School district consolidation task force to hear public input Wednesday

School buses leave Caesar Rodney High School during a recent dismissal. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

CAMDEN — Delaware residents with strong opinions about merging school districts have a chance to make their voices heard Wednesday.

A task force studying district consolidation convenes at Caesar Rodney High School from 6:30 to 8.

The meeting includes a public comment portion and presentations from task force members on district structures, finances, academics and education personnel.

The Department of Education is also scheduled to provide information to attendees.

Created through legislation, the panel has for several months been examining the prospect of eliminating some of the state’s 19 school districts. It previously received comments from the public at Woodbridge and William Penn high schools.

Rep. Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, the main sponsor of the measure that established the task force, said public opinion has been mixed.

Consolidating school districts would save money and reduce red tape, supporters say, but opponents argue it is unnecessary and would eliminate a sense of community.

“They don’t think it needs to be better. They don’t want to lose local control,” Rep. Jaques said of those who oppose the idea.

Many Delawareans have strong ties to their local school districts, especially in Sussex County. That county has eight districts, including five of the six smallest districts by enrollment.

About 137,000 students are enrolled in public schools in Delaware this year. Excluding students who attend charter schools, that’s about 8,100 students per district.

Philadelphia, by contrast, has 199,000 public school students and just one school district.

Delaware’s 19 districts, three of which are vocational, range in size from 16,000 students in Red Clay to 1,200 in Polytech.

Exactly what consolidation would look like if it occurs has not been determined. However, options mentioned at a meeting earlier this month included creating countywide districts or simply combining a few districts.

Rep. Jaques said some members of the public have proposed merging the vocational districts.

A report is due to the General Assembly and Gov. John Carney at the end of January. Rep. Jaques is hopeful that if the group recommends consolidation, lawmakers will be receptive.

A 2002 report by the Department of Education, ordered by the General Assembly, concludes “there is not a compelling case to consolidate existing districts into county-wide districts in Kent and Sussex counties to achieve cost savings. Surprisingly, Delaware school districts are on average significantly larger than other districts throughout the nation (Appendix B). While the mean 2000-2001 school district size in Delaware was 5,898 the national average was only 3,210.”

A state report from 2008 spoke in favor of sharing some services but did not recommend merging individual districts.

According to the 2002 publication, creating countywide districts in Kent and Sussex would create an annual cost of $7.2 million.

Merging Appoquinimink and Colonial, Caesar Rodney and Lake Forest, and Seaford and Woodbridge, one hypothetical option presented by the finance subcommittee, would save only about $1.11 million — practically a rounding error in a $4.1 billion budget.

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