Delaware Education

Last Night’s Meeting On Christina’s Wilmington Schools

Parents, teachers and community members filled the auditorium at Stubbs Elementary School last night, and they were not happy. That tends to happen when you don’t include a community in the plans you made about their schools. Why elected officials, school districts and the Dept. of Education continue to put together major plans without community input never ceases to amaze me. The crowd walked into that meeting upset, and, given the lack of answers to their questions, they left the meeting upset.

One point that Gov. Carney and Superintendent Gregg stressed (several times) was that the News Journal got it wrong. I’ve read the leaked document, and what was put forth last night seemed pretty much in line with the “confidential plan” leaked to the News Journal. In fact, I wouldn’t change a thing from the post I wrote yesterday.

Gov. Carney reassured parents that this was a work in progress, that the MOU was only a draft, and that last night’s meeting (and future meetings) was about community input. I’m really not sure how much community input can be had when a draft MOU (confidential plan) exists and votes on it are already scheduled.

Very few details were provided last night. Parents, teachers and community members asked questions (really good questions) that went unanswered, or were answered vaguely.

Last night’s audience knew exactly what issues needed to be addressed in their schools and what was needed to help solve them. They repeatedly asked about adding more teachers/paras to the classrooms and keeping class sizes small. Those questions weren’t addressed, so I guess adding more teachers/paras and reducing class size isn’t on the table. (It’s a good guess since every plan of this sort – the Priority Schools plan comes to mind – never seems to include smaller class sizes and more teachers.) They asked about handling kids dealing with trauma, about how to involve parents – and they pointed out how difficult it was to help their child with homework when their kids didn’t have textbooks a parent could reference, just a worksheet. They were 100% on point.

One parent brought up concerns over K-8 schools. He was told that K-8 hasn’t been decided on yet. That’s not an answer. It’s also, I suspect, not the truth. If the plan is to consolidate 5 schools into two (and that point wasn’t up for debate), and one of those schools is a middle school that’s under capacity, then how would you utilize the “extra” space? You’d add K-5 students.

There was a lot of “nothing’s been decided” answers last night, so it was hard to pin down exactly what the Governor’s plan consisted of.

There were also a ton of promises to involve the community/parents in future meetings about this plan. Again, I’m not sure how that works given the scheduled December votes, and February 28th deadline. But that promise was made. Repeatedly. Future community meetings was the answer given every single time a parent/community member questioned a part of the leaked MOU. It was given every time they asked why they were only finding out about this plan now.

Anyone would be forgiven in thinking that last night’s meeting was the beginning of the discussion. Gov. Carney and Superintendent Gregg need to get into those schools and meet with this community before taking another step. If they had done this before drafting a MOU and scheduling votes on… I’m note even sure what to call it anymore, last night’s meeting would have gone a lot smoother. Right now, they do not have community support, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

A question was asked last night about the last Christina School District MOU, and what was going on with those plans. Excellent question. The answer from Gov. Carney: I wasn’t Governor at the time. *wince* Superintendent Gregg did the same thing with another question, stating that he arrived in April, and was not responsible for anything before that time, only after. I’m not sure who was in charge of prepping the Governor and Superintendent for last night’s meeting, but they dropped the ball. People wanted answers. They didn’t get them. Now… if the MOU is scrapped and the community is involved in forming a new plan… then count me in. I didn’t leave the meeting feeling like that was an option, tho. Especially since…

The MOU is scheduled to be posted online before next Tuesday’s school board meeting. Looks like we’re moving forward with this.

But let me point out that a MOU shouldn’t even exist until community meetings were held and feedback was given.

Yesterday, I wrote that these plans were going to cost a lot of money. That’s still the case. What I fear will happen is that the MOU will be approved, but the General Assembly will not approve all the financing necessary to implement it – Which will result in consolidation of schools, but no resource centers. What I think we’ll end up with is two K-8 schools and three closed schools. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Christina School Board should add a condition to the MOU that makes it null and void if the financing doesn’t appear for the entire plan, because what was presented last night was a plan that needed all parts to work.

