Delaware Legislature ices Wilmington redistricting plan, looks to re-examine next year [video]

Governor Jack Markell (center) holds a signed piece of legislation after the final day of the General Assembly. (Avi Wolfman-Arent

Governor Jack Markell (center) holds a signed piece of legislation after the final day of the General Assembly. (Avi Wolfman-Arent

Delaware’s Legislature punted on a plan to redraw school district lines in Wilmington, effectively pledging to reexamine the issue next year.

On its final day in session, the General Assembly passed a pair of bills that delay action on the redistricting plan until an independent group can study the plan’s fiscal ramifications.

So ends the saga of the highest-profile bill of the 2016 legislative session–and one of the most closely watched education measures in recent Delaware history. Months of political maneuvering that began at the city level, progressed to the state board, and ended at Legislative Hall in Dover resulted in measures that essentially press pause.

Officially, Senate Joint Resolution 12 and Senate Bill 300 set aside $200,000 in a “Wilmington Redistricting Transition Fund.” That money will be used to determine costs created by shifting district boundaries in Delaware’s biggest city.

That process is expected to last until next March, suggesting the redistricting proposal could be back in front of legislators next year. The legislative delay also ensures implementation of the plan will be delayed by at least year. Redistricting cannot happen now until fall of 2019 at the earliest.

Friday was hardly the breakthrough redistricting advocates wanted, but it does mean a multi-year attempt to remake Wilmington’s education landscape will at least limp forward.

“It could have gone in a very different direction,” said Gov. Jack Markell, who backs redistricting. “It could have died.”

“We knew it would be a hard road. Everything important is always hard,” said Tony Allen, chairperson of the citizen’s commission that pushed for redistricting. “We prepared ourselves for that.”

How the plan works

The redistricting plan was crafted by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (WEIC), a 23-member body chartered last year by the legislature. The WEIC proposal has two main prongs.

The first prong calls for the Christina School District–which currently represents a largely low-income section of Wilmington–to leave the city. Christina students in Wilmington would attend the neighboring Red Clay School District, which would in turn become the majority school district in Wilmington. The Brandywine and Colonial School Districts would continue to educate smaller subsections of city students.

The second prong instructed the state legislature to pilot a new state funding formula that would have attached extra money to low-income students, English language learners, and special education students in Wilmington.

As soon as the proposal hit Dover, it faced stiff resistance from legislators who represent Red Clay residents. Under the redistricting plan, Red Clay would have taken on a significant larger number of low-income, city students. Legislators carefully framed their opposition to the plan, insisting their concerns were financial. They worried aloud that any change in district lines would unduly burden Red Clay taxpayers.

WEIC asked the legislature for $7.5 million annually to seed its new funding formula and cover any costs associated with transferring students. WEIC also pledged to suspend the plan if sufficient funding weren’t made available. It even allowed the Christina and Red Clay School District to kill the plan if either felt the necessary money wasn’t provided.

Still, legislators said they were concerned the cost of the plan would “fall on the backs of Red Clay taxpayers,” as Representative Kim Williams, D-Newport, put it. Those concerns complicated the proposal’s progression through legislative hall and fractured the Democratic caucus–at least enough to force a compromise.

Still, advocates attempted to paint Friday morning’s events as a step forward given the long and tortured history of educational governance in Northern Delaware.

“There have been many hurdles and challenges along the way,” said Allen. “What today provided was an opportunity to fight on. And fight on we will.

In the early 1980s, Delaware complied with a court desegregation order by splitting Wilmington among four school districts. The newly formed Christina, Red Clay, Brandywine, and Colonial School Districts were each given a share of city students and a corresponding share of suburban turf.

That arrangement has held steady ever since, but it’s faced constant pressure. Suburban families initially resisted the blurring of city-district lines. In recent years, city advocates have complained that the arrangement creates competing layers of bureaucracy in Wilmington and forces urban children to attend suburban schools far from home.

Those city advocates became the driving force behind the latest redistricting scheme. Representatives from Wilmington were among the most vocal proponents of the WEIC plan in the General Assembly.

Other issues in Dover

WEIC was far from the only item on the the legislature’s agenda as it plowed into the wee hours of Friday morning.

Also on the education front, legislators approved a pilot program that could revamp the state’s teacher evaluation program and de-emphasize the role of standardized tests in rating Delaware educators. Under the pilot, individual administrators will now decide whether to use tests in teacher evaluations. In the past, tests were incorporated into teacher evaluations by default. The new evaluation system also lessens the weight of tests in calculating a teacher’s overall rating, if indeed an administrator chooses to use them at all.

Markell did not say whether he would support or veto the measure.

Other bills included a measure to expand the state’s needle exchange problem, another to restrict the use of shackles on juvenile suspects, and a third that doubled fines for those caught texting while driving.

Last year, lawmakers wrestled deep into the night over particulars in the state budget. There were no such squabbles this year because the General Assembly passed an operating budget earlier in the week.

Still, the General Assembly worked until 5 in the morning debating and passing scads of new laws. This legislative session was the second in the two-year General Assembly cycle, meaning all laws that went unheard would be wiped from the books.

It was also the last session for Markell as Delaware governor. In a bleary-eyed, early-morning press conference, he touted his accomplishments in the state’s high office, pointing to Delaware’s employment numbers, graduation rates, and early childhood efforts under his watch.

“I think it’s a lot of progress being made,” said Markell. “I could keep going. If you want, I will.”

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