October 2, 2001

The Brandywine school board was challenged to back up its opposition to the Neighborhood Schools Act and break the law by not submitting the required student assignment plan. While taking that course did not immediately appear to be likely, two legislators who opposed passage of the controversial measure told the board that "changed circumstances" may induce the General Assembly to rethink the whole idea.

At a workshop session on Oct. 1 members of the board gave vent to their strongest-yet expression of views against accepting what they and others familiar with the situation feel will be unwelcome consequences from implementing the law. Of the four districts affected, Brandywine has been the most vigorously opposed to wholesale change in the configuration of its schools and student attendance patterns mandated by the law.

"We're being told to spend [more than] $2 million to change the average distance [students travel] to school by half a mile," said board president Nancy Doorey. "It's something that does not create any educational benefits, but does serious educational harm."

It was Raye Jones Avery who laid down the challenge "to join the Wilmington Neighborhood Schools Committee [and be] conscientious objectors to the Neighborhood Schools Act of 2000." Avery chaired that committee, whose recommendation to establish an all-charter school district in the city while dividing its neighborhoods between the Brandywine and Red Clay districts until that was being accomplished was accepted by City Council but ignored by the Assembly.

The city committee, she said, met its charge to produce recommendations "although from the beginning most of us felt we were dealing with a law that was wrong." She said that view came forth in the committee's declaration that it regarded the law as unconstitutional. "We could not in good conscience just look at the reassignment of children based on geographic residence," she added.

Avery's challenge was taken up later in the session by Haick Vatnick, father of three Brandywine students, who said, "What is the will power of this board if it reaches the decision that 'none of the above' (any of the three plans under consideration) is the right thing to do?"

That led board vice president Janice Tunell to ask state Representative David Ennis and Senator Dallas Winslow, who were in the audience, "What would happen if we choose not to do this?" Her remark referred to the law's requirement that Brandywine and the three other districts formerly under a federal court racial desegregation order submit plans to assign students to schools nearest their homes to the state Board of Education by Nov. 15.

Neither lawmaker openly encouraged violating the law, but Ennis replied that "postponing or rewriting [the law] is an option" after the Assembly reconvenes in regular session in January. He said that a tightening of the state's pursestrings as the result of a sagging economy may lead the legislature to back off from appropriating money to finance transition costs in the four districts and what he said was agreement to give money to other districts in return for support for the law from Kent and Sussex County legislators.

The law provides for a one-time payment of $1.25 million to finance the transition and allows districts to pocket 'savings' in state school bus transportation costs for 10 years. Brandywine superintendent Bruce Harter later told the meeting that a preliminary cost analysis of the three pending plans put their net operating and capital costs around $2 million. Board members, however, came up with several cost items not included in his calculations. Harter said transportation savings, which had been factored into the net costs, would amount to between $239,000 and $501,000 depending upon which plan is adopted.

The plans call for assigning students to schools with modified attendance areas based on either postal zip codes or the geometric midpoints between schools or establishing a 'magnet' school in the combined P.S. du Pont and Harlan buildings in the city. The district has prepared and displayed attendance area maps showing the resulting configurations, but so far has not responded to a Delaforum request to obtain readable copies to post.

A delegation of teachers and staff members at Mount Pleasant High School, which formed the largest bloc of attenders at the meeting, asked to be allowed to formulate yet another plan, but Harter told them that a district committee has been functioning since June and that time remaining before the Nov. 15 deadline does not allow for introducing yet another plan into the deliberations.

Ennis indicated he thinks the district should go ahead and file a plan with the state on time because it is unlikely the Assembly will take up the matter before its regular session. Implementation of any plan is presently expected to begin in September, 2003.

Harter said he "certainly would not recommend that we break the law" and Doorey said that any decision to not comply with the plan-submission requirement "is something that we would not make lightly [nor without] first conferring with our lawyer in executive session."

Winslow said that he "is happy to see that the [Brandywine] board is putting the facts on the table, which is something I thought the Senate and House [of Representatives] should have done before they voted on this bill." He said he also agrees with the board's decision to hold a public vote on the plans on Oct. 30. It is intended to include a non-binding plebiscite on the law as part of that vote.

"If 'none of the above' gets a substantial vote, that should send a message to legislators who supported this bill," Winslow said.

Winslow voted against passage of the law; Ennis was recorded as not voting when the House passed the measure 29-6.

The workshop meeting was called to discuss the educational implications of implementing the law. No one came up with any expected benefits nor did anyone on the panel or in the audience voice support for it. Doorey remarked that even the supposed nostalgic return to children walking to school is likely to be minimal. "Nowadays, no matter how close they live, parents are likely to drive them," she said.

Doorey said that the workshop was the beginning of an effort to "inform the public" before the Oct. 30 vote. The portion of the meeting which included presentations by Avery and Audrey Noble, director of the University of Delaware's Education Research and Development Center, was videotaped and will be shown several times on the Comcast public-access cable channel, beginning on Oct. 14. A presentation by Jerry Weast, superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., school district, who could not attend the meeting, will be added before the edited tape is broadcast.

Brandywine also is preparing an informational flyer which will be mailed to all residences in the district.

Doorey said the information effort will cost about $12,000, which she described as "a small investment to give information to people about something that is going to cost them (as taxpayers) $2 million to $3 million to implement."

Noble told the meeting that the most pronounced effect of implementing the Brandywine plans will be to increase the number of racially identifiable high-poverty schools in the district from three to six or seven, depending upon which plan is adopted.  A high-poverty school, she said, requires a considerable investment of resources." I'm not sure you're going to save enough on busing to pay the additional costs of those special programs," she said.

Although 'racially identifiable' in the context used at the meeting referred to a preponderance of black students, all but a couple of schools would so qualify if the term were used literally since white youngsters would comprise a large majority in their enrollments.

Districts elsewhere in the county pay teachers salary bonuses ranging up to $5,000 a year to accept positions in such schools and still have great difficulty in attracting the highly qualified teachers that are required, Noble said.

Avery said "we only have to look to look to the city of Philadelphia, or Chester or Baltimore, to see the kind of problems we are going to create in Wilmington."

"It's not just poverty, but cultural literacy," she said. "Those trends are already beginning to emerge." It shows up, for instance, in such things as "sending babies to kindergarten in a basement where they can't see the light of day." The kindergarten program for city children is conducted in the lower level of the P.S. school building.

"We have a situation that is ideal. Why should be change it?" said board member Harold Thompson.

Despite widespread and growing acceptance of racial diversity in the nation, "policymakers and community residents seem to think that desegregation  is no longer necessary," Noble said. As a result, there is "an increasing pattern of resegregation -- not just of African Americans but especially of Latinos -- in our schools."

"Who's to say that in five years we won't be back in court?," Tunell said.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: High-level school proposed for city
Read related story: Board will submit choice plan
Go to the Brandywine School District's Web site
Read the Neighborhood Schools Act
Read the Brandywine Board of Education's charge to its Neighborhood Schools Act committee





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