Wilmington school redistricting will impact Downstate Delaware

DOVER — A long-awaited plan for redistricting Wilmington students is likely to hinge on how it affects Downstate Delaware.

That could lead to changes in the school system and more money for schools in Kent and Sussx counties.

Wilmington has no unified school district — instead, it is served by five districts and 18 charter schools, leading to some disparities and inconsistencies.

“The current fragmentation encourages competition and displacement among district, vocational-technical (vo-tech) and charter schools,” reads a report from the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission published this month. “Cooperation, collaboration and shared learning across the sub-systems are the exception rather than the norm. Efforts to improve student learning seldom follow a uni-fied or coordinated strategy across districts and charters and even when such strategies are proposed, coordinated implementation is rare — and often resisted. Increasingly, public resources are dispersed among competing units at growing public expense.”

Formed in 2015, the commission sought to develop a plan to redraw district boundaries to better serve the state’s largest city, where poverty and violence are epidemic. The final report, approved by the State Board of Education in March, would move the Red Clay Consolidated School District to cover the portion of the city currently serviced by the Christina School District.

Legislation calling for the General Assembly to follow the recommendations of the plan was filed last week. After a committee hearing, it was tabled to allow lawmakers and other stakeholders time to work out issues and develop compromises in some areas.

Even though Gov. Jack Markell has pushed for getting the redistricting done, it is not a certainty.

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Gov. Jack Markell

While few, if any, people would argue the redistricting efforts are not well-intentioned, some legislators have questions about the practicality and equity of the plan.

The change would cost $30 million in the first two years, according to the WEIC report.

It’s worth noting 17 of the 19 sponsors of the resolution to approve the plan are from New Castle County. Some downstate legislators have objected to the fairness of the proposal, arguing there are many students in Sussex in a similar plight as those in Wilmington.

About 44 percent of Christina students are from local-income families, while 42 percent of students in Indian River and Lake Forest School Districts come from low-income households. It’s even worse farther south: Woodbridge is at 50 percent, Laurel has a poverty rate of 54 percent and Seaford has one of 55 percent.

Additionally, more than 10 percent of students in Seaford and Indian River are defined as English lan-guage learners.

Some members of the General Assembly have said they would not support a plan that does not kick some funding downstate to aid needy students in Sussex.

Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he will wait to examine the WEIC plan more thoroughly until it passes the House (if it does) but would not support a proposal that does not benefit Sussex.

Any plan that does not provide resources for areas other than northern New Castle County is likely to fail to garner the needed votes, he said.

Minority Leader Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford, took a similar view, noting poverty is far from unique to Wilmington.

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Rep. Daniel Short

“There’s no difference between that kid in Seaford and that kid in Wilmington,” he said.

House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat who is supportive of the proposal, said the resolution will be heard in committee Wednesday.

Calling this the “last shot,” he said he hopes the measure passes but cannot make guarantees.

“This whole process has been a lot tougher because we’re in the final months of the current administra-tion,” he said.

The resolution will contain at least one amendment that seeks to ameliorate lawmakers’ concerns. That amendment could contain a provision providing funds for other districts, and it will likely make clear a portion of the report calling for a property tax reassessment will not be followed.

Property tax assessments have not been touched in decades, meaning many luxurious beachfront homes along the Delaware Bay are a steal. On the flip side, houses in western Sussex could easily see their assessment go down, which would decrease the taxes residents there pay.

Rep. Charles Potter Jr., D-Wilmington, the main sponsor of the resolution, said Wilmington has been “divided into a pie.”

“I don’t want people to look at reasons to make this not work,” he said. “Let’s look at reasons to make it work because it has an impact on our state when people look at the education system. Businesses trying to relocate to the state of Delaware, they don’t want to be coming in any area where students only graduate at 50 percent. They want to know we’ve got a good school system and if we don’t educate them then we have to spend the money for the prison system.”

He said he is willing to listen and work to address any concerns raised by others but refused to rule out options and was hesitant to provide specifics on what changes may be made.

Rep. Timothy Dukes, R-Laurel, said he did not want to “handcuff” future General Assemblies by locking them into spending millions of dollars for years to come to redraw boundaries.

Although he wants to see a stronger education system, he also thinks the state is obligated to consider not just Wilmington but all high-poverty districts.

“I have the same problems that the city of Wilmington has,” he said of his district in the southwest corner of the state. “It’s just not on such a large scale.”

While property reassessment would presumably be unwelcome to most Delawareans, it could actually save money for some people in western Sussex. For that reason, Rep. Dukes is not opposed to that aspect, although he expects it will be amended out of the final plan.

Gov. Markell  recommended in his January budget the General Assembly set aside $6 million for the initial transition.

“With all of the momentum around addressing long-standing challenges for Wilmington students, we have a unique opportunity this year to move forward with finally redrawing district boundaries after more than 40 years of busing, allowing families to be far better engaged in their children’s education,” spokeswoman Courtney McGregor said in an email.

“He is supportive of making changes to the way we fund education so that children receiving special education services in grades K-3, as well as those living in poverty or in need of additional support as English Language Learners have access to the resources they need. He recognizes it is unrealistic to overhaul the whole education funding system by June. However, if the General Assembly can make more funding available for districts in Kent and Sussex serving students with high-needs, the governor would absolutely support that.”

Lawmakers have until June 30 to pass the plan.

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