Delaware state board approves Wilmington redistricting plan

Delaware’s State Board of Education approved a plan Thursday to redraw district lines in Wilmington and steer more money toward the city’s low-income students and English language learners.

The historic proposal passed by a 4-3 vote, ending months of back and forth between the state board and the citizen commission that drafted the plan.

“It’s the first time a state-level body has acted affirmatively on behalf of the children of Wilmington,” said Dan Rich, policy director for the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (WEIC), the body that drafted the plan. “Other than this it has always been the courts that have acted.”

The proposal now heads to the General Assembly, which must issue a joint resolution confirming the plan. Governor Jack Markell must also sign off on the plan before it’s implemented.

A 1981 desegregation plan divided Wilmington among four school districts, each controlling one swath of the city as well as some section of the surrounding suburbs. The redistricting proposal devised by WEIC, would remove one district—the Christina School District—from the city. The neighboring Red Clay Consolidated School District would absorb Christina’s share of city students. The move would put Red Clay in charge of 51 percent of Wilmington students, making it the first time one school district has educated a majority of Wilmington students in nearly four decades.

Under the proposal approved Thursday, that shift in district lines would take place in fall 2018.

WEIC’s plan also calls for a weighted funding formula that would attach extra state money to low-income students, English language learners in Wilmington, and young students with special needs. WEIC wants between $7.5 and $11 million in recurrent funding from the General Assembly to support the initiative.

It’s unclear if lawmakers—particularly those representing poorer communities in rural Delaware—will support such an allocation. Much of the recent wrangling over WEIC’s plan revolves around what might happen if money isn’t made available by the General Assembly.

The original WEIC proposal said the state board “shall” suspend the redistricting plan if “necessary and sufficient” money wasn’t provided. Unhappy with such a rigid construction, the state board asked that “shall” be changed to “may.”

WEIC commissioners refused to make that change. Many said it could expose the Christina and Red Clay School Districts to a scenario where the districts didn’t have needed money but were still required to carry on.

On March 3, Governor Jack Markell met with state board president Teri Quinn Gray and representatives from WEIC to negotiate a solution.

The state board ultimately agreed to remove itself entirely from the decision-making process should a budget shortfall arise. Under a revised proposal, WEIC will now make the call if “necessary and sufficient” monies aren’t provided. The new language says that if needed money isn’t available, WEIC “shall” suspend the implementation plan after consulting with the Christina and Red Clay School Districts. In real terms, the arrangement allows Christina or Red Clay to shut the redistricting process down if either feels the General Assembly hasn’t freed up enough money.

WEIC also agreed to consult regularly with the state board through the redistricting transition. The commission will deliver an annual evaluation of Wilmington schools to the state board and meet with the board at every major juncture throughout the redistricting process.

Still, board members reiterated skepticism Thursday, and the plan’s narrow passage reflected deep divisions in the state’s chief education body.

Board member Patrick Heffernan, who voted no, read a prepared statement summarizing past criticisms of the proposal. He doubted moving district lines would improve outcomes for Wilmington students, who have long lagged behind their peers across the state. He also decried the lack of educational specifics in the proposal.

“If Red Clay was doing significantly better than Christina in terms of low income students, maybe just moving the lines might work. But Red Clay is doing about the same as Christina with students in the city,” Heffernan said. “There is nothing in this plan that convinces me concentrating more low income students in Red Clay is the answer.”

Heffernan compared the WEIC plan to the 1981 desegregation proposal, which, he said, assumed falsely that educational progress “would just come” if New Castle County integrated its schools.

Even those who voted in favor of the plan sounded wary.

“I will vote in favor of it, but don’t come back with excuses,” said board member Jorge Melendez. “Come back with success stories.”

During the board approval process–which played out over months and involved three separate votes–WEIC and the state board clashed often. At times the spat turned ugly. At one point, WEIC members and members of the public pilloried the state board for holding their monthly meetings in a room they deemed too small. Other times WEIC members said they didn’t trust the state board’s judgment–particularly in the event of a budget shortfall.

Melendez shot back on Thursday.

“I will call you out if you made those comments, because you do not have a clue,” said Melendez.

Backers of the WEIC plan say it will reduce bureaucratic clutter by creating a dominant school district in Wilmington. They believe such a step is necessary to forge a more unified vision for the city’s long-struggling schools.

Skeptics says shuffling district lines won’t make a difference for city kids. Others worry the financial burden of a redistricting transition will fall on local taxpayers. A provision in the WEIC proposal allows Christina and Red Clay to make “limited” adjustments to their tax rates during the first year of redistricting to meet any unexpected costs. Typically, districts can only change their tax rates through voter referendum.

All those issues figure to surface in the General Assembly, where WEIC members expect a spirited fight over the redistricting plan.

“There’s still a long road ahead,” said Ken Rivera, president of the Red Clay school board and WEIC vice-chair. “This today was a very important, needed step in the process.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.