February 27, 2002

Residents of the Brandywine School District turned out in force in a final public effort to convince the state Board of Education to declare that the present school attendance arrangement complies with the controversial Neighborhood Schools Act. Their strong endorsement of the district's official position took on some of the trappings of a revival meeting.

At a public hearing before the state board on Feb. 26, speaker after speaker drew enthusiastic applause by testifying that things are just fine the way they are and that there is no reason to fix something which is not broken. Several made the point that public opinion -- expressed in a variety of forums, including a plebiscite last autumn -- clearly endorses maintaining the status quo.

When one speaker asked for a show of hands by those who agree that the Brandywine plan should be accepted, virtually all of the nearly 200 attenders responded.

State board president Joseph Pica noted that the hearing was, by far, the best attended in the series of sessions being conducted prior to a special meeting in Dover on Mar. 11 at which the board is expected to pass on assignment plans submitted by Brandywine and the three other northern New Castle County districts created in the aftermath of federal court's 1978 racial desegregation order. Pica and the other members of the board, all of whom were present, received testimony at the hearing without comment.

Most of the speakers were folks who are or have been active in various capacities in the district, but there also was a sprinkling of those who said they wanted to swell the chorus supporting the local school board and district administration which maintain that assigning pupils to the schools nearest their homes would create so-called high-poverty schools, which would result in undue hardship for the district and its students.

The law contains an escape clause which allows student assignments to other than the nearest school if that would cause "substantial hardship."

A recent attorney general's opinion, however, held that the clause does not apply to the section of the law which requires districts to reconfigure elementary schools to kindergarten-through-fifth, or -sixth, -grade configurations, although an additional alternative plan with another configuration may be submitted. Brandywine's submission reversed that order. Its favored plan would maintain the present kindergarten-through-third-grade and fourth-through-sixth-grade configurations. An alternative plan based on assigning students mainly on the basis of postal zip codes -- which Brandywine pointedly asked the state board to reject -- does provide for reconfiguration.

Former Brandywine school board member Robert Blew endorsed the present school configuration and assignment arrangement. Parent Gail Davis said she responded to a notice of the hearing sent home with her second-grader child because she thought "it important that parents show up and say they don't want things to change."

A delegation of students from Concord High School, led by senior Kate Bradley, said they have benefited from racial, economic and social diversity. Bradley said that, although she will soon graduate, she did not want her young sister to attend schools "segregated by race and wealth."

Although the law specifically prohibits using race as a factor in determining school assignments and the plan Brandywine has submitted defines its projected hardship solely in economic terms, race was a predominant element in several of the presentations at the hearing.

"It would be a hardship for our district if we have to resegregate our children," said Diane Brocklesby. Beverly Baxter said that the Neighborhood Schools Act "is really the Wilmington Resegregation [Act]," adding that people "have a moral obligation to challenge unjust laws."

Andrea Doyle, a teacher at Mount Pleasant High School, predicted there would be "years of litigation" testing the constitutionality of the Neighborhood Schools Act if it results in appearance of racial segregation.

Brocklesby, who is both a parent and a veteran school bus driver, said that long bus rides are not an issue in Brandywine. "It only takes 20 minutes to go from one end of the district to the other, without going over the speed limit," she said.

The only speaker who came close to expressing support for a literal application of the law was Roger Hoyt, who claimed that "elimination of busing will result in thousands of students walking to school" and save a considerable amount of money now spent on transporting them. His remarks also drew applause. Data the district had previously presented indicates there will likely be only a minimal change in transportation requirements. It maintains that most students, except for those who live in Wilmington, already attend the schools nearest their homes.

Several speakers at the hearing called for repeal of the Neighborhood Schools Act, although that, of course, is not within the purview of the state board. "I have not heard a single good thing that can come out of that law," Bert Green said.

Baxter drew a laugh when she suggested that claims that results of the Brandywine plebiscite did not accurately reflect the views of residents of the district because not everyone voted were spurious. "In any election, a lot of people do not vote. Does that mean he was not duly elected?" she said. That remark evidently was directed at state Representative Wayne Smith, primary sponsor of the Neighborhood Schools Act, who represents a Brandywine Hundred district in the legislature.

"I feel very strongly that you need to listen to the people and [do] what's best for our children," said Lani Thureau.

She added that, if the state board does not go along with the district's desires regarding student assignments, it will be forced to spend money -- including revenue raised by an increase in the tax rate ceiling being sought in a referendum this spring -- not for educational improvements but "to implement a plan the people do not want."

2002. All rights reserved.

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Read material concerning the Neighborhood Schools Act at the
Brandywine School District and the state Board of Education Web sites