Christina district approves Delaware priority schools framework

    The Christina School District Board of Education board approved an agreement Tuesday that outlines how it will turn around three struggling, Wilmington schools.

    The motion passed 4-3 after a lengthy–often bitter–debate that followed a still-lengthier negotiation with state officials.

    The so-called “priority schools” have been the focus of intense scrutiny since Governor Jack Markell labeled them as such last September. The state department of education said it would devote extra resources to the schools if Christina agreed to certain structural changes.

    It made the same bargain with the Red Clay School District over its three priority schools. Red Clay agreed to a memorandum of understanding before Christmas. Christina, however, has been far less amenable.

    Ambiguity remains

    For more then four months now, the state and district have wrestled over what those turn arounds will look like. Tuesday’s agreement provides the clearest roadmap yet, although there are still considerable ambiguity in the three memoranda of understanding approved by the Christina board.

    There is, for instance, no clarity on who will run the Stubbs Elementary School, Bancroft Elementary School, and Bayard Middle School. Christina board members wanted the existing principals to remain in place. They settled for language that says the district and state must “agree on the selection” of the leader.

    The memoranda also create a dual-leader model at Stubbs and Bancroft with a school leader to oversee instruction and an executive director to oversee other school functions. That structure could allow the district to retain its current principals by making them executive directors while the state gets to pursue the sweeping instructional changes it seeks.

    The two sides reached a similar compromise over staffing. The school leaders will now have control over hiring, meaning they could clear house. But there will be no mandate that they let a certain number of teachers go.

    Christina did–after intense negotiation and multiple delays from the state–manage to remove some of the most prescriptive language included in the original memoranda of understanding presented by the state. No longer will the schools have to fire half the staff at each school, hire new leaders, or pay those leaders more than the usual principal pay–all stipulations that the state department of education originally endorsed.

    “The [memorandum of understanding] we negotiated with the department of education wasn’t as good as it could have been,” said Fred Polaski, president of the Christina school board. “[But] I believe the department of education moved a lot more than we did. We moved it toward where we wanted it to be.”

    “You have negotiated a surrender”

    Some of his colleagues, and many of the audience members, disagreed.

    “You have tried, and we appreciate it,” said Christian Fullerton, a kindergarten teacher at Stubbs Elementary School. “But as it stands, you have negotiated a surrender.”

    Those opposed to the memoranda said it left the state too much wiggle room to interpret clauses as it sees fit and, perhaps, proceed with the turnaround plans it originally envisioned. “I’m afraid we’re going to enter into an [memorandum of understanding] and find out we got tricked in the end,” said board member John Young, a leading voice of the opposition.

    Christina has already received multiple extensions from the state, and many pressed the board to continue fighting until it received total capitulation on key points like teacher and principal retention.

    “Mark my words:  They are starting to panic. There’s a fear in their eyes,” said State Representative John Kowalko, a vocal opponent of the priority schools plan. He added, “They’re hoping you’ll blink. And you haven’t blinked. And I don’t want you to blink.”

    Kowalko, who was recently removed from the house’s education committee, called Markell and Secretary of Education Mark Murphy “shylock,” and insisted the state could not compel the district to enact reforms. His comments met with loud applause from the audience, many of whom were teachers.

    Testing the limits

    Despite Kowalko’s fiery declarations, many board members feared the priority schools would suffer a worse fate if the board held out further. The state has said it will either close the priority schools, convert them to charters, or hand them over to an outside management company if the district fails to act. Several board members took that threat seriously.

    “The toys belong to the department of education,” said board member Harrie-Ellen Minnehan. “And the playing field is theirs.”

    Even Young, the most outspoken opponent of the memoranda, admitted that the state may not yield forever. “There’s a limit there,” Young said. “I don’t know where that limit is.”

    The memoranda of understanding will now go to the state department of education for review and possible approval. If the state approves the memos, Christina will then have to devise and sign off on a set of more detailed plans for each priority school. By the state’s current time line, those plans will be completed and approved by February 3.

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