October 30, 2001

Voters in the Brandywine School District flashed a proverbial signal to the state legislature, rejecting the Neighborhood Schools Act by a 68.5% to 31.5% margin in an unprecedented-for-Delaware plebiscite. A 40.2% plurality said that, if district schools are realigned, student assignments should be determined by the postal zip code their address carries.

"The message to our elected officials is perfectly clear. It's up to them to respond to the people," school board president Nancy Doorey said after final results of the Oct. 30 voting were in.

Superintendent Bruce Harter added that he will carry the message to Dover when he appears before the state Board of Education on Nov. 27 to present the attendance zone plan the Brandywine board adopts. That group is expected to do so on Nov. 5 at its next business meeting. The law mandates submission of a plan. It is unclear how quickly the state board will act but, as Delaforum previously reported, it could well be before the end of the year.

"The real issue is one of local control. Are we in charge of how we configure our school system? The results speak for themselves," Harter said.

State Senator Dallas Winslow, who voted with members of the Wilmington legislative delegation against the law when it was enacted by lopsided majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in 2000, said the next step "is to go where we have to go to make improvements to the Neighborhood Schools Act." That path, he explained, leads through the state Board of Education, the Department of Education and the Assembly to the governor.

Winslow said he thinks the process of implementing the law as it now stands should go forward and not wait on possible Assembly action. The Assembly reconvenes in January.

Senator Cathy Cloutier, a proponent of the law who voted for its passage when she was in the House of Representatives, said that, after meeting with Parent-Teacher Associations and others during the past two weeks, she is ready to revisit the issue. "I have an open mind. This (the plebiscite) makes a difference. I think we should take another look at it," she said.

The question of whether the voter favored one of three new arrangements or preferred maintaining the status quo -- essentially the arrangement which prevailed when the district was under a federal court desegregation order with the later addition of an intermediate school in Claymont -- clearly overshadowed the choice among the plans. Although it is clear that the district school board and administration are bound by the law and have no power to change it and there was a disclaimer to that effect on the machine ballot, 618 more votes were cast on that question than the 4,973 expressing a preference as to which plan the school board should select.

Since the controversial law was introduced into the Assembly, Brandywine board members and officials have been among its most vocal opponents. District activists conducted a concerted campaign to turn out a strong anti-Neighborhood Schools Act vote.

"I'm glad we asked Question Two. Now we know how the community feels," Doorey said. Particularly gratifying, she added, was the size of the vote, compared to most school elections.

She said it would be "premature" to say which plan the seven-member school board will choose to send to Dover. The choices are among the admittedly unusual zip code method of determining attendance zones, one that would use the geometric midpoints between pairs of schools and one that would establish an academically strong 'magnet' school using the P.S. du Pont and Harlan schools in north Wilmington to house it.

Before the vote, the determination of whether to consider it binding was said to be based on both the size of the voter turnout and how clear the choice that was made. The 'magnet' and geometric plans split the remaining vote, with 30.4% and 29.4%, respectively.

2001. All rights reserved.

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