Christina district earns another Delaware priority schools delay

Christina school district now has more time to negotiate with the state officials, thanks to a politician’s intervention.

More than four months of wrangling between the Delaware Department of Education and the Christina School District over how to fix three low-achieving schools will last at least another week.

This after an eleventh-hour phone call between State Senator Bryan Townsend and Mike Barlow, the governor’s chief of staff, convinced the Christina school board to table its scheduled vote on the matter.

Christina operates three of the state’s six priority schools, which have been identified by the Department of Education as low-performing and in need of intervention. The exact format of that intervention has been the subject of intense public debate since Governor Jack Markell introduced his priority schools initiative last September.

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Just last week the Christina board authorized a team to negotiate memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with the state that would outline the turnaround processes at each school. The board was then expected to vote on those memoranda at a Tuesday night board meeting.

Vote tabled

The board tabled its vote after it received news, mid-meeting, that the Governor’s office would allow Christina extra time to discuss its MOUs. The temporary reprieve came courtesy of State Senator Bryan Townsend, who called the Governor’s staff during the meeting to request the extension.

“The [Department of Education] will continue to work with you if you don’t approve the MOUs tonight,” Townsend told the board.

His interjection represented yet another unexpected turn in a negotiation that has lasted longer than anticipated. The Red Clay School District, which operates the three other priority schools, approved an MOU in mid-December. Christina, meanwhile, has received multiple extensions. The board decided Tuesday it will not vote on any memoranda until January 20.

Board members said they needed more time to gather community input on the priority school memoranda. One board member, John Young, cited a recent letter written by the WIlmington Education Advisory Committee, which is asking Markell to delay his priority schools initiative until it can issue recommendations.

“A commitment to no one”

Though the district now has extra time to deliberate, it’s unclear what it can accomplish with that time. Through negotiation with the state, Christina has already eliminated some of the more contentious items on the state’s priority schools wish list.

The state, for instance, wanted to remove the priority schools’ acting principals and pay their replacements at least $160,000. Neither of those clauses are in the memoranda the board was supposed to vote on Tuesday. Gone too is the requirement that the priority schools eliminate half their instructional staff.

Instead of those proposals, the current memoranda contain considerable ambiguity. The MOUs say the state and district will work jointly to pick school leaders. Those leaders will then have the authority to handle staffing. The MOUs do not guarantee that acting school leaders will retain their positions, a point of contention for some board members.

“It sounds like we’re coming of our negotiations with a commitment to no one,” said Young.

The state says that if Christina does not develop amenable priority school plans it will either take over the schools, close them, or turn them over to charter operators. That threat still looms, even as Christina maneuvers for more concessions.

Said Fred Polaski, Christina’s board president, “The question in my mind is:  When will they stop providing us more time?”

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