Wilmington redistricting plan in peril after committee rejects state board demand

    (<a href=Yellow school bus via ShutterStock)" title="l_school16x9-5-1" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Yellow school bus via ShutterStock)

    A ballyhooed plan to redraw school district lines in Wilmington and increase state funding for city students may be headed toward stalemate.

    This after the Wilmington Education Improvement Committee (WEIC) refused Wednesday to change one word in its original redistricting proposal, despite requests to that end from the Delaware State Board of Education. WEIC, a collection of local administrators and advocates assembled by Governor Jack Markell, instead voted 15-6 to resubmit its original plan to the state board.

    Last week at its regular monthly meeting, the state board approved that plan, but only on the condition that a single word be changed. The word change would have given the state board more authority in deciding whether or not to halt the redistricting plan mid-stride.

    WEIC members felt the change would have allowed the state board to keep the redistricting plan afloat even if sufficient state money wasn’t available to ensure a steady roll out. They feared districts involved in the plan could be left hanging. WEIC members instead favored a so-called “kill switch,” language that would halt the redistricting plan automatically if “necessary and sufficient funding” wasn’t made available by the state’s General Assembly.

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    “It puts our district and the other districts at too much risk of an unfunded mandate,” said Joseph T. Laws, president of the Colonial School District, one of four traditional school districts serving Wilmington students.

    Per Wednesday’s vote, the original, unchanged WEIC redistricting plan now heads back to the State Board of Education, which must approve it before March 31. If it does not approve the plan before then, the state board’s authority to redraw school district lines in Wilmington will expire.

    WEIC’s vote is now the latest volley in an escalating political battle, one that threatens to derail a plan many have called the most ambitious attempt to reform Wilmington’s education landscape in 40 years.

    The WEIC redistricting plan has two major prongs.

    First, it calls for the Christina School District to leave Wilmington and for its students to be transferred to the neighboring Red Clay Consolidated School District. That shift would place a slight majority of Wilmington students in Red Clay. Advocates of the plan say this part is crucial to creating accountability and uniformity in a city that has been split into four traditional school districts since an early 1980s desegregation plan.

    Second, WEIC’s plan demands a weighted funding formula whereby low-income students and English Language Learners would receive a greater share of state money.

    State board members have long been skeptical of the plan, mostly because they say it doesn’t clearly define how those changes would improve classroom learning. They also want to insert language that would give future iterations of the state board increased power over the plan’s future fate.

    At the moment, the WEIC proposal says the state board “shall” suspend implementation of the redistricting plan “if necessary and sufficient funding and transition supports are not provided.” The state board approved the WEIC plan last week, but on the condition that the word “shall” be changed to “may.”

    The state board rendered its conditional approval by a 4-3 vote. The original plan–without the wording change–failed 3-4.

    State board members defended their conditional approval two ways.

    First, they said the language would give future boards the necessary power to survey the situation if needed money isn’t available, rather than just killing it outright. 

    “In our mind this is an unnecessary kill switch,” said state board president Teri Quinn Gray in remarks to the WEIC on Wednesday. She said the clause provides an “easy and expeditious way out” that “serves no one.”

    State board members also argued, however, that if a “kill switch” were attached to money concerns there should also be one related to results. In other words, there should be some language that halts the redistricting plan if the extra money isn’t improving student outcomes.

    “We must allow ourselves to set progress and measures around student indicators,” said Gray. “We do not want unfunded mandates or funded prerogatives.”

    Gray’s argument did not sway WEIC members, who say the possibility of a “unfunded mandate” is anathema to the districts involved in the redistricting plan. By sending the plan back unchanged, WEIC members are essentially wagering they can change at least one state board member’s mind before the March 31 deadline.

    The state board is scheduled to meet next on Thursday, March 17. WEIC members floated the idea of a special convening of the state board prior to that. Gray said it was something the board could consider.

    If the state board ultimately approves the WEIC plan–or some version of it–the proposal would then head to the state legislature. The General Assembly would have to approve the plan and earmark money for it to move forward. So too would Governor Jack Markell before even the first stages could begin.

    As constructed, the WEIC redistricting plan doesn’t call for any schools to change district hands until 2018.

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