September 13, 2001

Representative Wayne Smith denounced the Brandywine school board's tentative intention to conduct a plebiscite on the Neighborhood Schools Act as a move which "introduces a dangerous element of lawlessness" into the proceedings of an elected body.

There is no precedent nor justification for a governmental agency to, in effect, ask the public whether it "is going to comply with the law," the state legislator told Delaforum on Sept. 12 after the first of five public hearings being held on behalf of the committee charged with drafting at least two possible student-assignment plans for the Brandywine district.

"I am greatly disturbed. ... That is simply not an option," Smith said.

The board discussed at a workshop-style meeting on Sept. 10 the possibility of asking the public to express a preference between or among plans -- there are four now on the table -- at a referendum-style election before it decides in November which course to ask the state Board of Education to approve. That submission is required on or before Nov. 15.

A second question would ask voters' opinion of the controversial law which requires the drafting of a plan.

As indicated by the tenor of remarks during and after the hearing, asking that does not go beyond an academic exercise. Superintendent Bruce Harter told attenders at the hearing that "the law is the law and what we want to work out is a way to implement it."

Board president Nancy Doorey said that no decisions have been made on whether the results of the voting on the plans would be binding or advisory, or even whether to go forward with the idea. She said those matters are likely to be addressed at the board's next business meeting, on Sept. 20.

If it is decided to proceed, the choice between binding and non-binding will be made "well in advance" of the voting, which is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 30, she said. Difficulties there include such considerations as whether to accept the results "as indicative of the feeling of the community" if few people participate or what to do if the vote between options is close, she said.

After the hearing she told Delaforum that she personally would expect a large turnout if the plebiscite is held, but declined to be specific about how many voters she feels would constitute a valid sampling.

There have been conflicting reports on which way public sentiment in Brandywine Hundred and the section of north Wilmington which is part of the school district lies. Both Smith and Representative Gregory Lavelle have reported that separate voter polls showed strong if not overwhelming support for the law. The school district, on the other hand, has said that there is considerable backing among parents and others directly involved for maintaining the status quo -- having suburban students receive the second half of their elementary education in Wilmington and city students attending schools in the suburbs for the other parts of their 12-year education. That is now essentially forbidden by the law.

Doorey declined after the hearing to respond to Smith's denunciation of the plebiscite. Smith similarly sidestepped a request to express his feelings on the appropriateness of the board's seeking at least a formal measure of guidance on which plan is favored.

Harter ruled out discussion of the law during the hearing, but half of the dozen speakers managed to slip in a reference or two during their remarks. All but one of those were unfavorable to it.

Except to answer one question and to declare Harter's summary of the provision of the law to be essentially accurate, Smith did not participate in the hearing. Republican majority leader in the state House of Representatives, he was the primary sponsor of the law, which some are still referring to as House Bill 300 a year and a half after it was enacted.

The strongest veiled reference to the law -- intentional or otherwise -- came from Harter who said that the board also intends to "bring in a panel of experts to inform [it about] what would be the impact of the [various] plans." One of the points to be covered, he added, would be "the impact of resegregation."

The present arrangement was set up in compliance with a 1978 federal court order to racially integrate Wilmington area public schools. The order was lifted several years ago and the law specifies that race not be a consideration in assigning students to the schools closest to their homes. It is generally agreed that several, and probably most, schools in the Brandywine, Red Clay, Colonial and Christina districts will have 'racially identifiable' enrollments.

"This is a no-win situation," Paul Hart, a former Brandywine board member, testified at the hearing. Urging the present board to re-establish P.S. du Pont Intermediate School as a high school, he said, "If the city doesn't have a high school there is going to be hell to pay and we're going to be back in court."

"It's a shame we have to go through all of this [instead of] paying attention to education," said Bert Green.

The four plans now being considered include grouping school attendance zones by postal zip codes in one of two possible alignments; assigning students to schools closest or next-closest  to their homes by establishing P.S. as a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school; combining P.S. and Harlan Intermediate into a 'magnet' school with a fine- and performing arts curriculum open to students from anywhere in the distinct and assigning city students not wishing to go there to the closest suburban school. In all cases, it is envisioned that the state's public school choice law would be used on a space-available basis to permit any student to choose where he or she will attend.

"Most of the kids, except those [living] in the city of Wilmington are really going to their closest school now," said assistant superintendent Donald Fantine.

Parent Jon Husband said his children have attended Brandywine school in both the suburbs,. where the family lives, and in the city "and we have not had one problem with any of the schools they have gone to."

Anne Eitelman, a psychologist who works at P.S. and Harlan, said that the issue is not so much racial as it is socio-economic. Concentrating children from poor families in a given school will hamper learning for all of them and produce a disproportionate number of other concerns, she said. "Don't overload those schools with kids."

"If you put kids from high-poverty neighborhoods in schools in very large numbers, their opportunity for success is very low," added Antoine Allen, president of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League.

Jack Wells requested that in the future the district should provide resources to schools on the basis of the nature of their student populations. "Do not do it by headcount but do it by the needs of the children," he said.

Harter said that it is the district's intent to continue all present programs and apply them where they are needed.

The district will respond as appropriate if the result of realignment is establishing schools with high concentrations of students from lower socio-economic levels, Doorey said. "By law we can't say we won't create them [but] our responsibility is to provide quality education for each and every child."

2001. All rights reserved.

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Read related story: Let them choose, Red Clay said
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