May 30, 2001

There will be no changes to the Neighborhood Schools Act during the remaining days of the General Assembly's current session, Representative Wayne Smith declared. "There's no need for any changes. The law is the law and things are going to happen," he said.

Next step in the process of converting the four northernmost school districts in New Castle County to grade configurations and attendance patterns similar to what existed before federal court ordered consolidation to achieve racial desegregation in the late 1970s will be for the districts to come up with plans to submit to the state Board of Education by November.

Smith, who was prime sponsor of the law and is leader of the Republican majority in the state House of Representatives, said that deadline will be neither changed nor waived.

The big difference, of course, is that there will still be four districts. No one has proposed going back to the multiplicity of districts which once existed. There also will no Wilmington school district.

While Smith said that the proposal of City Council and recommendation of the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee to establish a district consisting entirely of charter schools "could be the basis for further discussions," no one in Dover is likely to do anything to further that innovative idea.

"There's not a whole lot of support for it," Smith said.

He said the fact that Mayor James Baker vetoed the ordinance Council passed unanimously as the vehicle for forwarding its proposal to Dover had no significant effect on its fate. Some observers have felt that sent a signal that leadership in the city was split on the issue.

More to the point, Smith indicated, was the fact the city proposal arrived as part of a package which also called for the Christina and Colonial districts to give up their city presence and for dividing administration of schools in Wilmington between Brandywine and Red Clay. Although the school boards in neither district took any action, or even official notice, of the proposal, Smith said both districts made it clear they were unalterably opposed to that kind of redistricting.

Lack of any strong push for the plan by legislators representing the city also contributed to sealing its fate, he said.

While the charter school concepts could have been separated from the overall plan, Smith said that proposal came to Dover "without enough details." He stopped short of saying the plan was unworkable but did say that specifics for implementing and governing it would have to be presented before it can receive serious Assembly consideration.

"If there is any desire to pursue [the idea], I would be happy to talk about it," he said.

The fact that the schools committee and City Council spent the better part of the year discussing the future of public education in Wilmington only to have the Assembly apparently poised to ignore its recommendations is not a valid criticism, Smith maintained. "They didn't really respond directly to what was asked of them in [the law]," he said. In setting up the advisory commitee and providing a process for the city to weigh in on its implementation, the intent of the law was to address 'governance' of city schools, he said.

In essence, the city was asked if it wanted to return to having its own school district. Since both the committee and City Council rejected that idea, the Assembly by preserving the present four-district arrangement is complying with its desire.

Participation by former Mayor James Sills in the bill-signing ceremony indicated city support for the opportunity to be heard on that basic issue, Smith maintained. The law would have been enacted without providing that opportunity.

It is clear, he added, that requiring districts which had shown no great interest in doing so after the federal court desegregation order was lifted to go back to assigning students to schools closest to their homes has overwhelming public support he said.

Smith said the recent decisive defeat of Brandywine school board member Robert Blew in his bid for election to a second term mirrored that support. Smith's premise in that regard is that Blew and other members of the Brandywine board are out of sync with their constituents in continuing to object to previsions of the law. Smith's representative district is in Brandywine Hundred.

Be that as it may, the lawmaker said, the district must submit a plan to the state Board of Education and the law provides that, if the plan is not acceptable, Delaware Department of Education will craft and impose a plan.

Smith refuted arguments that districts will incur extensive costs to implement the law. The $1,250,000 that it appropriates to each district will be sufficient, he said. "They will end up with the same number of students to educate in the same number of buildings."

© 2001. All rights reserved.

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