24 comments on “Last Night’s Meeting On Christina’s Wilmington Schools

  1. cassandram

    Great recap! I would add that everyone in that room knew that the schools as they exist right now did not have adequate resources. Everyone in the room knew that the State of Delaware is responsible for not providing the right resources to address the needs of these students.

    It was claimed over and over that there would be savings that could go into classrooms if there was building consolidation. Interestingly, no one provided any real data on that claim. And if they keep open the other buildings as resource centers — where are the savings again? (ps to NJ — ask for the spreadsheets that show these savings, will ya?)

    Kudos to the NJ for printing that draft MOU. No one would have known whats up without it. We should keep in mind that both Gregg and Carney poohed poohed the idea that the ideas in this MOU were cast in concrete. We’ll see what happens on 12/5 and 12/12.

  2. cassandram

    One more thing — I think these Town Halls were meant to be like the Budget Listening Tour. Be present, listen, but implement a predesigned plan. The reality of a real MOU interrupted the intended theater.

    • There were people there who were promised that nothing, and I mean nothing, was carved in stone and that they would be included in upcoming meetings to shape the plan. Unless everyone is as jaded as me, they believed that. I’d say, Carney and co. should start scheduling these community meetings.

  3. Brian Stephan

    pandora, your coverage of this is amazing. Thank you.

    The wildcard in this (as with the previous MOU for priority schools) is Christina’s Board of Ed. A vote is scheduled on the agenda, yes. That’s a far cry from whether the vote will actually take place. I know at least 2 members will intensely question the MOU and the motives behind it as well as it’s probability of success in its current form. That’s not a 4 vote majority, but I believe the questions will be asked.

    Secondly, building consolidation isn’t a cost saving measure. If someone says that, immediately discount whatever they tell you after saying it. Running a school district building involves 2 major expenses of funds. 1) Operation of the building itself (utilities, grounds, repairs, etc) and 2) Paying personnel to staff the building.

    Buildings are constructed, purchased, and renovated usually using 20 year bonds that are 60% State of Delaware funded, 40% District funded. If you *close* a building, an outstanding bond doesn’t go away. You’re still paying for your share of the balance owed. If they close 3 of the Wilmington schools and bonds are still active on any of them, the District still pays them. No savings there.

    If there are no bonds outstanding on the buildings and they are closed, there’s now abandoned property owned by the State & District which will still incur costs to maintain the properties. *maybe, maybe if you’re lucky* marginal savings there from decreased utility usage.

    If they close *AND* sell a building for a price equal to or above what is owed on any outstanding bonds, any proceeds go right back into the District’s overall bond debt balance for all buildings.

    And since all districts have some amount of bond debt that’s almost always higher than the sale price of a building (even 3 buildings for some districts), no cost savings there either.

    Which leaves the other expense: People.

    You close a building what happens to staff? Staff funding units are earned by student count. Closing a building does not decrease your student count, ergo the State and District will continue to pay for the same staff, just operating out of a different building.

    Building consolidation as a method of cost savings is the same thing as a screen door on a submarine. Above water, it will work just fine as a door. Below water where it matters, it does nothing for you.

    • Thanks, Brian! That’s high praise coming from you!

      Thanks, also, for breaking down why building consolidation isn’t a cost savings measure.

    • cassandram

      This is fantastic, Brian. I suspected that building consolidation was the same kind of magic dust as consolidation of school districts will be. One of the reasons I was surprised there was no data on this building consolidation is that they are selling this thing as having more money to put into the remaining schools. That there will be some new bucket of money available that will address the consolidation and/or the need for improved resources at these schools. I do hope that whatever they approve for the MOU that there is a clause that invalidates the entire deal if there is not enough money to implement.

    • I can’t imagine they are still paying bonds on these schools. Palmer was ancient when I went there in the fall of 1979. Not sure about the other two but have to imagine they are at least 20 years old.

      Clearly there will be a savings in reducing utility and maintenance costs for the buildings, and probably also some savings in transportation costs as there should be some consolidation. Not 60% but certainly some savings.

      And if there is no staffing related savings by closing the the three buildings than maybe it is time for CSD to reconsider the “Staff funding units per student count” model as it is clearly an unrealistic model, especially with regards to support staff.

