August 16, 2001

Red Clay Consolidated School District is crafting a Neighborhood Schools Act plan built around its long-sought goal of allowing students and their parents to select which schools to attend. Biggest problem with that, however, is that the district maintains that it does not have enough room in its schools to make such a plan work.

After a routine 20-minute meeting of the school board on Aug. 15, Superintendent Robert Andrzejewski confirmed that full use of the state's public school choice law will be a basis of a plan being drafted by administrator Gail Ames and scheduled to be presented at five public hearings before the board votes in October to submit it to the state Board of Education.

District residents earlier this year refused to authorize a bond sale to provide money for the local share of the cost of a state record-size building program which included construction of elementary schools in Stanton and near Hockessin. At the time, district officials said the new schools were needed if Red Clay is to complete the transition to an all-choice district.

"That is the issue. Is the state going to come up with the money? Other districts are going to have capital problems as well," Andrzejewski  said.

He was not specific on whether Red Clay would seek construction financing from the state beyond its standard 70% involvement in such ventures. Officials have said the district intends to return to voters, but so far there have been no indications, at least in public view, of when that might happen.

Irwin Becnel, vice president of the Red Clay school board, said the big question is whether the district is correct in believing that a choice-based plan would satisfy the requirements of the Neighborhood Schools Act. "It meets the spirit of the law. We all support the spirit of the law. What we have to find out is whether it meets the letter of the law," he said.

The board put that question to its lawyer, Fred DeAngelo, during a closed-door executive session before the open business meeting, Becnel said. At the public session, the issue came up only in the form of approval of a timetable for presenting and adopting a plan. It is to be made public on Sept. 10 and  there will be public hearings on Sept. 12, 13, 19 and 25 and on Oct. 17. Sept. 19 and Oct. 17 are  scheduled dates for regular school board meetings and Sept. 12 will be a special meeting to receive the plan. The board vote is scheduled to be taken at the Oct. 17 meeting.

The process being followed differs from what is happening in the Brandywine, Christina and Colonial districts. Those are the other district which are required to produce plans for assigning children to schools closest to their homes for submission to the state board by Nov. 15. In the other districts, committees are dealing with the issue in an open process.

Becnel said the Red Clay board has had extensive communication with its constituency regarding  its school-choice goal and that the public will have ample time to comment on specifics of the neighborhood schools plan through the hearings process.

"It was the decision of the administration and the board to do it this way," Ames said.

Becnel said Red Clay has had sufficient experience with using a choice arrangement, rather than traditional attendance zones, to "know that it works." Students have been required to choose among the three high schools since 1995 and, as far as he knows, no one has been denied his or her first choice. Brandywine Springs Elementary, which opened last year, is an all-choice kindergarten-through-fifth grade school. Where grades have been added to schools, those grades are accessible only through the choice program.

"The more we let people choose, the less problems we have," he said. "Not everybody necessarily wants to go to the school closest to home."

Using the choice law requires filing an application before a January deadline with acceptance of the request dependent upon there being space available in the chosen grade and school. If a grade or school is oversubscribed, certain priorities are applied and, after that, a lottery is used. Red Clay has established a 'preferred' zone around Brandywine Springs through which students living in a small area close to the school are considered at the head of the line. More students applied to attend Brandywine Springs than could be accommodated.

If a student's parents do not apply, the student is assigned by use of a traditional attendance zone. At Linden Hill Elementary, where a third grade has been added, a rising third-grader is required to submit a choice application. If his or her parents do not do so, that student is assigned to Warner Elementary. It is not clear what happens if Red Clay becomes an all-choice district and traditional attendance zones are therefore wiped away.

Becnel said he could not speculate on whether the state board will be receptive to using choice rather than traditional student-assignment but said that, if the plan is rejected, the board will "go directly  to the legislature."

"We don't want to deal with the state board. The legislature wrote the law. I would like to see how they interpret it," he added.

The General Assembly did, in a sense, have a crack at the issue of substituting a new approach for a traditional one in that Wilmington presented a schools plan calling for establishing a district that would phase in a combination of charter schools and a choice arrangement. After receiving the report, the Assembly ignored it. Representative Wayne Smith, author of the Neighborhood Schools Act, told Delaforum at the time that the city's proposal was too vague to be the basis of a new arrangement but that he, and presumably other legislators, would be open to discussing the issue further.

The law provides that if the state board rejects a district's plan, the district has 60 days in which to submit another one. After that, it can be taken to court to force compliance. The Assembly will have reconvened during the 60-day period beginning at the earliest after Nov. 15 that the state board could act on the Red Clay plan.

"Hopefully, we'll never get to that point," Becnel replied when asked what the Red Clay board would do if the state board turns down its initial plan.

2001. All rights reserved.

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