Wilmington redistricting plan lurches forward

 (<a href=Yellow school bus via ShutterStock) " title="l_l_school16x9-5" width="640" height="360"/>

(Yellow school bus via ShutterStock)

Delaware’s State Board of Education approved a plan Thursday that would place a majority of Wilmington students in one school district for the first time in decades.

Kind of.

After more than four hours of tense debate and rollicking public comment, the state board approved the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s (WEIC) redistricting plan with two conditions.

Condition one: The Delaware Department of Education must aprrove plans detailing how the Christina School District, which would be leaving Wilmington under the proposed plan, will turnaround three inner-city schools that would be under its control until 2018-19.

Condition two: WEIC must change language in the proposal that would give the state board more flexibility if the redistricting plan isn’t fully funded.

If it goes through, the WEIC plan would remove the Christina School District from Wilmington and ship its share of students to the neighboring Red Clay School District. Such a move would put 51 percent of city students under Red Clay’s charge. Backers say the shift is necessary to reduce bureaucratic inertia in a city that has four traditional school districts and a vocational-technical district, the result of an early 1980s desegregation plan.

In real terms, Thursday’s state board vote means the plan’s immediate future now depends on the actions of two separate bodies.

The Delaware Department of Education must approve turnaround plans for Christina’s three “priority schools,” reviving a months-long fight with the district about how best to improve the trio of low-performing schools. The state board felt those plans ought to be finalized because the current redistricting scheme request added funding for low-income students and English language learners. State board members felt Christina ought to detail how that money would be used to improve student achievement. The other four districts currently operating in Wilmington have already submitted approved plans.

The state board also asked WEIC to change one word in its current proposal. As of now, the redistricting plan says the state board “shall” suspend the redistricting plan if at any time “necessary and sufficient funding” is no longer available. The state board wants WEIC to change “shall” to “may,” a move that would give the state board more control if money isn’t available.

The WEIC–a 23-member committee of advocates, local officials, and special interest representatives–must now vote on whether to change the language as requested by the state board.

The state board’s conditional approval of the WEIC plan capped a confusing and chaotic day in Dover.

An overflow throng of WEIC supporters crowded the state board of education meeting room. Many complained that the space–which has roughly 35 seats open to the public and hosts the state board meeting every month–was too small to accommodate the crowd and discouraged public discourse.

“This was a hot mess,” said Adriana Bohm, a member of the Red Clay school board. “There’s no way people should be standing in the halls.”

Pivoting to the substance of the debate, backers of the plan argued a change was needed to disrupt the status quo in Wilmington education.

“We’re at a point where we’ve waited long enough,” said New Castle County Councilman Jea Street. “Our children have waited long enough.”

Street and others also stressed the need for a weighted funding formula that would steer more state funds to low-income students and English language learners, two groups that tend to need extra help in school. The WEIC plan calls for just such a formula to be piloted for Wilmington students in the Red Clay and Christina School Districts. Eventually, all of those students would become part of Red Clay.

“You gottta do what’s right,” said Street. “If in your heart you believe a weighted funding formula is warranted then you should vote positive.”

State Representative Charles Potter, D-Wilmington North, and State Representative Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington East, also testified in support of the WEIC proposal, along with a handful of local activists.

Despite the impassioned pleas, state board members hammered back with familiar concerns. During past discussions of the redistricting plan, the state board has questioned whether redrawing district lines will improve student outcomes. They’ve also criticized the WEIC proposal for being too thin on details when it comes to explaining how the extra money will be spent inside city classrooms.

“It’s complete as a redistricting plan,” said board member Nina Lou Bunting, who voted against the proposal. “But in my view it is not complete as far as telling us as the board of education exactly what educational initiatives are going to be adopted.”

Her colleague, Gregory Coverdale, who also voted against the plan, agreed.

“It just seems like a really big investment to ask for without details in a plan,” said Coverdale. “A lot of those details are missing.”

WEIC representatives have said in the past they want to allow districts some freedom in how they use the extra money generated by weighted funding.

Other board members, however, were swayed by WEIC’s call to action, noting that there’s been little change in Wilmington education over the last four decades.

“This is an opportunity to make systematic and cultural change,” said board member George Melendez. “This is the first step. Failure is not an option.”

Thursday’s state board meeting turned downright odd when the board recessed for 30 minutes to meet with lawyers in private. Board members said they wanted to double-check the legality of approving the WEIC plan with conditions, and better understand how they could make such a move procedurally. Observers in the audience grumbled that the sudden meeting smacked of poor transparency.

About a half hour later, the board finally voted 4-3 to approve the WEIC redistricting plan.

Even with Thursday’s conditional approval, major obstacles remain.

In particular, it’s unclear if WEIC will assent to the change in language requested by the state board. Tony Allen, WEIC’s chairperson, said the school districts involved in the redistricting plan will be reluctant to sign off. He believes they’ll fear a scenario where funding isn’t available, but the state board chooses to press on with the plan anyway. Districts may then have to squeeze money out of their local tax bases.

“They’re gonna be concerned about any sense of unfunded mandate,” said Allen after the meeting. “They just are.”

The actions by WEIC and the Delaware Department of Education must take place before March 31, or else the state board’s authority to change district lines in Wilmington will expire.

If the redistricting plan clears both those hurdles, it will then go to the General Assembly. Both chambers must approve the proposal and Governor Jack Markell must sign off before it moves forward.

For now, though, the fight over WEIC has left the State Board of Education, albeit barely. After four hours of debate, board members seemed happy to see it go.

“I just want to say thank you to the board for your perseverance over the last several hours,” said board president Teri Quinn Gray.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the Christina School Board’s role in the WEIC approval process. The board will not be voting on priority schools plans at its upcoming meeting, according to board chair Harrie Ellen Minnehan.

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