When it comes to education, brokering deals isn’t Delaware Governor Jack Markell’s strong suit. His fumbling could have given the Christina priority schools major headaches larger than the ones they had.
In September, 2014, Governor Markell announced six priority schools in Wilmington, DE. Three in the Red Clay Consolidated School District and three in the Christina School District. Each school board had to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for each school. Red Clay signed their MOU a few months later while Christina fought the Delaware Department of Education every step of the way. By the end of February of 2015, the Christina School Board refused to sign the MOU and didn’t approve plans for the schools. When it looked like the Delaware DOE and then Secretary of Education Mark Murphy were going to take the schools from the district, Governor Markell brokered a plan between the district and the Delaware DOE.
As a result of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee (WEAC) and their recommendation to turn the Christina schools in Wilmington to Red Clay, the priority school saga was on hold. The Christina Board voted in favor of the WEAC idea and Governor Markell brought both sides to the table. A new MOU detailed the WEAC recommendation and the Christina Board signed it. The MOU went to Secretary Murphy for signature. The tension ended. Or so we thought.
For seven months, the subject of the Christina priority schools was very quiet. WEAC became the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission through legislation. The commission started meeting in September of 2015 to craft the plans to eventually fold the Wilmington Christina schools into Red Clay. At the October meeting of the Delaware Education Support System (DESS), a representative asked about the Christina priority schools and what would happen to them if the redistricting plan fell apart. Delaware DOE Chief of Accountability and Assessment Penny Schwinn said that was a very good question and one they were hoping to get answers for soon.
The DOE was in transition. Secretary Murphy announced his resignation at the end of July. Acting Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky inherited the Christina priority schools. The DESS meeting was on October 5th. A month earlier, I wondered what would happen if the WEIC plan didn’t pass the State Board of Education or the Delaware General Assembly. Everyone assumed the deal Governor Markell brokered in March covered the Christina priority schools up until that point. But in FOIA’d emails never revealed to the public until now, the Delaware DOE truly didn’t know what Markell’s deal even meant. Behind the scenes, Schwinn emailed the United States Department of Education to get clarification on what the options were for the three schools seven months after “the deal”.
I find it astonishing Governor Markell never had the Delaware DOE check with the US DOE before the March deal. This is a man who prides himself on all things education. Instead, he made an executive decision without checking to see if it was even okay.
Nearly two weeks after Schwinn first posed the question to Julie Glasier, an Education Specialist at the US DOE, she received an answer:
As per the US DOE, the deal brokered by Markell wasn’t good enough. All of this led to what is known as “The Hissy Fit” at the December meeting of the Delaware State Board of Education meeting. The board minutes for this meeting tell one story, but reality was far different.
It was pointed out that the Christina School District schools are in the second year of planning as the Department has not received a plan. Dr. Gray voiced her dismay and concern that the district has failed to respond to the Department’s requests. Dr. Godowsky stated that it is the Department’s expectation that the district will submit their plan. It was also noted that the educators in that district are to be commended for helping their students achieve without the additional funding they could be receiving.
State Board President Dr. Teri Quinn Gray was visibly upset about the Christina School District priority schools. She acted as if the district made the deal back in March and just forgot about the schools. She was so angry she had to excuse herself from the State Board meeting to regain her composure. The very next day an astonishing revelation came out about what happened, or to be more concise, didn’t happen after the brokered meeting nine months earlier. Secretary Murphy never signed the MOU between the Christina priority schools and the Delaware DOE. Christina board members stated they were never told anything more had to be done with the schools during the pending WEIC redistricting proposal. Now the Delaware DOE wanted the district’s priority school plans.
While never officially confirmed, Murphy’s resignation was rumored to be a “resign now” due to issues with the funding for the three Red Clay priority schools. Emails released by this blog weeks before the Murphy announcement seemed to be the final straw for his Cabinet position in Delaware. Was Markell aware of Murphy’s other colossal error concerning the Christina priority schools?
This led to another explosion of sorts at the February State Board of Education meeting. The State Board voted no on the WEIC redistricting plan due to wording around funding and Christina having no priority school plans turned into the DOE. State Board member Pat Heffernan went on a tirade of his own about the three schools and how Christina failed them. At an emergency meeting of WEIC the next week, Christina Board President Harrie Ellen Minnehan told State Board President Dr. Gray she should apologize to Christina for the underhanded treatment they received from her. To date, Dr. Gray has not apologized to Christina.
Christina submitted the priority school plans to Secretary Godowsky and the State Board passed the WEIC redistricting plan last month. Godowsky notified the State Board the plans were enough for the DOE.
Several questions emerge from this year and a half story though. During the time of the priority schools announcement and the months following, many assumed the DOE wanted to take the schools. Myself included. But the stark reality is the DOE really didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Neither Governor Markell or the DOE bothered to check to see if the brokered deal was acceptable to the federal agency that mandated the priority schools in the first place. Granted, Delaware made up their own plans to decide which schools were “priority”, which wasn’t exactly without it’s own controversy.
I don’t believe ANY school should get a label based on standardized test scores. Period. Teachers should not fear for their jobs because of bogus tests. The way the Delaware DOE, the State Board of Education, and Governor Markell treated Christina during the five months after the announcement was shameful. Even worse was the false treatment from the State Board of Education last fall and this winter. Executive Director of the State Board of Education Donna Johnson serves as a liaison of sorts between the State Board of Education and the Delaware Department of Education. While not knowing for certain, I would have a very hard time believing Johnson was not aware of Schwinn’s emails to the US DOE and the fact that Secretary Murphy never signed the MOU. She could have cleared that up at the December State Board meeting, but she didn’t. If she did know of these events, she allowed Dr. Gray to behave the way she did. Even Godowsky seemed shocked at the appalling actions on Gray’s part.
The Delaware State Board of Education is appointed by the Delaware Governor. There are no public elections for the seven State Board of Education seats. Donna Gray sits on the DESS Advisory Committee. The WEIC redistricting plan awaits action from the Delaware 148th General Assembly. The three Christina priority schools are still in the district and they began the Smarter Balanced Assessment last month. The scores on these tests, like so many other Title I schools in Delaware, determine their fates to this day. Governor Markell believes the Smarter Balanced Assessment is the best test Delaware ever made.