      Student teacher ratios: Pulaski 13:1, Stubbs 15:1, Palmer 11:1 (Source: http://www.startclass.com/ for the three schools in question). These are all well below the state mandated maximum for grades K-3 so why is there not opportunity for savings here?

      Your response is classic bureaucratic-speak for “well, this is the way we have always done things, and we are not going to change…” and is exactly why CSD has lost 25% of their enrollment in the last 20 years.

      • Brian Stephan

        xyz,

        “I can’t imagine they are still paying bonds on these schools. Palmer was ancient when I went there in the fall of 1979. Not sure about the other two but have to imagine they are at least 20 years old.”

        If you re-read what I said, you’ll note that one of the scenarios I set forth is “If there are no bonds on the schools” and they sell them, any proceeds from that sale go right back into the District’s overall debt service balance. If they close Palmer and sell it for let’s say, $10 million (just for a round number) and it has no bonds on it, $6 million goes to the State (buildings are owned 60/40 state/local) $4 million is used to reduce Christina’s outstanding overall bond debt for the entire district, which as of 6/30/17 is just over $38 million. None of that goes to the classroom because capital projects and their resulting payments or bond debt are paid for by a school tax called Debt Service, and that is exclusively reserved for capital project payments because that’s the law.

        It also helps if you understand why Districts use the funding system they use.

        “And if there is no staffing related savings by closing the the three buildings than maybe it is time for CSD to reconsider the “Staff funding units per student count” ”

        Remember that Districts are agencies of the state. As such their budgeting and funding processes are dictated by Delaware Code which is not legislated by School Districts. It’s legislated by the General Assembly. You want a change to the funding system? Start lobbying your State senator & representative. Get 5 friends to do it too.

        You don’t see the capital projects listed because they’ve been completed. You take out a 30-year mortgage to build a house. It gets built in what, 6-12 months maybe? For the remaining 29 years is your house listed as under construction? Likely not. Do you still pay the balance of your mortgage for the remaining 29 years? You sure do.

        • So, for example if they close Christiana High school. They should not sell it, they should just mothball it? It that the case?

        • I understand the concept of a mortgage. I certainly hope they are not issuing paper for windows, a boiler, and a flagpole. My point stands – your argument about bond service is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. So explain to me again how removing 3 maintenance staffs, 3 principals, 3 custodial staffs, 3 support staffs, and utility costs for 3 buildings doesn’t make a brighter financial picture for the district.

          • Brian Stephan

            I think you understand some of the concept. Not all of it though. As evidenced by this:

            “your argument about bond service is completely irrelevant to the matter at hand”. If that’s what you believe, go on ahead. The district has $38 million in bond debt. Sell Palmer>Profit goes to paying down that $38 million. That’s the only place it can go. Not to people. Teachers. Supplies. Nothing. Bond debt only. Until that $38 million becomes $0, the District will continue to expend debt service tax revenue to pay it down, as will the State to pay its portion.

            “So explain to me again how removing 3 maintenance staffs, 3 principals, 3 custodial staffs, 3 support staffs, and utility costs for 3 buildings doesn’t make a brighter financial picture for the district.”

            1. You don’t remove people. You shift them to other buildings. You don’t disappear them or their costs.
            2. Utilities will likely be reduced because of the abandonment of the properties, or will be eliminated with a sale.
            3. Utilities at the remaining properties will necessarily increase because those students have to go somewhere. Will it be a complete wash? Probably not. But I don’t think you’ll see savings worth writing home about in utilities.

            • I can understand why Christina is in the shape it is in. You are telling me that everyone from the three buildings magically has a job in the other two? Mind boggling. And that no one sees the value in selling underutilized assets to reduce debt service? Unbelievable.

              But by all means keep whining about charter schools taking all the good students.

              • You don’t understand how the State’s (not Christina’s) system works. Staff (teachers and admin) is based on the number of students. The two new schools will take in the students from the other 3 schools, which means they will have the same (possible a few less depending on class size) number of teachers. While each new school will have a Principal, thus cutting 3 Principals, the student count will generate more Vice Principals/admin.

