Yes, the words “chicken-fried awesome” were used by a Christina board member last night. But first they had to get through 45 excruciating minutes of approving their agenda. Board member Harrie-Ellen Minnehan introduced motions to remove three action items from the agenda and to table another item. That was just the beginning of a meeting that had topics as varied as car shopping to a very strong use of the word culpability. A member of the audience drew a great rendering of the meeting and asked me to put it in this article.
The four motions Minnehan put forth failed to move forward. Board member Shirley Saffer kept alleging Minnehan had a personal agenda going on. There was a ton of discussion about the motions and how it was unprecedented for one board member to attempt to remove action items like that. As a result of the motions, what should have been a 1-2 minutes process turned into a 45 minute ordeal for the audience. A lot of the audience had come for the presenting of the Honor Roll which is done right after the approval of the agenda and board minutes.
The charter settlement with Christina fell after a 3-4 vote by the board, exactly how the vote went when they voted for the settlement two weeks ago. Board member Fred Polaski tried to convince everyone that he believed the district would lose if it went to court with the charters. He offered no viable reason for why he felt they would lose. But it didn’t seem to matter because the board was clearly divided on many of the same action items with Polaski, Minnehan, George Evans and Meg Mason on one side. On the other were members John Young, Saffer, and President Elizabeth Paige. Young stated the minutes of the executive meeting would now become public since the need for the meeting was no longer valid and the settlement is public. He said he will be submitting updated minutes on that meeting. He also stated he had concerns about the culpability of the district in the matter. He also had grave concerns about the back and forth between the district and attorneys over Thanksgiving weekend and what amounted to a short time period of 90 minutes for the board to review the settlement. Young said that would make for a very interesting FOIA request. He had many concerns about the authority of charter leaders in signing the document, such as an Interim Principal, a Head of School, or a Board President. He reviewed many charter school bylaws and did not see that authority granted to those parties without permission from the entire board. He also did not special board meetings for the charter boards to vote on the settlement.
One of the shockers of the evening (and there were many), was the situation with the Montessori program in Christina. There was an action item to end the program. This became the controversy of the evening as parents and staff members gave public comment in support of the program. When it came time for the board to discuss the matter, Paige asked a question that solidified a crucial problem with the district, that of transparency. Delaware schools receive academic excellence units which they are free to cash in and do as they please. The Montessori program had three of those units. Paige asked about them and it was revealed by the district the Honors Academy would use three academic excellence units. While the district hemmed and hawed about the “coincidence”, Paige said the “optics” look very bad. In a rare moment of unity, the board voted 6-1 in favor of keeping the program with Polaski as the lone no vote. This prompted Young’s quote of the evening. He said the district believes competition is so “chicken-fried awesome” that they should be doing everything they can to get students who are a wait list at First Sstate Montessori Academy into Christina’s Montessori program. Board member Polaski suggested partnering up with the Wilmington charter school to have them open a satellite school in the Christina school district. No one even responded to this rather absurd notion. But it did point to what I see as a very charter friendly Polaski.
Once again, with a 3-4 vote, the board voted against annulling the Honors Academy vote from November with the same 3-4 blocks. Young pointed out that many of Christina’s existing Cambridge programs are disproportionate with the amount of minorities represented in them. The irony of the district wanting to close a program where there is equity (the Montessori program) in favor of moving forward with a program which has a strong potential of inequity (The Honors Academy) did not escape members of the audience. Concerns around placement tests, a parent letter, and standardized test scores were the chief reasons three of the board members wanted to annul the prior vote. There were also concerns around opt out and how the application for the academy could penalize those students who were opted out despite a board policy that explicitly forbids that.
The point of exhaustion for members of the audience surrounded the district’s Superintendent interviews. Yesterday, the Delaware Attorney General answered a FOIA complaint surrounding the board’s November executive meeting to formulate questions for the Superintendent candidate. Some board members refused to participate in the meeting since they had already figured out it would be a FOIA violation. This prompted the board to make public the questions for candidates. There was also a matter about interviewing the candidates the week before Christmas and a mad rush to get it done. As a result, the board voted in favor of naming an Interim Superintendent with Noreen LaSorsa taking on the role. It was agreed the board would conduct Superintendent interviews the first week of January. Saffer argued the board needed the public to see the candidates in the schools and interacting with students and staff as they had done in the past. Board member Evans said he would not participate in any of that. Young’s action item to begin the Superintendent search again to get a more diverse pool of candidates fell with a 2-5 vote with Saffer and Young as the two no votes.
This board is a house divided. Mostly between common sense and… I don’t know what. On the one side we have Young, Paige, and Saffer who seem to know the law and sees how decisions made today could cause problems in the future. On the other is the not-so Fantastic Four who always seem to be in this frantic hurry to get things done now without looking at all of the angles. They also seem to be easily intimidated by the district and outside forces. This shapes their votes. Minnehan took a pointed jab at Young as she said she would never want to go car-shopping with him because he takes too long to make a decision. I would rather have that than winding up with a lemon Mrs. Minnehan! As I drove down to Dover after this very long meeting which entered an actual new day, I saw a warrior district succumbing to the privatization movement that is paralyzing public education. I believed for a long time Christina was the last hold-out in Delaware, but after some of the votes last night, it was painfully obvious the last blockade fell. At this point, Delaware needs a hero. We need an Obi-Wan moment where someone answers the call of “you’re my only hope“. Will that person come from Christina or somewhere else?
