The Christina School District board has perfected the art of pushing paperwork that produces little progress for Wilmington students.
Last week, its members signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Gov. Carney’s office designed to take a bolder approach to education in a district whose graduation rate has dropped each of the last three years and is the lowest in the state (69 percent). Yet, as interesting as some of the details of the MOU may sound, experience tells us they are sure to fail. With a school board that has failed to follow through on previous reforms, Christina School District’s students will not see change until we address the deep dysfunction of its school board.
You know you are dealing with a school board that is committed to inaction when the governor needs to attend Christina’s board meetings to plead and prod them to do what a high-functioning board would do without prompting. Nearly half of the state’s bottom 5 percent schools are in the Christina School District, 38 percent of kids from Christina now attend non-district schools and the district is wasting taxpayer dollars with most of their schools currently less than half full. Yet, Gov. Carney (and Gov. Markell before him) have had to expend significant energy and political capital just to get the district to sign a piece of paper committing to real action.
That it takes ultimatums, lawsuits, federal investigations and hand-holding from the highest levels of our state government would not be so bad if the district actually had a track record of delivering on their commitments. They don’t.
Just two years ago, on March 4, 2016, the Christina School District signed a similar agreement with the Delaware Department of Education by which it committed to implementing reforms that would dramatically improve their lowest-performing schools. Yet, Christina school board member Harrie Ellen Minnehan remarked: “None of the actions designated in the doc were put into place as stated but the monies did go to the Wilmington city schools. I believe (Secretary) Godowsky wanted it signed strictly for audit purposes.” With no intention to deliver and no true accountability from the state, Christina School District has mastered this game of sign and switch.
In 2014, the Christina School Board released a three-year strategic plan that took a school year to develop. They called it “Imagining the Future for Christina” and like the MOUs, it addressed the essentials for creating a high-performing district. But in The News Journal last September, Vice President Fred Polaski said the plan was never put into action. Instead, it was “put on the shelf” and none of the goals in the plan were met before it expired in 2017.
In 2013, the state withheld $2.3 million of the Christina School District’s funds for failing to deliver on its commitments. In 2011, the state was close to withholding $11 million from the Christina School District for reneging on a previous agreement. This pattern of ineffective leadership is bad for taxpayers. It is even worse for the many students and families who desperately need Christina’s schools to be of the highest quality.
But because this year’s Christina School District drama features a new governor, a new secretary of education, a new Christina School District superintendent and a few new players, we are expected to act like we have not seen how this script ends. We are expected to be comfortable with handing over an additional $15 million to a district that has not been asked to account for how it spent previous dollars designated for improving its schools. How can we be excited about the promises of the latest MOU when the district has failed to honor its longstanding IOU to our children?
In 2020, my daughter will be starting kindergarten and her current feeder pattern would have her headed to Stubbs Elementary. If we continue on our current path, 2020 will bring yet another year in which fewer than 10 Stubbs students (out of more than 130 students) are proficient in math and fewer than 20 students are proficient in reading.
That is not the future I want for my child or any of the children of the Christina School District. So state leaders should definitely provide the students and educators in Christina’s Wilmington schools the additional investment and support needed. But only after they find a way to give our community a school board that represents us and can deliver the results our kids deserve.