Kowalko Picks Apart Carney’s Not So Legal Christina-Wilmington Plan

Last night, the Christina Board of Education voted 5-2 to push back Delaware Governor John Carney’s consolidation plan for Christina’s Wilmington students until the 2019-2020 school year. They felt the initiative would need more time. The no votes belonged to board members George Evans and Fred Polaski. State Rep. John Kowalko gave public comment concerning the plan. To say he was not in favor would be an understatement. Kowalko brought up many good points which the Governor and the Delaware DOE ought to consider.

I and 9 other legislators attended a meeting called by Governor Carney less than a week ago purportedly to discuss the proposed Wilmington school reform plan and MOU proposal. Since we weren’t given copies of the MOU and it doesn’t seem to be available any longer at the link the Administration provided I cannot offer or challenge some of the specifics. At this meeting the Governor suggested that the MOU draft submitted by DOE would be changed and this board is not bound by it and should draft its own MOU proposal. The deadlines for Board action that the Governor and DOE appear to be imposing are substantively unrealistic and impractical for such a complex consideration with so many unanswerable questions.

Having examined some of the initial proposal and the details and expectations it held has led me to conclude that this is not a well thought out plan, that raises more questions and challenges then it has answers for.

I distributed some of my points of concern to the Governor and DOE and have copies for you that I will distribute. Due to time constraints I will try to focus on only a few of my concerns that I hope you will consider at this time.

I find it particularly harmful and hurtful to the “Southbridge” community, families and children to propose closing Elbert Palmer, one of the true neighborhood schools in walking distance and accessible to this Wilmington community. I hope that this Board’s counter-proposal would support closing that tired old monolith known as Bancroft and refurbish Palmer, Pulaski and Bayard to use for the suggested K-8 reconfiguration.

I also implore this Board to pay heed to the massive costs (which the Governor personally refused to speculate on) in refurbishing or renovating in order to make these consolidations. You should be acutely aware that any promise of funding cannot be guaranteed. In fact I would urge you to recall this Administration’s recently passed budget with concurrence of this current General Assembly cut traditional public school revenues by more than $36 million. Restoring that $36 million in cuts and adding even a small percentage of the proposed renovation costs would be much more beneficial and effective for Wilmington students if allocated to create smaller classroom ratios and hire reading and math specialists.

As I’ve looked at this reform proposal and its details and drawing upon my 11 years of experience as a legislator I am forced to conclude that this is a no-win situation for Christina, this Board and the children of Wilmington. Its predisposition to fail will be used to scapegoat the district and further stifle opportunities for Wilmington students and their families.

Finally I would suggest that this Board consider that traditional public school funding has received reduced funding since 2009 now totaling over $65 million per year. Ask the DOE and Governor:

Who is going to pay for the renovations?

Who is paying for longer school days and school years?

Who is paying for vacation academies?

Who is paying for after-school programs?

And why aren’t Reading Specialists and funding for them part of this plan?

At this point, Kowalko had several questions for Governor Carney as well:

1) If CSD does not approve MOU, more money will be taken from the District further harming prospects of Wilmington students and families. (“If it rejects the plan and fails to come up with an acceptable alternative, the agreement would be terminated immediately, resulting in the loss of any additional financial support for the district”).
2) Bayard/Bancroft are not appropriate buildings for little children even if renovated. Bancroft too old to make usable with renovations.
3) Trauma Training not necessarily (research?) effective but investing/funding 1 to 15 class size ratios would effectively improve the learning environment and outcomes.
4) Palmer became the first equity lawsuit in Delaware when Christina District (at Lowery’s behest) tried to close it 10 years ago.
5) Leaves no “Neighborhood Schools” for city children and in fact may violate the “Neighborhood Schools Legislation”.
6) Bancroft is far away from Palmer and Southbridge children who now walk would be unable to continue that practice.
7) Distinguish more specifically between renovate, refurbish and reconfiguration.
8) Why don’t we do things like “successful” districts? The most successful programs such as in New York and Massachusetts fund “reading specialists” and lower class ratios.
9) When the plan refers to “potentially” establishing “early childhood education” and “centers for students and families learning English” at a vacated Palmer are the planners aware that there are no ESL students at Palmer?
10) Have you considered neighborhood “gangs” being integrated from across Wilmington into the same building?
11) The suggested “Co-leadership” model re: principals and assistant principals belies the reality that these two jobs have never had the same duties and have always had designated responsibilities and functions.
12) “Loan forgiveness stipend” to young and “inexperienced” teachers does not reflect any benefit to already established teachers who have devoted their careers to inner-city education and “Who” is paying for these loans?
13) “Who” is paying for “longer school days/year”?
14) “Who is paying for “vacation academies”?
15) “Who is paying for “after-school programing”?
16) Why aren’t reading specialists part of this plan and therefore WHO IS PAYING FOR “READING SPECIALISTS” SO THAT CHILDREN ACTUALLY LEARN TO READ?

These are all valid questions that deserve answers. One of my biggest questions is why the Delaware Department of Education did not include this in their presentation to the Office of Management and Budget for the Fiscal Year 2019 budget a couple of weeks ago. Where is all this money coming from? The Christina Board of Education will vote on the plan again next Tuesday at their monthly board meeting. Revisions will supposedly go back and forth until February of 2018 which is Governor Carney’s deadline for the decision.

Delaware School Safety Report Shows Severe Limitations In Our Schools For Controlling Violence

If we are to have a chance to reduce and reverse this type of behavior, it is necessary to begin early and to start in the home. Efforts must be made to reach out students and to provide them with positive new directions in elementary school. Several committee members pointed out that “middle school is too late.”

“If joining a gang is the only way to survive, the kids will join gangs,” one committee member said, adding, “A lot of teachers don’t know who gang members are. You, as a teacher, should know how to interact with kids and parents because kids and parents may not have the ability to interact with us.”

The committee discussed the possibility of cell phone bans in schools, but public schools in Delaware have not done so because parents want to be able to reach their children by phone.

These were just a few of the topics discussed in the Special Committee on Public Safety.

School safety.  Two words that mean so many things to so many people.  To some, it means making sure every single student and staff member is protected from violence.  To some it means reporting requirements.  Many think of Sandy Hook or Columbine.  Others think of a mounting problem that can never be corrected.

Earlier this year, in the wake of two very violent deaths in Wilmington, a group was formed by Senator Robert Marshall.  Marshall is the Chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee.  He formed a group that met twice to discuss school safety issues with various topics introduced.  Out of these meetings, Senate Concurrent Resolution #83 formed a Special Committee on School Safety.  The final report was given to the President Pro Tempore of the Delaware Senate and Governor Markell yesterday.

The below report has a great deal of information.  It is very long but it is worth the read.  Take the time to read it.  Every single word.  Whether you are for or against School Resource Officers or Constables in Delaware schools, it is important to know what is happening out there.  It affects every single citizen of this state.  Issues in schools can explode outside of schools often, but issues outside of schools are brought into schools all the time.

The one thing I took out of this report is there are no easy answers.  Issues around funding and legality are some of the biggest obstacles to making schools safer.  Trauma plays a huge role in our high-needs schools.  Family issues outside of school are one of the biggest obstacles to safe schools.

There was one recommendation coming out of the final report that I didn’t see discussed anywhere in the meeting minutes.

Provide funding for the Delaware Department of Education to conduct a voluntary, statewide survey among students, parents, and teachers to get their thoughts on improving the learning environment and ways to make our schools safer.

It can’t be a report on education in Delaware without the Delaware Dept. of Education inserting something they want, which usually involves them getting more money.  One important thing to take note of in this report is that Delaware Senator David Sokola and State Rep. Earl Jaques were both listed as members of this committee but neither went to any of the meetings on it or bothered to assign a designee to attend in their absence.

The parts about Senate Bill 207, which I also issued severe problems with, were echoed by many in regards to future under-reporting of incidents in schools.  I thank God the House added an amendment to the bill that still requires mandatory reporting to the Delaware DOE.  But there is one line about Senate Bill 207 in the final report which will give any Delaware citizen severe anxiety.

