After 17 years of federal oversight of northern New Castle County public schools following a U.S. District Court desegregation order, the Delaware State Board of Education successfully argued for the court to end its supervision in 1995. The state Neighborhood Schools Act was passed in 2000 when school districts acted as though they were still under federal oversight. To this day, community schooling has never been truly restored in Greater Wilmington.
Editor's note: This is from a 2006 special series on “The Lost High Schools” published by the Hockessin Community News. After 17 years of federal oversight of northern New Castle County public schools following a U.S. District Court desegregation order, the State Board of Education successfully argued for the court to end its supervision in 1995.
Yet, the problems the order had created would take years and more legislation to remedy.
“The vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated to the extent practicable,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Sue Robinson in the '95 ruling.
The United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Robinson's opinion, despite its view that racism remained a serious problem.
“It is beyond dispute that racism and bigotry continue to tear at the fragile social fabric of our national and local communities,” wrote Circuit Judge Ruggero Aldisert for the Third Circuit. “In light of this sobering truth, it is all the more important that we write the final chapter in this long period of supervision, and release our provisional grip” on the school boards to enable them to combat the problem.
After years of fighting a desegregation order that had collapsed 11 districts into a single super-district, closed schools, and put into motion an unprecedented and widely resisted busing plan, the victory seemed a hollow one for many who fought for it because it lacked a follow-up plan.
Neighborhood schools advocate William D'Onofrio was the president of the Positive Action Committee, a group that had long fought busing.
It was hollow, D'Onofrio said, because despite a $1 billion price tag, busing never achieved its goals.
“I don't think there was much racial integration,” he said, and “during the many years of this grand experiment, the achievement gap between black and white students widened.”
According to 2006 Delaware Student Testing Program results, white students were more than twice as likely to meet math standards in all of Brandywine, Christina, and Red Clay's traditional high schools, than their black counterparts. In reading, the gap was consistently in double digits, ranging from 25 percent to 47 percent.
It was also hollow because the reversal had little immediate impact on most city and suburban school children, as feeder patterns remained largely the same, busing continued and the last remaining traditional high school in the city, Wilmington High, couldn't fix its perennial problem of declining enrollment and closed in 1999.
“Through a combination of habit, fear and ideology, school districts remained unwilling to adjust their race-based assignment plans after the federal order was dissolved,” said House of Representatives Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith (R-Clair Manor).
In 2000, he led the charge for a new mandate, which came to be known as the Neighborhood Schools Act.
The Neighborhood Schools Act required that students be assigned to the schools closest to their homes, without regard to any factor other than distance and natural, neighborhood boundaries. It also required schools to revise grade configurations to limit the number of times students would have to change schools.
The four school districts in Northern New Castle County had to get approval for their plans from the Delaware State Board of Education. Today's school districts were created when, still under federal oversight in 1981, the state divided the super-district into Brandywine, Christina, Colonial and Red Clay.
Each came into compliance with the new mandate differently.
Ironically, Brandywine, the only school district in Smith's representative district, used a loophole in the law to comply without changing anything.
The loophole, an 11th hour amendment to the act Smith accepted to avoid stalling in the Democratic-majority Senate, said that school districts could assign students to schools based on factors other than distance and natural boundaries if those factors alone would create a substantial hardship on a school, district, student or student's family, so long as the additional factors considered did not include race.
Brandywine Board of Education member Nancy Doorey and former Superintendent Dr. Bruce Harter used the provision to successfully argue before the state board in February, 2002 that sending students to the closest schools would create a hardship, violate fairness and equitability, and conflict with the will of the Brandywine community, based on an October, 2001 poll.
The poll showed Brandywine residents, by more than a two to one majority, backed existing attendance zones and school configurations that continue to move children after third, sixth and eighth grades.
The State Board of Education's March 2002 ruling, which keeps the busing status quo, remains in effect today.
“Given that I was the father of the act, the irony is that Brandywine was the one who utterly failed to implement provisions of the act,” Smith said. “But they also had the most ideologically committed board to forced busing.”
Brandywine's commitment to busing notwithstanding, the other three districts have tried to move toward neighborhood schools.
In August, 2001, Colonial was the first to submit a neighborhood school plan that complied with the act, according to state board records.
The district, under Superintendent Dr. George Meney, realigned elementary school configurations, and, together with manager of transportation Monroe Gerhart, demonstrated Colonial also assigned students to its three middle schools using natural neighborhood boundaries. Colonial has only one high school, William Penn, which makes the question of school assignment moot at the high school level.
The state board declared in March, 2002 that Colonial complied with the law.