I gave the following public comment to the board last night but despite my six minutes thanks to borrowed time, I was not able to get to the end of it which I will notate in the below comment.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Christina School District Board of Education. It has been a long time since I came up to this podium to speak before this board. The last time I did so was seventeen months ago. I believe Ms. Minnehan was the Board President at that time. A lot happened at that meeting. I did want to offer an apology in regards to that. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to give public comment here.
I have a lot to talk about tonight, mostly in regards to the charter school shakedown, er, uhm, lawsuit.
First, can you please, for the love of all we hold sacred, fix the sound for the audio recordings on your website? It is a recurring issue and I’m certain it wouldn’t cost that much money to correct this.
Second, I am very curious why a FOIA request I sent to the district was never followed up on. I sent a FOIA request to the district asking for the past three years of all air quality inspections for every single one of the Christina schools. I received an email back that a cost estimate would be forthcoming. That was almost two months ago. I received nothing. As Delaware state code gives any public agency a period of 15 business days to respond to a FOIA request, the district has violated FOIA. Please remedy this by tomorrow so I do not have to file another FOIA complaint with the Delaware Attorney General’s office. Which I’m sure this district has had enough of. But I digress.
I do not believe the board should even entertain not voting on the rescission of the settlement. I am glad that motion failed. (I adlibbed the last sentence because of the board not passing Minnehan’s motion but I am not entirely sure on the wording). I believe it is very important you vote in the majority to vote yes on rescinding the settlement. As we all know, this was brought forth by Greg Meece over at Newark Charter School. What has never been answered is HOW Greg Meece suddenly, last winter, decided to get a meeting with the fine people at the Delaware DOE. How, all of a sudden, Meece knew EXACTLY what to look for. According to a letter Meece wrote last week to the parents of NCS students, Secretary Godowsky never knew about the change to the local funding formula. So Godowsky reversing a decision he never made, which was cited in the lawsuit and settlement, is frivolous at best. This entire shenanigan was meant to intimidate Christina, and sadly, the district took the bait. They didn’t just take the bait, they swallowed it and regurgitated it to four board members who voted out of fear rather than common sense. That is something that needs to be reversed tonight. I would rather see this district take this ALL THE WAY than see one more penny going out of this district to certain charters who want for nothing. If anything, the DOE should be the entity paying for this year’s charter share of the 2003 referendum and all future costs due to their colossal screw-up, not just getting off the hook by paying for half the attorney fees. But more than that, what may not have come out of all this, is the role the Office of Management and Budget played. As Brian Stephan wrote in a recent article on Delaware Liberal, something happened in 2014 that changed everything with the local funding formula. What he didn’t write, which he may not have been aware of, was why everything changed that year. The Office of Management and Budget, a section of Governor Jack Markell’s office, took over the responsibility from Mark Murphy to oversee this aspect of Delaware education financing. Oh so coincidentally, that was the same year the Delaware DOE launched the priority schools debacle and launched a coordinated attack against Christina when this board would not cower and buckle to Governor Markell’s shameful education agendas. While I am not an attorney or an accountant, I am just a blogger. According to Newark Charter School parents, I’m a sneaky snake blogger. But it is my belief this omission of paying the charter schools their portion of the 2003 referendum was, at best, an egregious error that the State of Delaware should pay moving forward. If that were not enough, the fact that tuition and match taxes were brought up in the settlement is very troubling. The charters have no right to those funds so why it was brought up in a settlement is beyond me. I certainly hope none of that nonsense was the district’s idea. That just opens the door for future siphoning of district funds the local taxpayers entrusted to the district, not to fifteen charter schools. If I’m not mistaken, Christina does not get large donations from the Longwood Foundation, they don’t get a larger proportion of minor capital funds based on their student populations like the charters do, and they certainly don’t get to keep excess transportation funds under their “budgeted” amount.
While we can sit here and pretend the charter cabal, led by Saul Ewing LLC, is a force to be reckoned with, the simple fact is they made unprecedented money grab. This could have been done a dozen different ways, but they chose threats and intimidation, with support from certain legislators in both the House and the Senate, to get what they wanted. As a result, if this board does NOT rescind the settlement, it will continue to give away funds this district desperately needs to 15 charter schools who have more than enough money already. And if you are going to put your trust in the Delaware Dept. of Education to do the right thing, you have already put one more nail in the coffin of this district.
At this point my time ran out, but this is how I planned to finish my public comment:
I strongly urge this board to continue to keep CSD moving forward. That does not mean responding to bullying threats by what amounts to non-profit corporations in Delaware. That means fighting for what is yours. As your CFO, Bob Silber, rightly argued, this district did what they were supposed to do. It was the State that screwed up. If this board is truly supposed to represent this district, and not Saul Ewing, Greg Meece, and the charters that have taken more funding from this district than any other force in this state, they will need to do the right thing and rescind this farce of a settlement that will allow charter schools to plunder funds not just from Christina, but would set a precedent for every district in this state.
I love the fact that the anonymous donation to Stubbs was highlighted by so much media in this state. But those students deserve more than having additional funds taken from them that would put the lunch balance to shame.
Thank you, and I do want to wish all of you a great holiday. Bob A, thank you for the Frozen memory. Good luck in your future endeavors.
To read the response to the FOIA complaint from the Delaware Attorney General’s office, please read below: