Commission approves Wilmington redistricting plan

 (<a href=Yellow school bus via ShutterStock) " title="l_school16x9-5" width="640" height="360"/>

(Yellow school bus via ShutterStock)

A plan to expand one of Delaware’s largest school districts and remove another from Wilmington was approved Tuesday.

The Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s plan calls for the Christina School District to leave Delaware’s biggest city. The roughly 2,500 Wilmington students attending Christina schools would be transferred to the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Under the current proposal, that transfer would happen at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. The 2016-17 and 2017-18 school year would be planning years designed to secure the necessary funding and ensure a smooth transition

The plan will be presented to the State Board of Education on Thursday. The state board will either approve or reject the plan in its entirety next month, at its regular January meeting. If OK’d by the state board, the proposal must then earn the approval of the state legislature and the governor.

The state board can reject the plan and suggest changes. Such a move would send the plan back to the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (WEIC), the 23-member committee that first formed the proposal.

In addition to its redistricting proposal, the WEIC also recommended a number of fixes for Wilmington education that are sure to draw debate. At the top of WEIC’s wish list is the institution of a weighted funding formula that would attach more state money to low-income students and English language learners.

The commission also calls for properties in New Castle County to be reassessed, for the state government to provide contingency funds to smooth out any shortages caused by redistricting, and for effected districts to be able to raise their tax rates in order to meet operating expenses. That last request is likely to be contentious. At present, school districts can only adjust tax rates by voter referendum.

From its formation, WEIC has argued that Wilmington’s education landscape is too fractured to be effective. There are four comprehensive school districts operating in the city, an arrangement that dates back to a decades-old desegregation plan. There is also a vocational-technical district in Wilmington and more than a dozen charter schools.

WEIC originally proposed that two of the comprehensive school districts—Christina and Colonial—leave the city and cede their share of students to Red Clay. Colonial, which enrolls less than 300 Wilmington students, balked at the proposal. Board members there argued they are doing a better job educating their Wilmington students than Red Clay would do.

The final proposal calls just for Christina to leave the city. That concession has left some in Wilmington angry, including state representative and WEIC member Charles Potter, D-Wilmington.

“They have no real investment in the city of Wilmington,” said Potter of the Colonial School District. “Now all of a sudden now they want to act like they want to step up to the plate.”

Potter was one of just two commission members who voted against submitting the proposal to the state board. The other, Nnamdi Chukwuocha, is a city council member in Wilmington. Chukwuocha cast his “no” vote in absentia.

Even among the committee members who voted to approve the plan, some commented that the plan did not do enough to restore Wilmington’s authority over the education of its children.

“Something I truly believe in is local control, and I don’t see this plan addressing local control for the city of Wilmington,” said commission member Ralph Ackerman. “I think you’ve shortchanged the city of Wilmington.”

Other acknowledged that the plan had flaws, but said it represented the first opportunity in a long while to improve funding for Wilmington school children and rearrange the city’s byzantine governance structure.

“I do think this a good start,” said commission member Chandra Pitts. “This is only the beginning.”

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