The state board acknowledged that the Christina School District faced a formidable challenge trying to comply with the new mandate, because it has two separate geographic areas – Newark and part of Wilmington – as one of the biggest leftovers of federally mandated desegregation.
However, the state board noted Delaware code allows geographic boundaries to be changed through addition or subtraction. In theory, Christina could be expanded to include the area between Wilmington and Newark, or its Wilmington area could be reassigned to another existing district or to a newly created district.
Former Christina Superintendent Dr. Nicholas Fischer first submitted a plan in November, 2001, a plan that failed because it kept old grade configurations.
In May, 2002, Christina used the hardship clause to vie for the status quo, saying geographic assignments would result in overcrowded suburban schools and under used city schools. Moreover, city schools would be made up mostly of poor students, which the state board viewed as a hardship. However, public comment from Christina residents “were overwhelmingly critical” of maintaining the status quo, stressing the disruption caused by students switching schools so often and long bus rides. In addition, they said, schools receive the same amount of funding based on enrollment, regardless of socioeconomic background.
The state board rejected Christina's plan in March, 2003.
An alternate plan proposed changing grade configurations, which would require renovations and new construction. The state board said, contrary to Christina's plan, the Neighborhood Schools Act did not require new construction in order to realign schools. Moreover, the plan would still require busing many suburban middle school students to Wilmington for grades sixth through eight.
The board rejected this plan as well.
Christina has since reconfigured some of its elementary schools without renovating. But it still believes it must renovate some schools and open new ones in order to complete the reconfiguration. But, residents voted down a $211 million referendum during the 2005-06 school year, blocking construction plans. What's more, the district also had to climb out of a $12 million operating deficit.
Lastly, legislative action to change Christina's boundaries to make the district contiguous or to give its Wilmington portion to another district is not forthcoming.
Christina has submitted no plans to the state board since 2003.
Red Clay's initial approach to neighborhood schools was to argue that promoting choice fulfilled the new mandate because it allowed parents to voice their preferences about neighborhood schools through their actions.
Board President William Manning, Superintendent Dr. Robert Andrzejewski and consultant Dr. Gail Ames submitted a plan in November, 2001 that relied solely on choice to comply with the Act.
The state board rejected Red Clay's logic, noting that its Wilmington students could not use that strategy to stay close to home because Wilmington High School no longer exists. It was replaced by the choice-centered Cab Calloway School of the Arts and the Charter School of Wilmington.
The state board noted that Red Clay has largely moved to required grade configurations, however a second plan submitted in 2003 was also rejected for the same reason as 2001's plan.
In 2005, Red Clay's kindergarten through fifth grade configuration for most of its elementary schools and attendance zones satisfied the state board as far as elementary schools go. However, Red Clay still has the challenge of having no junior high or senior high school in the city of Wilmington.
high schools evade
By the 1990s, the U.S. Supreme Court had said busing was intended only as a temporary remedy.
But, there will continue to be quite a bit of busing for Wilmington students until high school and junior high education is provided for those who can't attend Charter or Cab Calloway, according to critics.
In attempting to comply with the Neighborhood Schools Act, Wilmington City Council passed an ordinance in 2001 calling for the return of the Wilmington School District.
Mayor James Baker vetoed the measure the day it passed.
“The idea that a Wilmington School District would give Wilmington residents more power over school governance is a pipe dream,” Baker wrote in a letter to council. “Those days are gone and will not be coming back.”
Baker recently said he is not against neighborhood schools. The main issue is money.
“In Wilmington, everybody wants to have a school district back but Wilmington can't afford it,” he said. “There's no way you can do it unless you get 100 percent state funding or get one of the districts to merge with Wilmington. I don't think they will.”
Baker doubts that will happen because the tax revenue from Wilmington's big businesses is incentive for the four districts to keep things as they are.
It is also hard to resurrect a city school district because despite a strong corporate tax base, it still can't afford its own district without a strong residential tax base. That base has dwindled as many middle and upper class neighborhoods have declined since the 1960s.
The city school district would have worked at one time if Wilmington's boundaries could have naturally expanded, he said. But the city was hurt by the Educational Advancement Act, which precluded Wilmington from consolidating with suburban districts. Furthermore, the city itself was excluded by state law from annexing wealthier adjacent areas, preventing natural growth.
Smith agrees that there are tremendous financial issues involved in trying to restore the city school district. However, he has urged Baker to reconsider his stance, saying its residents deserve their own schools.
“Having its own school district would complete the urban renaissance Wilmington is trying to undergo,” he said. “Municipally based school districts are the norm in America, not the exception.”