Delaware, Christina School District reach priority schools compromise

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

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

Three struggling Wilmington schools will remain part of the Christina School District for the 2015-16 school year according to plan approved Tuesday by the district’s board.

The Delaware Department of Education indicated last month that the trio of so-called “priority schools” would be closed or turned over to outside operators. After continued negotiation, however, the sides agreed 2015-16 will be a transition year, with the schools likely to become part of the Red Clay Consolidated School District in 2016-17.

Until then, administrators and staff at Christina’s priority schools will keep their jobs and the buildings will remain open.

The agreement largely mirrors one outlined by board president Fred Polaski in a letter to fellow board members sent February 28 and obtained by Newsworks/WHYY last Monday.

Tuesday’s accord, however temporary, comes after months of bickering between Christina and the state over how to fix the low-performing schools.

Months of bickering

Last September, Governor Jack Markell, D-Delaware, named six priority schools—three in Christina and three in Red Clay. He said the state would pump extra money to help the schools as long as they committed to new initiatives and potential staffing changes.

Red Clay largely accepted the bargain, but Christina demurred, delayed, and ultimately resisted. Christina’s school board insisted, for instance, that administrators and staff at the three schools be allowed to remain.

The impasse prompted state officials to say Christina must either close its priority schools, convert them to charters, or surrender them to an outside management company. It also floated a vague, fourth option: arrange a time to talk about how potential redistricting could alter the priority schools process.

Redistricting solution

Four school districts share jurisdiction in Wilmington, but local leaders have long said the number should be lower. In January, a commission formed by Markell suggested that Christina and another school district forfeit their share of Wilmington students to Red Clay.

The plan is still preliminary and would ultimately require legislative approval. But with momentum building for Christina’s withdrawal from Wilmington, the state and district decided to stall any major disruptions at Christina’s priority schools and instead focus on a potential transition to Red Clay.

The placeholder agreement passed Tuesday commits about $1.3 million in priority schools funding to the three Christina schools. Most of that will go toward extending the school year by ten days and the school day by 30 minutes. The state had initially pledged about $3 million per year to support priority school efforts in Christina.

The Delaware Department of Education will also pay for an extra administrative position at each of the three schools, although the plans do not specify how much that person will make. Dubbed the “transitional assistant principal,” this new administrator would be recruited by state officials and selected by a panel made up of state and district representatives.

The agreement leaves much unanswered. Presumably, for instance, it would have to be renewed or renegotiated if the state does not redraw Wilmington’s district lines by 2016-17.

“We could be sitting on a year to year basis for five-to-six years with the schools sitting in limbo,” said board member Shirley Saffer.

“Christina has not stepped up”

Also unclear is what will happen to the schools if indeed they became part of Red Clay. One board member, George Evans, suggested Red Clay would not be a good steward of the schools

“If I’m going to transfer my children who I love dearly to another adult, I’d want to make sure they’re well provided for,” said Evans.

He also admonished his district for approving a plan that puts it on a path to ceding control of its priority schools.

“Christina has not stepped up to take care of its own,” Evans said. “Instead it has shucked its responsibility.”

Despite those concerns, the school board approved the plan by a vote of four “yes,” one “no,” and two abstentions.

Many in the “yes” camp noted that the plan would provide temporary stability at the three beleaguered schools.

Said board member David Resler, “This isn’t a bad deal. We’re getting to continue on in some fashion. These schools will remain open.”

Christina’s long priority schools fight now takes a back seat to more urgent concerns. In late February, district voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase to benefit Christina schools. District leaders indicated the defeat could lead to deep cuts in services.

At least one observer, State Senator Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, connected Christina’s obstinance over priority schools to the recent voter backlash.

“People don’t want to see the negativity. They’re not inspired by that,” Townsend said. “They want to see ideas. That’s what they want to see. I don’t think it’s a big ask. I think that’s what leadership is.”

Townsend’s comments indicated that the political residue of Christina’s priority schools saga may linger, even as the confrontation itself fades.

The Christina board approved a new referendum Tuesday night that will take place May 27.

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