February 25, 2001

Prime sponsor of the Neighborhood Schools Act said "some form of charter school [arrangement] would probably be the topic of serious discussion by members of the General Assembly if that is what the city of Wilmington wants."

State Representative Wayne Smith, who is leader of the Republican majority in the lower chamber, stopped short of expressing a definitive position on what Delaforum has learned is the apparent tack City Council and Mayor James Baker will take in shaping a proposal to define the course of public education in the city.

As Delaforum previously reported, the city government is preparing to ask the Assembly to authorize a modified charter school arrangement with an open-ended transition from the presented system of having five school districts operating conventional schools in the city.

Reportedly drafted by Councilman Theopalis Gregory, chair of the education committee, the plan, with likely modifications, is to go before Council for action at its Mar. 8 business meeting. There is to be a public hearing on Feb. 28. The law requires Council and the mayor to send a proposal to Dover by Mar. 15.

The draft plan refers to the preferred arrangement as a 'consortium' rather than a new or separate district. But it closely resembles the district structure envisioned by the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee in one of its two recommendations.

A major difference is that the draft proposal calls for starting with four charter schools -- one at each of the traditional grade levels and an undefined  'alternative' school -- while the Brandywine, Christina, Colonial, Red Clay and New Castle County Vocational-Technical districts continue indefinitely to function within the city. It implies that those districts would be expected to eventually cede their city schools to the consortium, but does not establish a timetable for their doing so.

The proposal does, however, identify three schools that would be transferred initially -- P.S. du Pont and Burnett in the Brandywine district and Lewis in Red Clay. P.S. would be converted back to a high school and Burnett, which is now closed, would again become a middle or junior high school. Lewis would remain an elementary school. The proposal defines their new status as 'charter academies', but does not say who would operate them.

Based on rated capacities, the traditional schools could accommodate about 2,300 students. There are about 11,000 public school students living in the city, but a direct comparison is not applicable because suburban children would be permitted to -- and, indeed, expected to -- enroll. The 'alternative' school is listed as having a 200-student capacity. Existing alternative schools are for children who, for disciplinary and other reasons, do not function in a traditional classroom.

The most significant change the Assembly would be requested to make would be to provide for the state to pick up the entire cost of renovating school buildings for their new roles. Present law specifically bars public financing of capital costs related to conversion of an existing school or constructing a new charter school. The state finances 60% of major capital costs for conventional public schools and there is legislation pending in Dover to increase that to 80%.

There also is provision for recommending establishment and financing of a statewide special education advocacy office with branches in each county in addition to the city. Twenty-one percent of Wilmington students are in various special education categories, compared to 11% statewide.

If the proposal is adopted, it would put Council and the mayor on record as endorsing the schools committee's more esoteric recommendations that public policy recognize differences in the needs of urban children and incorporate measures designed to educate them on a par with children from more affluent households.

Council also would strongly second the committee's questioning of the constitutionality of the Neighborhood Schools Act and, by implication, whether it was a deliberate effort to isolate Wilmington schools and illegally resegregate them.

Smith said that whatever comes forth will be regarded as a proposal. The Assembly can accept it, modify it, ignore it or decide to do something entirely different. But he added that a charter school arrangement which complies with the requirements of the Neighborhood Schools Act is a proposal likely to pass muster.

"As a practical matter, the more complexity that is introduced [in any plan], the greater the difficulty in having it passed," he said. A phased transition might provide such hindrance, he said.

Smith did take strong issue with references to constitutionality of the law. That, he said, "flies in the face of [U.S.] Supreme Court rulings in regard to what numerous other school districts around the country are doing."

Gregory, Baker and Theodore Blunt, president of City Council, did not respond to Delaforum requests for comment.  Councilman Kevin Kelly, who also was a member of the schools committee, said that he likes the charter-school idea but thinks only the Brandywine and Red Clay Districts should be linked with Wilmington even as interim providers of education. That, he said, would eliminate long bus rides for city children to middle and high schools in the Christina and Colonial districts.

William Manning, who was the strongest advocate on the schools committee of a charter-school arrangement, said he is pleased at the direction things seem to be taking. "We're part way there," he said of the city proposal.

He did, however, express reservation at a time implementation. "If we start with four schools and do nothing [more] for 20 years, I wouldn't be very happy," he said. "The [original idea of a] three-year phase-in might be too fast, but within five to 10 years every school in the city could be included."

Schools committee chair Raye Avery did not respond to a Delaforum request for comment.

While there are strong indications the language in the proposal seeks to assure school officials and, more to the point, legislators outside the city of a cooperative attitude, it strongly addresses what several members of the schools committee identified as basic principles.

The plan it puts forth "creates a structure designed to minimize the risks currently faced by Wilmington's children and maximizes opportunities for [those] children to achieve academic success," it states.

It goes on to say that the plan which is adopted "must provide opportunities for Wilmington's students to attend quality neighborhood schools from [kindergarten through 12th grade] within the city of Wilmington ... [and] must endow Wilmington's parents and community with meaningful control over the entity [and] process that govern neighborhood schools."

If Wilmington is allowed to establish a charter-school consortium and move toward a district comprised of charter schools, it would be a pioneer nationally in that regard. The burgeoning charter school movement is directed almost entirely to overlay conventional public school districts. There are a few charter districts, mostly in rural areas, in California and Georgia.

A charter school is a public school in that it is financed through tax-supported tuition from districts in which its students reside. Without having to abide by many of the administrative and structural regulations and requirements imposed on conventional public schools, charters are able to function much like private schools.

The draft proposal takes note of the resultant competitive factor by a provision that would allow the conventional districts, if they desire or agree to respond to a consortium request, to operate one or more schools within the city.

The districts would be required to transfer ownership of their schools within the city to the consortium, which would have to give a year's notice of a desire to acquire a building. The dist5ricts would not be paid for the buildings but the state would assume any debt attached to it.

Existing charter schools would be exempt from having to become a part of the consortium, although nothing would prevent their seeking to do so. Charter School of Wilmington, which is located in the former Wilmington High School building, is chartered by the Red Clay district.  There are three state-chartered elementary schools in the East Side.

The consortium would be governed by a seven-member board of managers. Four would be appointed by the mayor; two by City Council and one by the New Castle County executive. Unlike a school district, the consortium would have no taxing power. Its money would  come from tuitions which accompany students and "through traditional nonprofit methods" for raising funds from corporations, foundations and the like.

Students would be accepted by the city charter schools through application. Enrollment would be open to anyone, regardless or residence, but prospective students living in the city would receive preference.

Having the five districts continue to operate within the city would avoid the major disruption of a wholesale reassignment of city children to a new educational entity, the proposal notes. It does concede that the districts most likely will come up with plans for assigning students to schools closest to their homes, as the state law provides.

The proposal, however, calls upon the districts to implement the neighborhood schools committee's priority recommendations for 'education enhancement'. It also advocates establishment of local or neighborhood school councils, which would have at least quasiofficial status in dealing with the affairs of individual schools.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read related story: Panel opts for metro and charter districts

Read related story: Push to establish charter school district promised

Read:  Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee's charter-school proposal





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