Wilmington redistricting plan clears major hurdle

    (file photo WHYY)

    (file photo WHYY)

    A plan to redraw district lines in Wilmington for the first time in over 30 years will head back to the state board after a pivotal Monday vote.

    The 23-member Wilmington Education Improvement Committee (WEIC) overwhelmingly approved a reworked version of its redistricting proposal. That proposal now heads to the Delaware State Board of Education, which must either approve or reject it before the end of the month.

    The state board meets Thursday and plans take action on the redistricting proposal then. If the board approves the measure, it will head to the General Assembly.

    The state board had previously rejected WEIC’s plan. On another occasion, the state board approved the plan, but with conditions that a majority of WEIC members found unacceptable. With an impasse looming, Governor Jack Markell arranged a March 3 meeting between the parties to form a compromise.

    That compromise became the revised proposal approved Monday by WEIC. Prior to the vote, WEIC chairman Tony Allen sounded optimistic about the new proposal’s chances in front of the state board.

    “I have every expectation if we do this the state board is likely to approve the plan,” Allen told his fellow commissioners.

    The most important changes made to the redistricting proposal revolve around who would have authority to halt the redistricting plan if needed transition money isn’t made available by the state government.

    Originally, the plan said the state board “shall” halt the redistricting plan if “necessary and sufficient” money wasn’t pledged. The state board approved the plan, but only if the word “shall” was changed to “may.” In essence, the board wanted discretion in the event of a shortfall.

    WEIC balked at that condition. Many members felt it would leave districts at the whim of the state board–and could lead to a situation where districts would have to press forward even though proper funds weren’t available.

    Markell recommended removing the state board altogether from the clause in the redistricting proposal that deals with insufficient funds. Now the new plan calls for WEIC itself to suspend implementation “if the necessary and sufficient funding” isn’t provided. Such a suspension would only come after consultation with the two school districts directly involved in the redistricting scheme. If either the Christina or Red Clay Consolidated School Districts determine that necessary funding hasn’t been made available, WEIC vows to suspend the plan.

    The state board, meanwhile, will get to meet regularly with WEIC and serve in a supervisory role.

    In essence, the power to stop the plan mid-stride now belongs to the districts–not the state board.

    Political wrangling aside, the most notable prongs of WEIC’s plans deal with redistricting and funding.

    On the redistricting side, WEIC’s proposal calls for Wilmington students in the Christina School District to be absorbed in to the Red Clay Consolidated School District. With that shift, Red Clay would educate 51 percent of all city students. A majority of Wilmington students have not been in one school district since 1981, the first year of a desegregation plan that split the city into four traditional districts (Wilmington is also covered by a county-wide vocational-technical school district). Proponents say the redistricting proposal will curb bureaucratic clutter in the city.

    WEIC also wants to create a weighted funding formula that would attach extra money to low-income students and English language learners.

    If the state board approves WEIC’s plan on Thursday, as expected, the next fight will be in the General Assembly. And it could be a doozy.

    In order for redistricting to move forward, the General Assembly must pass a joint resolution confirming the WEIC proposal. The governor must also consent.

    WEIC will also be waiting to see if the General Assembly sets aside money for a weighted funding formula in its annual budget. The governor set aside $6 million in his proposed budget to support WEIC’s work. That’s well short of the $7.5-11 million WEIC requested in its plan.

    Given the language of the reworked WEIC plan, Christina or Red Clay could choose to halt the plan if either feel the General Assembly hasn’t allocated enough money.

    Those unknowns seemed to hang over Monday’s vote.

    “It’s one more step in a long, long journey,” said Allen after the WEIC meeting. “It’s nothing we should pat ourselves on the back about.”

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