Delaware ups ante with Christina on priority schools

The Christina School District will have to close its three priority schools at the end of the school year or forfeit them to an outside provider.

The details are outlined in a letter the district received from Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy Tuesday.

The edict, however, comes with a potential out:  removing Christina from the process altogether.

Murphy said he and his staff would “welcome the opportunity” to talk with district leaders about a redistricting plan that would turn Christina’s priority schools over to the Red Clay Consolidated School District. Such a move would mirror recommendations made by the Wilmington Education Advisory Group, which was created by Governor Jack Markell last year.

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The state says it wants to talk with Christina about “the effects that a possible governance change would have on the planning process for Christina’s Priority Schools moving forward.”

The statement, though non-committal, indicates that the state may prefer to usher Christina out of the priority schools process rather than continue negotiating with a district that has proven uncooperative.

Red Clay has three priority schools of its own and has worked closely with the state on efforts to turn them around. Subbing in Red Clay for Christina would allow the state to proceed without closing or converting any priority schools, an option fraught with political and logistical complications.

The state and Christina have sparred ever since Governor Jack Markell designated six priority schools last fall. All of the schools are low-performing, low-income, and in Wilmington, which is currently split between four school districts. Three of the schools are in Christina. The other three are in Red Clay. The Colonial and Bandywine School Districts also serve Wilmington students.

The state has long threatened to close or convert Christina’s priority schools if the district did not submit plans for how to fix its priority schools. After multiple delays and considerable posturing, Christina’s school board declined to submit priority school plans at its last meeting a week ago. The board worried that the plans, as constructed, would be too costly and could lead to school staff losing their jobs.

That refusal prompted the state to act.

“As a result, according to state and federal regulations, and as discussed previously with you and your time, the Christina School District must select one of the following options for each of the Priority Schools: closure or school restructuring, such as hiring a charter or education management organization,” the letter read.

Christina must pick one of the above three options by February 27.

But there figures to be more jostling between now and then. And that jostling could fast track a plan to redraw Wilmington’s school district lines.

This is the first time the state has publicly instructed Christina to either close its priority schools, convert them into charters, or hand them over to an outside management company. It’s also the first time, however, the state has offered redistricting as a possible solution.

Last month, the Wilmington Education Advisory Group recommended that the Christina and Colonial Schools Districts give up their share of Wilmington students. That would leave the Red Clay and Brandywine School Districts as the only two in Delaware’s largest city.

In his letter, Murphy acknowledged that the Advisory Group’s suggestion “appears to have widespread support.” 

Back in January, the Advisory Group asked the state to delay its priority schools process until the group could issue a report on education in Wilmington. At the time, there was no clear tie between that report and priority schools, other than that they both addressed Wilmington schools.

Tuesday’s news, however, clarifies the connection. Indeed it appears the future of Delaware’s priority schools may hinge on whether Christina pulls out of Wilmington.

If Red Clay assumes control over Christina’s priority schools, it would give the state a much more willing partner in its efforts to turn the schools around. Red Clay submitted the plans for its three original priority schools in January and appears well on its way to receiving the roughly $3 million the state has promised the district as part of the priority schools initiative.

Whatever happens, the state hopes to have a resolution within the next two-and-a-half weeks.

John Young, a Christina School Board member who has spearheaded opposition to priority schools, took issue with the state’s February 27 deadline.

“I am disappointed by the DOE’s continued penchant for bullying on the issue as evidenced by yet another short time-line that inhibits stakeholder review and involvement,” Young said in an email.

Young and the rest of the Christina board will meet Tuesday night.

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