Letter: Christina can keep Delaware priority schools for 2015-16

The Delaware Department of Education will allow the Christina School District to keep its three priority schools through the 2015-16 school year.

 

The Delaware Department of Education will allow the Christina School District to keep its three priority schools through the 2015-16 school year, ending, or at least stalling, a monthslong conflict between the two sides over how to turn around the trio of troubled schools.

That’s according to an email board president Fred Polaski sent to fellow board members Saturday morning and obtained by Newsworks/WHYY on Tuesday.

The letter summarized two meetings–one last Wednesday and one last Friday–between representatives from Christina, the Delaware Department of Education, and Governor Markell’s office.

The sides agreed that Christina’s priority schools will remain in district control, that the school’s administrators will be allowed to stay in their current roles, and that teachers will not need to re-apply for their jobs, according to Polaski.

“There was agreement that the teachers can all stay,” Polaski wrote. “No reapplication process.”

The fate of administrators and teachers had triggered a major stand-off between Christina and the Department of Education.

The letter represents Polaski’s account of the negotiations, not a final negotiated agreement. Polaski said Tuesday that the two sides were still working on a final pact to be presented at the next Christina board meeting on Tuesday, March 10. He said he could not comment publicly until then.

“If you saw the email you know as much as anybody else knows,” Polaski said.

Mary Kate McLaughlin, the Department of Education’s chief of staff, also stressed that there were “no final agreements” in an email.

The lack of finality did not prevent Christina’s board members from celebrating what they took to be a successful turn in their tussle with state officials. 

“They have been inching toward capitulation for months,” said board member Harrie Ellen Minnehan. “I just don’t think [Governor Jack] Markell wants to get into a messy fight right now.”

The state originally wanted to shake up staffing and leadership at the three struggling inner-city schools, but Christina rejected the state’s conditions. In early February, state officials said Christina would have to close the schools, convert them to charters, or hand them over to an outside management company because of its refusal to budge.

“It appears that by resisting these pernicious plans, we have secured stability, and that was the number one goal,” said board member John Young. “That’s a huge victory for the kids, the families, and the community.”

That stability, however, is temporary and conditional.

Polaski’s letter indicates that Christina’s priority schools–and indeed all five of its Wilmington schools–will be transferred to the Red Clay Consolidated School District as early as 2016-17. That would be in accordance with recommendations made by the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee (WEAC) and endorsed by many community members.

“All discussion [sic] were from the perspective that the WEAC recommendations will begin to be implemented for the 2016-17 school year, making 2015-16 a transition year,” Polaski wrote.

The blog Exceptional Delaware orginally reported that Christina would lose its schools to Red Clay on Monday, citing an anonymous source within the Department of Education.

Such a solution would deliver to the state what it wanted from the get-go: major structural changes at Christina’s lowest-performing schools. Although it was assumed those changes would take place via a priority schools plan, it now appears they will take place via a redistricting effort.

Such an effort would require legislative approval. Multiple politicians, including House education committee chair Earl Jaques, have lobbied for a plan that would remove Christina from Wilmington.

The Christina school board is now expected to vote on the new arrangement at its next meeting, which will be held on Tuesday, March 10. The resolution would establish temporary, one-year agreements for the three priority schools and keep them in Christina’s control.

Polaski’s letter also indicated that Christina will still see some of the funding promised to it as part of the priority schools initiative. Christina sent budget proposals for each of the three schools. In it, the district asks for about $4.2 million in priority school funding.

The state originally promised roughly $3 million to Christina and another $3 million to the Red Clay for its three priority schools.

Polaski said the state’s response to Christina’s budget plans was “positive” and that the Department of Education would “fund those initiatives that make sense for 2015-16.”

The latest negotiation represents a final twist in one of Delaware’s stranger educational sagas. Last September, Governor Markell named six priority schools in Wilmington and said the state would work with local officials to fix them. The orginal proposal insisted on new leadership at the schools, big pay days for the new principals, and major staff shakeups.

The state plans encountered strong resistance. Red Clay eventually agreed to a series of plans for its three priority schools, but with ammendments. Christina never submitted plans. As a consequence, the state said Christina would have to relinquish control of its priority schools by either closing them, converting them to charters, or handing them over to an outside management company.

In the meantime, a long-discussed plan to remove Christina from Wilmington and transition its schools to Red Clay gained momentum. As it did, a fourth option emerged: transfer Christina’s schools to Red Clay.

That fourth option is a long way from fruition, but it allows both sides to claim victory. The state will get to shake up the schools it wanted to shake up while Christina can claim to have shielded its staff and administration from replacement.

In his letter, Polaski called Friday’s negotiation a “very successful meeting” and said “it is very clear that Markell wants to use the WEAC recommendations to avoid a major confrontation on Stubbs, Bayard and Bancroft and this approach allows CSD to continue the efforts at the 3 schools for 2015-16, with our Principals in charge.”

This is a developing story. Check back for more.

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