March 12, 2001

There is little dispute about the main points, but Wilmington City Council will go down to the wire in shaping its request to the General Assembly concerning the future of public education in Wilmington.

Likely scenario for the required action at its Mar. 15 meeting will be to seek legislation empowering it to create a visionary system under which city schools could all be structured along the lines of the relatively new charter-school model within a few years. If that happens, proponents maintain, it will produce a quantum leap in the quality of schooling the predominantly low-income city students and attract sufficient suburban residents to minimize racial identification -- or, some say, 'resegregation' -- of the schools.

Framers of the city plan -- particularly Councilmen Theopalis Gregory and Kevin Kelley -- prefer to call the arrangement a 'consortium' rather than a new city district.

While Gregory told his colleagues, meeting on Mar. 12 as a committee of the whole, that the charter--school proposal and a series of recommendations to implement the "educational enhancement 

recommendations" put forth by the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee were key to an acceptable Assembly response, attention was focused almost exclusively on the proposed 'interim overlay' to be put in place to maintain continuity while the new system is being implemented over an unspecified number of years.

Council dealt with a revised version of the proposed plan -- labeled "Draft 7.3" -- which resurrected the previously rejected schools committee recommendation that the Red Clay Consolidated and Brandywine districts be merged along with the portions of the city now assigned to the Christina and Colonial districts into a single district. Gregory said he restored that idea "because that's what Kevin told me he wanted."

During the discussion, however, nine members of the 13-member Council indicated they favored an alternative plan whereby Red Clay would be assigned the section of the city which lies south of the 

Theopalis Gregory (right) talks with an attender following City Council's discussion of its proposed schools plan.

the Brandywine while the Brandywine district took in everything north of that waterway. That would require Red Clay to give up the western portion of north Wilmington, but it would get the east and south sides of the city from Christina along with an enhanced tax base as a result of picking up the downtown business district. Colonial's city section -- the largest geographically but smallest in population -- would be split between the two districts.

More important that turf, however, is the fact redistricting would eliminate the longest of the bus rides city youngsters now have to take to attend suburban schools.

Yielding to his colleagues, Kelley said he and other supporters of the so-called 'metropolitan plan' could live with what is now being called the 'river plan'.  He said he would support it in the interest of having Council send Dover a broadly supported, if not unanimous, recommendation. "It's better that we send something down with 10 or 11 votes behind it, than 7-to-6," he said.

Paul Bartkowski cited realpolitick as his reason for going with his second choice. "I don't think, politically, that the 'metropolitan district' is going to be considered seriously [in the Assembly]," he said.

Charles Freel said he wants to send Dover "something that is do-able" adding that he feels a 'metropolitan district' is not while the 'river plan' "might stand a chance." Norman Griffiths said it would be counterproductive to "send something that doesn't have a chance." Demetrio Ortega said he regards the 'river plan' as "the best we can send."

Only after a consensus seemed to have been reached on the floor did Council President Theodore Blunt check in with a contrary opinion. He noted that Wilmington is probably the only city in the nation that is divided among four school districts and said he favored "a single administration with a representative [board] appointed by elected officials."

He, too, then injected the notion of reality into the discussion. "This is really just a paper exercise. We're just step two in a six-step process. ... The question is what the other districts want. What we send to Dover is just a piece of paper," he said. The Neighborhood Schools Act, which established the Wilmington committee and give the mayor and Council a mandate to submit an official recommendation, gives final say to the Assembly.

"The General Assembly has already made up its mind. They want to re-establish a Wilmington school district," Councilwoman Stephanie Bolden said. She said that would be acceptable to her provided the Assembly could be convinced to bear the cost of the special services such a district would have to offer its urban students.

William Manning, president of the Red Clay school board and a member of the Wilmington committee, is the originator and primary proponent of the charter-school approach. He previously opposed tampering with the present four-district arrangement, proposing instead that they be contracted by the proposed city charter district to continue to operate their present schools and to consider buying into the new arrangement as charter operators.

Nancy Doorey, his counterpart in Brandywine, said that she would not want any reassignment arrangement which resulted in the kind of upheaval and disruption that occurred when federal court ordered racial desegregation in 1978 and the resultant New Castle County district was split into four components in 1981.

The latest draft of the city proposal set a September, 2003, starting date for any new arrangement and expanded the charter consortium to initially include different schools than earlier versions. Warner and Lewis Elementary Schools would serve kindergarten through fifth grade, with Warner also providing a pre-school. Bayard would become the charter sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school while P.S. du Pont would be converted back to a high school. Along with an alternative school at a site not suggested, they would accommodate a total of 4,000 of the city's 11,000 school-age youngsters.

There is no stated timetable for conversion of the other schools in the city into charter schools. Gregory told Delaforum after the meeting that "we would do it based on demand." He said the equivalent of market forces would determine if the idea of an all-charter district is viable.

The charter school movement, nationally, seems to have its greatest acceptance in urban areas with African American parents being particularly receptive. Three elementary-level charter schools in predominantly black northeast Wilmington already have had a noticeable impact on conventional districts' enrollment. Meanwhile, Charter School of Wilmington, a high school, is widely regarded as the premier public school in the state. A charter school is a public school financed indirectly by tax money but governed by independent boards and exempt from some conventional-school regulation.

Going the charter-school route "is a hell of an idea," Gregory said. "The consortium could become a district if the demand is there. If the demand isn't there, we'll find out."

He added that he feels the Assembly would be willing to do along with initiating a test on a limited basis but that he personally believes it is not likely the legislature will accept significant redistricting. Either proposed scheme or keeping the status quo, he said "would be an acceptable overlay to take care of the rest of the kids while we find out if [the consortium idea] works," he said.

During the session, he expressed much stronger ambivalence. "I'm not a fan of charter schools, but they're here to stay. So we might as well use it. It can be an effective tool," he said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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Read the priority recommendations incorporated into the City Council school plan.
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