                • “Possibly” a few less? I’ll bet it’s more than you think. I think the issue is when the numbers get as small as they have in these five schools that you run into the whole number problem – the formulas would call for less than a full teacher but it cannot work that way. This is why the student ratios look so favorable in all the small schools.

                  Each of the elementary schools in question has about 300 kids. Roughly 50 kids per grade. So at a 22 student/teacher minimum you need 3 teachers. Multiply this same effect by 6 grades and 3 schools and you get a lot of extra teachers. Palmer has 20 teachers by my count. Roughly 3/grade. So maybe 9/grade among the three schools. Combine the three schools and you get 150 students/grade, or 7 teachers and still stay below the 22 student/teacher guidance. So potentially reduce from 54 teachers to 42.

                  These are approximations but illustrate my point.

                  Plus further to Brian’s point about bonds is having to maintain less buildings long term has to be an advantage. Even if it is two completely separate pots of money (capital v. operating) you can afford to spend more capital per building with less buildings. So better maintained buildings, more money for labs, specialized equipment, etc.

                  The bottom line is the district has to make some dramatic changes or it will continue to hemorrhage students.

                  I want the district to succeed. I’m an alum of CSD, and I will probably retire here in Delaware. A better CSD is good for everybody. But they need to take a long hard look at how they are doing things.

  4. But, you don’t know at this point, if any of the schools currently have a bond. Correct?

    • Brian put forth the “no bond” scenario. However, feel free to research that and report back!

      • Snotty, aren’t we today.

        • Given that they have lost 25% of their enrollment in the last twenty years it would be a near-criminal misuse of taxpayer funds if they have issued bonds for new school construction during that period.

          • Some background from the NJ on this issue…

            http://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/education/2017/10/15/declining-enrollment-leads-unused-space-christina/684770001/

            Appears that a ~30 $ MiO referendum was used to reopen Palmer and update some other Wilmington schools (article not clear on which ones) in the mid 1980’s. The other possibly relevant item mentioned in the article is a “late 1990s” opening of 6 “themed” schools (again not clear if schools other than Palmer involved). Not sure what happened to that initiative, no mention of this in current discussion that I can see.

            CSD lists no major capital projects at these schools going back to at least 2004 (CSD facilities website).

            Looks like a few minor capital projects at Stubbs (boiler replacement, windows?) and Palmer (new flagpole?) in that same time period. Not a whole lot of debt service that I can see.

            Shut ’em down.

          • Brian Stephan

            Luckily, they have a referendum process to approve or reject funding capital projects to avoid that pesky criminality thing you reference.

            • I guess since XYZ moved into his house he’s never needed any updated systems or repairs. Jesus, you people.

              • Your brain needs a repair. Did you take out a loan when you replaced your roof or installed a new water heater? If you did, your grasp of basic finance is on the same level as your writing and critical thinking skills – piss poor.

  5. Yes, many people take out loans for home repairs. If you didn’t know that, you’re in a comfortable middle-class bubble, like most conservatives. Check with anyone who issues home-improvement loans.

    You have yet to illustrate the latter claim.

    You’re even stupider than I thought, which is quite an accomplishment.

  6. Normally a quiet observer

    Many are assuming that CSD is funding all of the existing staffing units with state funded units however that is rarely the case. Because the districts often supplement and hire additional staff using academic excellence units and/or local funds for positions they want or feel the school needs but have not earned due to enrollment. They find those positions using local monies or re-appropriated funds aside from the earned units. It’s highly probable that savings would be be actualized through consolidation since they may free up local funds or excellence units for use on other student instructional needs rather than three custodians or other staff positions for a severely under enrolled school- I read that these schools were under 50% capacity!!
    All that being said what is abundantly clear is that the supports these schools need is severely hampered from being able to be provided without additional funds in part because of the funding model and the severe limitations it places on usage of funds. The other commenter is correct, perhaps they should pilot a per pupil funding model that is not funding units but instead is more flexible and still has weighted funding based on student needs. What a great time to try something new like that while trying to provide greater flexibility for these schools to be more efficient and meet students’ needs.

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