After weeks of debate, the Delaware legislature’s House Education Committee finally approved a motion to release legislation that would redraw school district lines in Wilmington.
The legislation sponsored by Rep. Charles Potter Jr., D-Wilmington, would approve the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s (WEIC) redistricting plan to remove Christina School District from Wilmington and hand over its students to the Red Clay Consolidated School District.
On Wednesday, the legislation received the eight votes it needed to be voted on in the General Assembly. It still must pass in the House and the Senate and be signed by Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware to officially take effect.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Potter said. “It’s the right thing for the young people because they deserve an opportunity, and this legislation does not just take the primary city of Wilmington but young people throughout the state of Delaware.”
The WEIC plan was drafted by a 23-member commission appointed by Markell as a solution to improve low-performing, low-income schools in Wilmington.
It would be the first time district boundary lines in Wilmington have changed in more than three decades.
The Christina School District, which occupies a largely low-income swath of Wilmington, would leave the city, and its students would attend the Red Clay Consolidated School District. More than half of Wilmington children would live in the redrawn Red Clay district. Under WEIC’s proposal, the transition would take place in time for the 2018-19 school year.
The legislation was joined by an amendment on Wednesday that clarifies the bill is not intended to commit the General Assembly to any action or agreement beyond confirmation of the State Board of Education’s approval of re-districting.
Those who support the legislation say they believe the current district lines are outdated, and low-income students need additional state money for their education due to the struggles they face outside school.
“The need to help young people is more important than anything at all. We know Wilmington was graduating at a rate of over 90 percent before segregation and we’re down to 50 percent—so we went backwards,” Potter said.
“Look at the results in the streets of Wilmington, look at the results on the streets of Dover, Seaford. If you don’t educate young people, they don’t have reasoning or understanding. What’s going to happen? The prison cost is going to go up and we don’t need that.”
Most Wilmington based legislators say they support the bill. Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said the state will not abandon the needs of other children in the state. She said passing this legislation is just the first step to create better outcomes for low income children.
“We need to put our money where our mouths are and come up and find the funding. We have got to get this right,” Keeley said. “We’ve lost two and a half generations…Our education system has failed them, so they’ve turned to a life of crime. I’m going to fight to do my best to make sure the funding is there.”
During deliberations on Wednesday Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington, pleaded with her colleagues to support of Potter’s legislation.
“I humbly ask to listen to our point of view and to support HR12 by allowing it to be released,” she said. “Please let this out of committee let us go forward and do what we have to do.”
But the plan also has received abundant opposition, and the State Board of Education scarcely approved the redistricting proposal in March, shortly before its authority to do so would have expired.
On Wednesday, Republicans left the chambers even before public comment began prior to the vote. During the motion to lift the legislation off the table there weren’t enough votes because some of the legislators weren’t in attendance. After a few minutes the others entered the room and a vote was made to lift it off the table. Those who didn’t support it decided to clear the room.
One of the concerns of those who oppose the plan is the financial burden of such an undertaking. Markell allocated $6 million in his proposed budget to support the WEIC proposal and the weighted funding formula contained within. WEIC said about $15 million is needed for the project.
Legislators representing constituents in the Red Clay School District say they’re concerned the district will be forced to finance the project if the state doesn’t provide enough funds.
“Are we going to put the balance on the back to the residents of the district?” said Joseph Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, whose constituents live in Red Clay’s district. “We just passed a referendum. I don’t think it’s fair to impose additional costs on the residents in a district that’s already sending $3 million away to the districts that have less income.”
He said there also are better ways to spend the money so students in all parts of the state can receive the help it needs.
“There are students who are in need, there are a lot of ESL students in Sussex County that need as much help as the ones in New Castle County, and we don’t have that much money to do the job that would entail,” Miro said.
During the chamber discussion Rep. Kimberly Williams, D-Newport/Stanton, who also has constituents in Red Clay’s district said she too has concerns about funding the initiative and said she doesn’t support districts being supported by increased taxes.
Many others worry there’s not a clear plan in place to ensure redistricting will be successful. Before a debate began in the House chambers, committee chairman Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, gave a grave warning.
“An idea without a plan is just a dream…keep that in mind,” he said.
Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte/Brandywine Hundred/Edgemoor, said she’s concerned other kids who need funding aren’t receiving it and there’s not concrete research on how to increase academic achievement.
“It’s like, ‘We’re going to move them over to this district and it’s going to happen,’ and we know it doesn’t just happen,” she said.
Potter argues it’s time to take the leap for education.
“There’s enough of the study of the study of the study, it’s time for action and today was a great action step,” he said.