Gang Issues At Dover High School Leads To Capital Board Approving Use Of Armed Constables

Last night, with a vote of 5-0, the Capital School Board voted to hire three armed constables at Dover High School.  Using a model currently in use by Indian River School District, the board discussed the issue with members of the community as well  as high school and district staff.  All supported the measure with one exception: the Senior Class President.  The pool of applicants would come from the Delaware State Police.  Because of insurance and pension issues, the pool was limited.  All were in agreement that hiring out-of-state would not be a wise decision.

One of the staff from the high school gave public comment indicating the current non-armed security guard company they utilize is highly ineffective and said it is like “throwing $40.000 off the roof”.  He cited the bomb threat incident a few months ago that led to a student’s arrest.  But he also indicated there was a huge fight on the football field as students were already trying to deal with the bomb threat.  He indicated there are gangs at Dover High School.  He said they are a small group of students who cause a lot of the problems.

The Senior Class President said many students were concerned with going from unarmed to armed persons in the school.  He felt like it was a drastic leap to go from one situation to what he felt was extreme.  He urged the board to find some middle ground.  Many students, he stated, felt it wasn’t fair to have this in their school when they weren’t the ones causing the problems.

In an attempt to allay the class president’s fears concerning the presence of armed constables at the high school, board member Ralph Taylor, also a retired Dover Police Officer of 20 years, said a gun is a very last resort.  He said the last thing an officer wants to do is use a gun, but it could mean a matter of many lives in a bad situation.  Board member Sean Christiansen said he reached out to different stakeholders in the Indian River School District including their own constables, parents, teachers, and students to get their thoughts on the matter.  All felt it improved school climate and led students to a feeling of safety within the district.  Dover High School Principal Courtney Voshell had a survey where parents could rate how safe they felt their children were at Dover H.S. and over 93% felt the school was not safe the way the current safety program was set up.

The school will also retain their School Resource Officer from the Dover Police and the constables will not have arrest authority.  They will be used to diffuse situations, but as it was explained, they will not punish students if they don’t have a bathroom pass.  The contract will cost the district an additional $75,000 out of their budget which will be used from carryover funds from fiscal year 2016.  Going forward, this would be a permanent part of the district budget.  The constables will be employees of the district.  They will receive professional development on all areas of school safety.  The details are not flush yet, but there was discussion if the training would come from the current Indian River Constables or the Dover Police Department.

I asked the board how the recently passed Senate Bill 207, which would not mandate schools to call the police every time a physical assault occurs unless it is considered to be a crime, could affect this decision from a financial perspective.  The bill, not yet signed by Delaware Governor Jack Markell, would give schools and parents discretion to contact law enforcement in those events.  Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton said the current school resource officer currently deals with crimes in the school so it would not change things.  Certain school crimes such as drugs or weapons, would still result in an arrest of a student.  Shelton said another bill (the restorative justice bill) didn’t pass but if it does in the future it would give the district additional funding to deal with school climate issues.   I also asked if the constables would receive special education training for students with disabilities.  Shelton said they would, but not on an individual basis.

The board was so impressed with the Senior Class President, board member John Martin invited him back up to the podium to discuss student concerns in greater detail.  Board member Christiansen invited him to come to every single board meeting.  It was also conveyed they wanted him to be a part of the hiring committee for the constables and Christiansen told Voshell he expected him to be excused from class those days.  Voshell jokingly answered that would be a summer school excuse which drew laughter from the audience.

The special board meeting, held just for the purpose of this decision, also had another activity.  Elected board member Dr. Chanda Jackson was sworn in by board President Matthew Lindell.

While I wrote some very negative things about the district almost half an hour prior to this board meeting yesterday, most of which concerned their Strategic Plan and joining the BRINC Consortium, I felt this board meeting was a very honest and open discussion about a very serious issue.  The district was honest about the issues happening at Dover High and didn’t try to whitewash the gang activity.  After the meeting, I happened to be speaking to a board member from another district that deals with similar issues as Dover H.S. but they said their district would never openly talk about these kinds of issues in their schools.  We both agreed that issues can’t be dealt with until they are acknowledged.  So I salute the Capital School District and Board for tackling this decision.