The resolution was voted out of committee Wednesday, setting the stage for a vote by the full House, but under circumstances that add another layer of uncertainty to the odds of securing passage.

First, the committee’s Republican members refused to vote on a motion to report the resolution out of committee, prompting the committee chair, Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, to call another committee member, Rep. Edward Osienski, D-Newark, out of another meeting he was attending. That prompted the Republicans on the committee to walk out of the meeting.

While the Democrats mustered the necessary eight votes to send the resolution to the House, the support was hardly encouraging. Two voted for it “favorably,” two voted for it “unfavorably,” and four voted it out “on its merits.”

A key concern for legislators is making sure they understand exactly what they would be approving if they vote in favor of the resolution. The commission’s report, published earlier this month as a 217-page book (with several lengthy appendices omitted) includes numerous recommendations for statewide changes in education policies and in school funding.

But the resolution, as worded following an amendment Wednesday, would not constitute an endorsement of the entire report. Rather, it states that “the General Assembly supports the alteration of school district boundaries in New Castle County as approved by the State Board of Education” and states that the support “is conditioned upon the allocation of necessary and sufficient funding,” with the proviso, added in an amendment Wednesday, that nothing in the resolution would obligate the General Assembly to take any actions “with respect to financing, property reassessment or taxation.”

The “alteration of school district boundaries” refers to the moving the portion of Wilmington served by the Christina School District into the Red Clay Consolidated School District, starting with the 2018-19 school year. Since the implementation of court-ordered school desegregation in 1978, Wilmington has been divided into four attendance areas. The WEIC plan would not impact the boundaries of the Brandywine and Colonial districts in the city.

Even if the lawmakers pass the resolution and send it on to Gov. Jack Markell for his signature, the second provision in the resolution – “the allocation of necessary and sufficient funding” – could make implementation of the redistricting problematic.

That’s because the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which prepares the state’s budget, must set aside the money needed to begin implementation of the plan, but the budget is traditionally one of the last items the General Assembly approves before the end of the legislative session. If sufficient funds are not appropriated, the commission has the authority to suspend implementation. If sufficient funds are not provided by July 2018, the plan expires and there would be no redistricting.

“The funding issue will run on a parallel track with the redistricting part,” but the two actions will not necessarily follow the same timeline, Rich says. “I honestly don’t know, and they [the legislators] don’t know” when the actions will be completed.

According to a fact sheet prepared by the commission, the General Assembly is being asked to implement targeted additional funding for low-income students, English language learners and basic special education students in kindergarten through third grade, starting with the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The additional funding for students in these groups – something that is provided in most other states – would be gradually phased in, with a price tag of about $15 million for Fiscal 2017. Roughly $9 million would be targeted to Red Clay and the Wilmington portion of Christina, and another $6 million would go to one district in Kent County and one district in Sussex County. Gov. Markell, in his Fiscal 2017 budget proposal, allocated $6 million for services recommended by the commission.

WEIC members and downstate legislators have been pushing for the funding for Kent and Sussex districts for two reasons: both downstate counties have significant numbers of students living in poverty, and providing additional funds for their benefit could prompt more Kent and Sussex legislators to support the resolution.

“Next to Wilmington, Dover has the second-largest concentration of low-income students, and Sussex has the highest concentration of English language learners,” Rich says.

Complicating the issue for lawmakers is the absence of a formula for determining funding levels for students with additional needs. “The range depends on the weights the General Assembly assigns,” Rich says.

According to the commission, Delaware is one of approximately 15 states that do not provide some type of targeted funding for low-income students, and it is one of only four states without targeted funding for English-language learners. In addition, Delaware does not provide funding for basic special education for children in kindergarten through third grade, even though a screening system enables the state to identify children with special needs before they enter kindergarten.

The commission recommends that this targeted funding be used to hire additional teachers, provide supplemental instruction like tutoring and before- and after-school programs, increase student-centered services like counseling, therapy and psychological support, and to develop programs to strengthen parents of students in need. “States in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions that provide this funding typically produce better student outcomes than Delaware,” a WEIC fact sheet states.

But some lawmakers are worried, given the state’s tight budgets of the last few years, that additional funding will not be sustainable for the long haul, especially if efforts are made to expand it statewide. And, if state funding is not available, residents in affected areas, and the legislators who represent them, are concerned that the cost of additional services would be borne through increases in local school taxes. The commission, however, has stated consistently that any additional services to students in need should be paid for out of the state budget, not from local school taxes.

Questions like these lead to discussions of when the state will consider a comprehensive overhaul of its aging school finance system – something education reformers have been advocating for at least 10 years – and whether there should be a statewide reassessment of real estate property values, another taboo topic for many lawmakers.

Targeted funding would be a first step toward a financial overhaul, Rich says, adding that “an overhaul should not hold hostage kids who have needs now.”

However, as the questions expand, so does the concern for passage of the resolution to implement the WEIC plan. “This is a complex issue,” Rich says. “The process has been going on for 62 years.”

What happens in the next six weeks will determine how much longer that process will continue.

The discussions under way in the General Assembly are similar to those between the commission and the State Board of Education during the first three months of the year. The key difference, Rich says, is that the lawmakers “have the benefit of having been able to observe the dialog” between the commission and the state board.

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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