Christina board rejects Delaware priority schools plans [UPDATE]

The Delaware Department of Education reacts to the rejection of the Priority School plan by the Christina School District.

The Christina School Board voted Tuesday to reject turnaround plans at the district’s three priority schools.

The defiant gesture–product of a 3-4 vote against the plans–represents another volley in the long tussle between Christina and the Delaware Department of Education over how to fix a trio of low-performing schools. It also casts serious doubt over when–or if–the two sides will reach a final agreement on the matter.

“Uncharted territory”

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The state has threatened to close the three schools, convert them into charters, or turn them over to outside management companies if Christina doesn’t submit plans it considers amenable. It’s unclear whether Tuesday’s vote will prompt the state to make good on that threat.

It is, however, certain that the months-long staring contest between Christina’s board and the Department of Education will go on.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Fred Polaski, Christina’s board president.

Department of Education reacts

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Department of Education said it “will be in communication with district leadership in the coming days on next steps,” but offered no further details. The release also noted that Christina’s “district leaders, educators, families and [community] members” created the rejected plans.

The entanglement between the two sides dates to last September, when Governor Jack Markell identified six low-performing schools in Wilmington as priority schools. Three of those schools are in Christina. The other three are in the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

The districts were asked to draft memoranda of understanding that would outline the turnaround efforts at each of their priority schools, as well as more specific plans that would deal with the details.

Red Clay’s board approved memoranda of understanding in December, and plans in January. On Wednesday, the state approved those documents, meaning Red Clay can continue with its priority schools planning.

“We know that many of the children in these communities face unique challenges that require more support and resources,” said secretary of education Mark Murphy in a statement. “Thanks to Red Clay’s leadership and collaboration with its school communities, Highland, Shortlidge, and Warner now will have the plans and resources to better meet students’ needs.”

A single sentence

Christina, meanwhile, has moved at a slower pace and with clear reservations. The district’s board did not approve memoranda of understanding until late January, and even then only by one vote.

Those memoranda were largely the product of extended negotiations between the state department of education and a bargaining team assembled by Christina. When approving the documents, however, Christina’s board members removed a single sentence that was in the negotiated agreement.

The removal of that single sentence appears to have triggered a bureaucratic stalemate.

The clause in question said that Christina’s memoranda of understanding with the state would take precedence over all other agreements. Board members said they were uncomfortable with it, especially since the district has not yet signed a concurrent memoranda with its teacher’s union.

But the removal of that clause was a problem for the department of education, according to Polaski. He told the public Tuesday night that without that sentence, the Department of Education could not sign off on Christina’s memoranda of understanding.

He said the state wanted to see three completed plans and an agreement between Christina and its teacher’s union before it would approve any memoranda of understanding that did not contain a precedence provision.

“Come get our schools”

Some Christina board members, in turn, said they would not submit final plans without an approved set of memoranda from the state.

“I think it’s totally irresponsible to move forward with a plan without a signed MOU,” said board member Shirley Saffer.

Board member George Evans disagreed, saying he understood the state’s hesitance.

“It makes sense,” Evans said. “We changed the language that was in the MOU.”

The district will officially inform the state on Wednesday that it has not approve priority school plans. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but Tuesday night’s discussion pointed to a growing sense of frustration within an already disillusioned district.

And it foreshadowed, perhaps, a final showdown.

“DOE, come get our schools,” said Saffer, in a moment of brinkmanship. “I’ll give you the keys tonight.”

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