News

October 4, 2001

Some members of its Neighborhood Schools Act committee questioned whether the public will be much help to the Brandywine school board when it comes to deciding which attendance plan to submit to the state Board of Education.

"I trust the school board [to make the decision] a lot more than I trust the public," said committee member Jeff Cragg. "You could end up with a muddle."

The board has scheduled a public vote on the matter for Oct. 30, but has not yet said whether it will consider the results binding or advisory.

The plans which will go before the public and eventually the school board 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 on a 'campus' which includes the P.S. du Pont and Harlan Intermediate Schools buildings in Wilmington.

Superintendent Bruce Harter touched off the discussion when he told a committee meeting on Oct. 3 that, earlier in the evening, he had been approached by an attender at a church gathering at which he spoke and asked why, if the law simply requires sending children to the school closest to their homes, the district is mulling over three possible plans.

That, Harter said, illustrates that many people in the district do not appreciate the complexity of matching student population to schools.

Also, he and others noted that the interest level concerning the issue apparently is not high. "I'm surprised so few people attended the [public hearings]. I would like to know why they're not coming," said Susan Cobin. The committee so far has held three of five public hearings required under the law.

In an effort to get out the word before conducting the unprecedented public vote, the district is mounting an extensive public relations campaign. Cornerstone of that effort will be mailing a 16-page 'voter's guide' to all 40,000 residences in Brandywine Hundred and north Wilmington.

To meet an Oct. 5 deadline for assembling contents of that document, the committee wrapped up its work on drafting the possible plans by modifying two of them to include the Carrcroft area in the Mount Pleasant High School attendance zone while ceding a segment of Claymont to Brandywine High. A delegation of Mount Pleasant faculty and staff had request that the proposed boundary lines be redrawn to permit their school to retain something similar to its present configuration.

Administrator Wayne Emsley said it was not possible to eliminate a quirk in another of the plans which has Talley Middle School, and houses immediately around it, within the Hanby Middle attendance area. Changing that arrangement would require shifting other boundaries to the extent that student assignments at that grade level would no longer be based on postal zip codes and groups of children would not be kept together through their scholastic careers.

Cragg said he thinks asking the public to vote on which plan they prefer and expecting more than a relative handful to respond knowledgeably is futile. He said there is insufficient time to educate potential voters and that he doubts if residents will thoroughly read, let alone digest, the contents of the 'guide'. Most, he noted, see the matter merely as a process to end more than a generation of busing.

Fran Freedman said that earlier public opinion surveys demonstrated that the majority of residents prefer neighborhood schools "but aren't willing to pay higher taxes to get them."

Cobin noted that inclusion of a plebiscite asking whether people prefer adopting one of the plans or retaining the status quo raises the danger that some voters will think the latter is an option. The possibility that a large expression of disapproval of the law might lead the board to take up a suggestion made at a previous workshop-style information meeting that it commit what amounts to an act of civil disobedience and not produce a plan did not arise during the committee's discussion.

The closest the group came to that was a reference to board president Nancy Doorey's having remarked that the law mandates spending a considerable amount of money and jeopardizing educational quality to achieve a small reduction in the average distance Brandywine children have to travel to attend school.

Harter noted that her disparagement of the law amounted to drawing a conclusion from the data presented at the workshop while the 'voter's guide' and other informative activity "will have all the facts, but not put them together in the way that draws a conclusion."

"It won't be the News-Journal," he quipped, leading Cragg to remark that the fact that newspaper is by far the dominant dispenser of public information in the state is the reason Delaware, unlike many other states, does not provide for voter initiatives, referendums and plebiscites.

Since the Oct. 30 vote will be conducted by volunteers, necessarily drawn from the ranks of district activists and presumably supportive of its opposition to the law, Harter said they will have to be at pains to conduct their duties in a way which does not appear intended to improperly influence voters.

He also indicated that, to get a large turnout, the district intends to provide of absentee-ballot voting.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Try civil disobedience, board is told
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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