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Wilmington redistricting plan hits snag in Delaware legislature

Delaware’s House Education Committee has delayed action on a bill to redraw school district lines in Wilmington.

The committee tabled a joint resolution endorsing the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s (WEIC) redistricting plan.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Charles Potter Jr., D-Wilmington, made the unusual maneuver of announcing he would table the bill as soon as he introduced it. Perhaps as a result, no legislators questioned Potter about the bill–a customary practice in such hearings–and only a couple even commented publicly on the resolution.

It was an oddly quiet session given the legislation’s high profile, and it suggested there will be more behind-the-scenes wrangling before the bill receives a true vetting from the legislature.

After the committee hearing ended, Potter said an amendment to the bill would surface by week’s end and that the House Education Committee would reconsider the resolution next week. Potter did not say what concerns that amendment would address.

“As soon as we get the amendment done you guys will get it,” Potter told reporters.

WEIC chairperson Tony Allen believes the coming amendment will “make crystal clear” that by approving the resolution lawmakers aren’t also committed to funding the WEIC proposal, which calls for the state to provide extra money for low-income students in Wilmington.

In all, the bill’s halting first appearance before the state legislature indicated a bitter fight ahead.

The WEIC plan, drawn up by a 23-member commission appointed by the Governor, faces two primary challenges in the legislature. First, the joint resolution debated Wednesday must pass both legislative chambers and be signed by Governor Jack Markell. The second question is whether the legislature will steer extra money to low-income students and English language learners in Wilmington. WEIC’s proposal calls for a weighted funding formula that would attach more state money to disadvantaged city students.

Notably, the WEIC proposal would rearrange district boundary lines in Wilmington for the first time in more than three decades. The Christina School District, which occupies a largely low-income swath of Wilmington, would leave the city. The children in its charge would attend the Red Clay Consolidated School District. Just over half of Wilmington children would live in the redrawn Red Clay district. Under WEIC’s proposal, that transition would happen in time for the 2018-19 school year.

There are four school districts in Wilmington, the result of a 1981 desegregation plan. Legislators and advocates from Wilmington backed the WEIC plan during Wednesday’s debate. Many see the proposal as a critical opportunity to boost funding and shake up the educational landscape in a city long marred by violence, poverty, and poor academic outcomes.

Proponents of WEIC argue the arrangement is outdated and further fractures the Wilmington community. They also argue students in high-poverty areas need added state money to make up for the disadvantages they face outside school.

“Too many of our kids come to school behind,” said Wilmington City Council president Theo Gregory in remarks before the General Assembly. “We need to find a way for them to catch up. That takes extra resources.”

They also argued the state’s unwillingness to invest in education for the poorest children adds to health care and prison costs down the road.

“We’ve lost two generation, two generations of kids. I see it every single day. And we pay for it every single day,” said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington. She added, “We need to dig in…to find the damn money to make this right.”

Seemingly since its inception, the WEIC plan has faced significant opposition and stirred strong emotions. The plan endured a months-long fight in front of the State Board of Education. The board narrowly approved the redistricting proposal in March, shortly before its authority to do so would have expired.

The State Board of Education and WEIC representatives tussled over who would have the authority to kill the redistricting plan if sufficient funds to finance the transition weren’t approved by the General Assembly. Eventually the two sides decided that the impacted school districts in Wilmington would have the power to halt the plan if they didn’t feel enough money had been made available.

The primary concerns at this point appear to be money-related.

Governor Jack Markell allocated $6 million in his proposed budget to support the WEIC proposal and the weighted funding formula contained within. WEIC members say approximately $15 million is needed. WEIC wants to establish a pilot funding formula in Wilmington, as well as a pilot program in Kent and Sussex County.

The uncertainty around funding has many lawmakers nervous, particularly those representing constituents in the Red Clay School District. They say they’re worried the district will have to pick up the tab if the state doesn’t provide needed money.

“I can’t go out to my constituents and say we didn’t get what we were promised,” said Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Middle Run Valley, who represents parts of the Red Clay and Christina School Districts.

Ramone believes it will be difficult for any lawmaker representing Red Clay residents to support the proposal.

“You show me the representative of Red Clay who votes for this bill and I’ll show you the representative who will be out of a job,” Ramone said.

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