With a vote of 23 yes and 16 no, the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission redistricting plan to send the Christina School District’s Wilmington students to the Red Clay Consolidated School District now heads to the Delaware Senate. The House Republicans and Democrat State Rep. Kim Williams voted no for House Joint Resolution #12, which was similar to how the votes went down for House Bill 424.
Delaware Senator David Sokola, the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, will now have to schedule a Senate Education Committee meeting to discuss the bill. If released, it will face a full Senate vote. If it passes there, it will head to Governor Markell for signature into law. The commission could still suspend the redistricting plan if the funding is not available. They will have two opportunities to do this at the start of the fiscal years for 2017 and 2018 should the funding not be available as recommended in their plan.
All the big WEIC folks were in attendance: Tony Allen, Dan Rich, Jea Street, the WEIC attorney who I gave up a seat on the floor for and I went up to the balcony.
Right before the vote, the Joint Finance Committee met and indicated that even though the state found another $7.5 million for the budget due to refinancing bonds yesterday (yes, yesterday), none of those funds would be allocated to the WEIC redistricting plan.
First up was House Bill 424. It was read in its entirety. The sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Sean Lynn, stated his big concern with the plan was the ability for school boards to raise taxes without a referendum. State Rep. Deb Hudson went to line 37 of the bill, which covers funding for the plan and that there must be funding mechanisms from state and local sources. Lynn had House Attorney Bill Bush come to the floor to go over this aspect of the bill. Bush stated this not binding language. Hudson stated it is suggested, but Bush stated once again it is not legally binding. Lynn said Hudson was reading that part of the bill out of context and went over an earlier part of the bill that covered that sub-section. Lynn stated it does not bind the state, town, district, or local political subdivision to the plan. Hudson said the plan requires funding but there is not funding for this bill. Ramone asked why it was changed with the simple adjustment from shall to recommended. Bush said it was a “soft” language change. Ramone said even if it just said “resources”, this would be a money bill. Bush disagreed and said it is not binding to the General Assembly. Lynn said the impetus for the bill was that the General Assembly adheres to the plan. The bill does not bind the government or any subdivision to the bill. Ramone said recommendation of resources was changed from resources to show this was not a money bill. Bush agreed. Ramone asked if this is a majority bill, or the Joint Resolution, because of the changes. His concern is Red Clay going to referendum because the funds aren’t provided by the state for the plan. Ramone said the need to fix the schools is a true need. He gets all that. Ramone asked who is going to pay for it. He said no one wants to pay for it because no one can answer the funding questions.
State Rep. Joe Miro said he and Bush go back many years and thinks he is a good attorney, but he asked how another attorney would view this bill. He heard that the bill isn’t binding, but he has heard some things like this before. He said it is like going to a doctor, you get a diagnosis and a 2nd opinion, and that opinion could be the basis of a lawsuit. Bush said this bill provides a clarification that the state is not bound by anything within the bill. Miro said the state set aside $6 million for this “project” but it isn’t enough money. He said the minimum amount is $7.5 million and even that is not going to meet the $6 million in the budget. He is confused in terms of allocated funding which isn’t enough. He doesn’t want the constituents of his district to go to referendum to cover the costs. He asked why the funding is in the budget at $6 million if the state isn’t bound to it.
Speaker of the House Schwartzkopf excused Bush. Roll call: 24 yes, 15 no, 2 absent. All the House Republicans voted no.
House Joint Resolution #12 came up next. The bill was read in. An amendment was read in as well. The amendment clarifies once again the state is not bound to the plan. Hudson addressed the sponsor, State Rep. Charles Potter, and asked if there is capital funding needed for the plan. Potter said this bill realigns the school district. Hudson asked where that funding would come from. Potter said he is here to talk about HJR #12. After some back and forth, with Hudson asking the same type of question with Potter giving the same response. She said her concern is her constituents and if new schools will have to be built or if students will be put in trailers. State Rep. William Carson said the General Assembly is non-binding on this resolution. Any future funding would have to be voted on by the General Assembly, Carson clarified, to which Potter agreed.
State Rep. John Kowalko thanked WEIC for taking on the task of serving at-risk children. Kowalko said this is a plan. He said “It is time for us to step up” and deal with children in poverty. To step up for students who are a victim of their environment. Kowalko said the boundaries that were set up by the courts were ludicrous. He said there are some harsh realities with the funding, but it has been set up judiciously. Ramone commended Potter and WEIC and said there is not an illusion about what the problems are with low-income students and special needs children. As well as English-Language Learners. He said they did a remarkable job with spelling that out. He said this is a step, but the step could be a stall. He said we need to change how we fund our schools better. He asked Potter what the purpose of the House Joint Resolution really is? Potter said “The resolution is the resolution,” which gives the General Assembly the power to realign the school district. Ramone asked what the purpose of the amendment was. Ramone asked for someone from the Budget office to explain some math. Schwartzkopf said he doesn’t see anyone around. They called downstairs to bring someone up. While they were waiting, State Rep. Kim Williams read the resolution passed by WEIC which states if the funding isn’t provided, the commission, Red Clay, or Christina could suspend the plan if there is not enough funding. Potter asked if that helps Ramone’s question. He thanked Williams and Potter, but said he still wants someone from the budget office.
State Rep. Miro said whenever there is change or a need to implement something, there is a cost associated. He said he knows what HJR #12 says, but the fact of the matter is there is going to be a cost associated with any changes any time you absorb something from someone else, in this case Christina to Red Clay. Miro said this absorption will come from state or local funds and it is very difficult to make a promise that we can’t keep. He feels what will take place is the General Assembly will not be able to keep their promises. He said with the budget and the deficit we face, it is going to be difficult to answer the calls from his district. “In order to maintain money,” Miro said, “it is going to be difficult.” He doesn’t believe anyone in the room today doesn’t want a better future for these students. He said this is a bill of hope, not money.
Deputy Controller General Mike Jackson came to the podium. Ramone asked about the State of Delaware and if changing schools from one district to another would be a revenue neutral transtition. Jackson said the state funding would be reallocated from one district to another. Ramone asked how the tax rates would change. Basically, he said by changing from the poorest sections of one district, the tax rate would change. Ramone said the resolution doesn’t bind the state to financial allocations. “If I am moving children from Christina”, Ramone said, but they will have more room for administration costs while the students will move to another district with a lower tax rate. Schwartzkopf asked what the question is. State Rep. Valerie Longhurst said this resolution is not about financial issues but solely redistricting.
The vote came up for a roll call: 23 yes, 16 no, 2 absent. The redistricting plan passed the Delaware House of Representatives.