Christina school district to talk redistricting with Delaware Department of Education

 Christina School Board meeting (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Christina School Board meeting (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

A conversation that began months ago over how to fix three, low-performing Wilmington schools has led to talk of the Christina School District leaving the city altogether.

So goes one of the stranger sagas in Delaware’s recent education history.

The Christina School District Board of Education elected Tuesday night to talk with the state Department of Education about a plan that would take Christina out of Wilmington and give its city schools to the nearby Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Politicians and advocates have long argued that Wilmington–which is split into four school districts–should redraw its district lines. That notion reemerged last month when a committee formed by Governor Jack Markell recommended that the city only have two school districts.

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Now state officials have injected the idea into a political debate, dangling it as a potential remedy.

The Christina district and the state have clashed for months over how to fix the district’s three priority schools–so labeled because of poor test scores, and the state’s insistence that each needs major intervention. Disagreement between the two sides crested over the last seven days.

Last week, the school district board refused to submit turnaround plans for its priority schools. In a letter Tuesday the state said the district must now either close its priority schools, convert them into charter schools, or hand them over to an outside management company. It also said the district must choose one of the three options by February 27.

In the same letter, however, it referred to redistricting recommendations made by the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee. The committee suggested Christina and the Colonial School District leave Wilmington, with Red Clay taking over Christina’s schools.

The Red Clay district also has three priority schools, and has been far friendlier to the Delaware Department of Education during the priority schools process. If Red Clay took over Christina’s turf, the state could, conceivably, swap an ally for a belligerent as it pushes forward on priority schools.

In its Tuesday letter, the state said only that it would “welcome the opportunity to meet” with Christina about “the effect that a possible governance change would have on the planning process for Christina’s Priority Schools moving forward.”

That statement leaves much unanswered.

Redrawing district lines, for example, would take years and require legislative consent. The priority schools initiative is supposed to start this fall.

“I see that as probably a four- or five-year process,” said board president Fred Polaski. “We’re more focused on what will happen at these three schools next year.”

The letter also does not mention what role, if any, Red Clay would play in future discussions between Christina and the state.

Despite the ambiguity, the Christina School Board authorized Polaski and superintendent Freeman Williams to pow wow with state officials on the matter.

“I think the letter gives the district the opportunity tonight to have important dialogue,” Williams said.

State Senator Bryan Townsend urged the board to talk with state officials about redistricting. “I do believe the intent of the letter is to offer an alternative to the priority schools framework,” Townsend said. He also intoned that Christina would lose political allies if it continued to play a “game of chicken” with the state and did not come to the table.

Some members of the Christina board said the state’s offer to talk redistricting meant it was looking for an out, and that the state wouldn’t follow through on threats to close or convert priority schools.

Others, however, were less sanguine. Board member George Evans said that by considering a plan to leave Wilmington, Christina was abandoning some of its neediest students.

“This whole discussion just has [left] such a bad taste in my mouth,” Evans said. “How can we just dump those children?”

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