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School districts take 'wait and see' approach to education funding suit

Delaware Public Media

Whenever the school funding lawsuit against top state officials and county tax collectors is decided by Vice Chancellor Travis Laster, its outcome will likely have an impact on every school district in Delaware.

But the state’s school districts are, for the most part, sitting on the sidelines as the case plays out.

A month after the suit was filed by Delawareans for Educational Opportunity and the NAACP Delaware State Conference of Branches, the Christina Board of Education did approve a resolution in support of the plaintiffs’ position.

Other than that, it’s been mostly silence from the districts, even though their students would likely benefit should the court decide that property values must be reassessed statewide and that the state must increase funding to the districts so they better serve low-income students and English language learners.

It’s a sharp contrast from a generation ago, when another sensitive education issue, the desegregation of schools in northern New Castle County was litigated in U.S. District Court. During that trial, every school district in the county (there were 13 in the 1970s) had one or more lawyers present almost every day that court was in session.

“I wouldn’t say we’re sitting on the sidelines,” says Mark Holodick, superintendent of the Brandywine School District. “We’re waiting anxiously and eagerly. The suit has the potential to provide additional resources in areas of critical need.”

But the litigation does put the districts in a peculiar situation, explains Dusty Blakey, superintendent of the Colonial School District and currently the head of Delaware’s Chief School Officers Association, an organization of district superintendents.

On the one hand, he notes, the districts are officially agencies of the state, and they receive more than 60 percent of their funding from the state. On the other hand, he adds, local school officials support the outcome that the plaintiffs are seeking – more funding to support the students who have the greatest needs.

“I don’t know if I can say that [being a state agency] plays into any inactivity or activity by the districts,” he says, “but there is general agreement that these funding issues need to be looked at.”

Also factoring into the districts’ decisions to keep a low profile for now is the matter of cost.

“The battle that is being fought is the same battle that has been fought for years,” says Robert Silber, finance director for the Christina School District, with the major difference this time being that a couple of citizens’ groups are leading the charge. With ACLU Delaware and the Community Legal Aid Society already providing legal representation for the plaintiffs, Silber says, “my only question would be: why jump in and incur the expense?”

“I would agree with that,” Blakey adds.

Right now, he says, the districts anticipate the case’s outcome being what calls a “top-down decision,” with rulings on the school funding system affecting primarily the state defendants and on property tax assessments affecting primarily county government officials. The school districts won’t feel any impact until those issues are resolved, he says.

“It’s kind of a wait and see,” Blakey says.

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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