March 16, 2001

Mayor James Baker fired off an instant veto -- his first since taking office in January -- right after City Council agreed with a louder-than-expected voice to submit to the General Assembly a four-part plan to revamp public education in Wilmington. Council leadership indicated a likelihood the veto will be decisively overridden the next time it meets.

"That's his prerogative," Council president Theodore Blunt said.  "If we had wanted two voices to go to Dover, we would not have done it in the form of an ordinance," said Theopalis Gregory, chairman of Council's education committee.

In a veto message delivered in letter form by his press secretary, John Rago, right after Council adjourned Baker said he favors "a more conservative approach." While indicating that he agrees with most of the main features of the complex plan, he said he wanted something that "does not disrupt the current four district system and allows us to plan a model education program to ensure a better education for our children from pre-school to 12th grade."

The mayor endorse, albeit obliquely, the idea of establishing what it refers to as a charter-school 'consortium'. It would begin with four schools -- Warner, Lewis, Bayard and P.S. du Pont -- reconfigured to serve each of the grade levels. A charter school is a public school that essentially is modeled after a self-governing private school.

Having laboriously hammered out, through multiple drafts of the plan, a consensus that resulted in 12 'aye' votes, with one abstention, Council members were obviously distraught after the mayor floated an 11th-hour dissent.

"It was difficult to come up with a plan in a very short time. Now we read that the major is unhappy with it," said Charles Freel. "It is not a perfect plan, but a lot of effort has gone into it and I hope he reconsiders his decision."

Blunt noted that there exists more than the nine votes necessary to override. That action is expected to come at Council's next scheduled meeting, on Mar. 29.

In any event, Blunt said he intends to forward to state legislators a copy of the measure on which Council took action on Mar. 15 -- the deadline established for doing so in the Neighborhood Schools Act --  "to let them know how we feel" before the official ordinance document arrives, with or without the mayor's signature.

"The mayor's message is clear -- no plan that has been discussed or debated, in his opinion, gives you a better educational program for kids. All it does it disrupt the kids again just for sake of going along with the neighborhood schools proposal," Rago later told Delaforum. 

"The mayor doesn't think the [plan]  has majority support in Dover, nor is the legislature likely to come any where near to authorizing the amount of money needed to put a proper, sound educational system in place for Wilmington's children. So why beat around the bush just to play the game. The mayor is more direct than that, as reflected in his veto message."

Even as Baker -- who previously had adamantly refused to comment pending Council's decision -- reportedly switched gears and aired his objections, Council members were in the final stages of  hammering the consensus agreement. As recently as Mar. 12 there was sharp disagreement among members. When it came time to vote, however, the only dissenter was Councilwoman Stephanie Bolden who said that she could not support the measure but, so as not to jeopardize the consensus, voted 'present'.

The plan as it now stands asks the Assembly to empower the city to:

  • Take the initial steps toward what Gregory said could evolve into one of the full-fledged urban charter-school district in the country, as the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee recommended;

  • Be divided among two, rather than four school, districts with the Brandywine being the line of demarcation, rather than attempt what is deemed politically impossible and merge the city with those districts to form a single 'metropolitan' district as the committee recommended;

  • Implement a series of 'educational enhancement' recommendations put forth by the schools committee to improve the academic performance of children living in the city; and

  • Develop a cooperative program with public libraries to serve areas identified as poor and having a low level of literacy, and to establish a statewide advocacy office for children who are learning disabled and otherwise in need of special education.

While it was acknowledged as the least significant of the four elements, the  question of how to configure attendance zones while the innovative charter consortium is being implemented emerged as the major element of contention as Council reviewed the schools committee's report.  To a large extent that was because its implications are more immediate and clearly obvious -- particularly the fact it would eliminate long bus rides to distant schools, particularly high schools -- in the Christina and Colonial school districts.

"Wilmington youth have disproportionately shouldered the burden of desegregation" by having to spend nine of their 12 years of schooling in suburban schools, Gregory said. Blunt added that he would have preferred to see Wilmington consolidated into a single district but was willing to compromise.

Bolden, a teacher at Christiana High School, said that was further than she would go. "Bring our kids home so we can nurture them," she said. The Assembly also should eliminate the practice of school budgets being subject to referendum, she said. "We have a state lottery that is not being used for anything and could be used to support education."

"Schools give people a reason to move into or move out of the city," said Kevin Kelley. "The bottom line is we now have a plan people can look forward to implementing."

Norman Oliver cautioned, however, that he hopes "we're not just going through the motions" of submitting a plan which the Assembly will shelve in favor of its own agenda. Michael Hare suggested that some of the motivation behind the Neighborhood Schools Act "was to get the children from the city of Wilmington out of suburban schools."

In any event, Norman Griffiths said, passage of the ordinance falls far short of resolving the issue. "This is not the end; this is just the beginning," he said, urging Council members, city residents and the city's representation in Dover to lobby strongly for legislation in keeping with the plan. 

Red dots show the location of schools in the city of Wilmington. The hashed blue line in the center of the chart is the Brandywine. Under the plan approved by City Council, everything to the left of it within the black lines designating the city limits would be part of the Red Clay Consolidated School District. The area on the right would be the Brandywine district. Warner, Lewis, Bayard and P.S. du Pont have been identified as the schools preferred to be the initial ones in the proposed Wilmington charter-school consortium.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic:

Read the city schools plan ordinance (not yet available)
Read Mayor Baker's veto message
Read the priority recommendations incorporated into the City Council school plan.
Read previous story: City Council fine tunes school plan





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