Lawmakers vote to abolish State Board of Education

 

DOVER — The executive director of the Delaware Board of Education says she was caught off-guard by lawmakers voting to get rid of the group.

The board was one of several casualties of May 30’s meeting of the Joint Finance Committee.

While that action could still be undone it appears for now the long-standing group is going away.

“This action on Tuesday was very much a surprise to the board,” Donna Johnson, the board’s director since 2011, said last week. “We had not received any communication from them or any request for information at all.”

First formed at least 142 years ago the Delaware Board of Education has a host of duties: Approving regulations, authorizing new charter schools, receiving federal Perkins Grants and hearing appeals from the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association and local school boards.

Although it works closely with the Department of Education, the board is distinct from the agency.

While the decision to eliminate the board at least outwardly stems from a desire to save money, Ms. Johnson said the cut would not help the state’s budget hole.

“The state board actually does a lot of things under its responsibilities and by cutting that $213,000 you’re actually cutting more money long term than you’re saving with your short-term cut,” she said.

The board was allocated $223,000 in the current fiscal year, with about $91,000 of that funding going to pay Ms. Johnson’s salary.

JFC co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, expressed confidence the board could be done away with through epilogue language in this year’s budget bill, but the multitude of duties handled by the board appears to make that unlikely, something noted by the other co-chair, Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.

Rep. Melanie Ceorge Smith

According to Ms. Johnson, the group approves key requirements such as graduation standards. It is responsible for granting final approval for charters in every district except Red Clay Consolidated School District, which has opted to handle authorization itself.

Additionally, eliminating the board could put the $4.2 million in Perkins Grants the state is receiving in jeopardy, Ms. Johnson said.

“If we did not have a state board we would not have an identified eligible agency for Perkins Grants,” she said.

The board consists of seven members appointed by the governor, including the secretary of education, and meets monthly.

It has been criticized for what detractors say is a tendency to operate behind closed doors and overstep its boundaries.

“I am extremely, extremely, extremely disappointed by the lack of transparency by the board when it comes to commenting on legislation or taking positions on legislation,” Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, said in March. “I’m quite frankly rather frightened by that.”

The group was reviewed by the Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee earlier this year and while the committee considered axing it entirely, members ultimately went in a different direction.

Lawmakers recommended at the time making the board’s duties better defined and its meetings more accessible to the public.

That did not stop JFC from creating a more drastic proposal two months later.

There was little discussion on the vote last week, which passed 10-1, with one legislator abstaining due to a potential conflict of interest.

Ms. Johnson said board members have been reaching out to JFC to ask it to reconsider the decision. She said she was “excited” to implement the changes recommended by the Sunset Committee, starting meetings later and possibly holding gatherings in different counties and adding non-voting members.

“We feel now more than ever it’s really important to have that citizens’ voice serving as a check and balance,” she said.

Dan Shelton, superintendent of the Capital School District, said in an email he was unsure of how eliminating the board would impact school districts.

Approving regulations could be transferred to the Department of Education, he said, noting another agency or group would have to handle appeals.

Gov. John Carney in a statement avoided mention of the board, noting only that lawmakers should consider his budget proposal and not a “short-term, short-sighted solution.”

Teri Quinn Gray, president of the board, could not be reached for comment.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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