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Wilmington redistricting plan heads to House without GOP help

Delaware Public Media

A controversial plan to redraw Wilmington school district lines barely drew the eight votes necessary to pass a House committee Wednesday, amid all five Republican members leaving the hearing early and some rumblings of concern from Democrats.

"It's been a long time coming and thank God for all things," said Rep. Charles Potter Jr. (D-Wilmington North), who sponsors the redistricting resolution. "They come together for the good when you do the right thing and it's the right thing for the young people."

Lawmakers on the committee tabled the resolution last week after some legislators viewed it as a full endorsement of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission's plan.

That proposal raises hackles among some who reject calls for reassessing property values statewide and an increase in funding solely for Wilmington students at first, with the commission recommending that model spread throughout Delaware as quickly as possible.

A lack of recommendations on how to raise student test scores among city children aside from piling more money into the classroom sparked unease for Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte).

“It’s almost like we’re going to move them over to this district and then it’s just going to happen and as we know, that doesn’t really just happen,” Heffernan said.

Rep. Kim Williams (D-Newport), whose district is entirely made up of the Red Clay School District, says more needs to be done to expand access to high-performing charter schools and private academies in and around Wilmington for these often low-income students .

Another argument echoed by many questions Gov. Jack Markell’s (D) enthusiasm for the proposal, despite him publicly endorsing it and moving it forward during earlier battles between the commission and the State Board of Education.

“The governor’s budget only provided $6 million of funding for this plan and the plan needs, my understanding, about $10 to $12 million the first year. I have concerns of the lack of commitment from the state,” Williams said.

The extra few million dollars Williams mentioned could be needed to assuage legislators in Kent and Sussex Counties who also represent high-poverty school districts and students who are learning English as a second language.

Those who gave public testimony urged the resolution’s passage, telling potential holdouts to view Wilmington students as their own children and grandchildren who need a quality education to lift themselves out of a cycle of poverty.

Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden (D-Wilmington East) says issues that more deeply affect some parts of the state shouldn’t divide the General Assembly, as she has backed more rural initiatives like farmland preservation.

“We don’t ask what the cost of all that is, but we support you because that’s where you live, those are the people you represent, but not only that, but because we’re all Delawareans,” said Bolden “The prejudice, the bigotry – all that needs to be removed from here and we need to go forward as the great state we are.”

Others are trying to use the resolution as a means of boosting spending on public education in general, which was cut during the 2008 recession by Markell.

“This proposal was initiated by the failure of this administration to understand that it has to put the money up,” said Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark), a fierce and frequent critic of Markell and his education policies.

“We can’t allow a public school initiative so important to the vibrancy of a community, of an economy, of the United States, to work on a starvation diet,” Kowalko said.

The full House will debate the resolution in the coming weeks.

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