Delaware State Board rejects Wilmington redistricting plan

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An ambitious attempt to redraw district lines in Wilmington and map the city’s educational future hit a snag Thursday.

The State Board of Education declined to approve the Wilmington Education Improvement Committee’s redistricting plan, directing WEIC to make changes before a potential re-vote. Board members argued the plan didn’t focus enough on educational outcomes and worried the state wouldn’t be able to fund it.

WEIC—a 23-person assemblage of politicians, parents, and advocates—now has 60 days to review and revise the plan. WEIC chair Tony Allen said Thursday that the group intends to submit a new plan.

“They want more. We will give them more,” Allen said. “And then we’ll see if they act.”

The State Board would likely vote on the resubmitted plan in mid-March.

The current plan would remove the Christina School District from Wilmington and transfer its 2,500 or so city students to the Red Clay Consolidated School District. Such a move would mark the first rearrangement of district lines since an early 80’s desegregation plan split the city into four districts.

The plan’s backers say it would reduce bureaucratic disarray in a city where charters, vocational schools, and traditional districts all educate relatively small chunks of the student population. Under the new boundaries, half of the city students would attend Red Clay schools. Allen believes that shift would “consolidate accountability,” which would ultimately benefit city students.

“We’ve said from the start redistricting is one part of the solution. But we do think it’s the price of admission,” Allen said.

The plan, which runs nearly 200 pages and has almost 500 pages of appendices, also calls for the state to attach more funding to at-risk students and for New Castle County to reassess property values. Last week, the commission published responses to 33 questions asked by the State Board about the plan. Many of those questions revolved around how to fund the proposed three-year transition plan.

That work, however, wasn’t enough to convince board members, who said Thursday they still had doubts about the plan’s efficacy.

“To me the focus has been on redistricting,” board member Nina Lou Bunting said. “I can’t wrap my head around how that is so important to improving student outcomes.”

“This only involves two districts,” her colleague, Barbara Rutt, said. “And I’m not comfortable that’s enough for the City of Wilmington. All children need to be brought further along. We should do better and we can do better.”

In a statement, board president Terri Quinn Gray called the WEIC proposal a “positive step,” but said the “plan must have a clear impact on student learning.” She added that board has “expressed a need for clarification regarding the funding structure and its timelines as currently presented in the plan.”

An earlier draft of the WEIC plan called for the Colonial School District to cede its roughly 300 Wilmington students to Red Clay, but the Colonial school board rejected the idea. WEIC ultimately decided not to fight the district given its tiny footprint in the city and its strident opposition.

WEIC members admit the redistricting plan isn’t sufficient to reform education in a city where student outcomes have long lagged behind state averages. But they say action is better than inertia following decades of aborted attempts to improve education in Delaware’s largest city.

It’s still not known exactly how the state would fund a redistricting transition plan.

Governor Jack Markell has said he would allocate money to establish a contingency fund to cover potential costs, but it’s unclear how much he’ll commit. The governor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year is due out soon.

The commission also believes the state should establish a weighted funding formula that would attach extra dollars to English language learners and low-income students. That money could help Red Clay, which would take on a larger share of those disadvantaged students in the redistricting scheme.

The committee has also proposed empowering effected school districts to make “limited tax rate adjustments” in fiscal year 2019 in order to cover any immediate shortfalls triggered by the transition. Typically, district voters must approve any tax changes via referendum. Under WEIC’s plan, fiscal year 2019 would be the first year of redrawn district lines. Fiscal years 2017 and 2018 would be planning years.

The State Board is expected to detail in writing what exactly it wants changed about the plan prior to resubmission. That letter will be delivered by the end of January, according to a statement released by the board. WEIC will then have 60 days to respond. A response will likely come sooner, however, since the window for redrawing district lines closes March 31. If the State Board doesn’t approve a plan before then, its authority to redistrict will expire.

If the State Board does approve a revised plan before the end of March, the state General Assembly and Governor Markell must then approve a joint resolution supporting the move in order for it to take effect.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote to state board member Susan Bunting. That board member’s name is Nina Lou Bunting.

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