Cape Henlopen school board members appear ready to act on part of a recent school improvement plan. However, concerns over the public perception of Milton's two elementary schools led the board to send the report back to the task force to evaluate additional options.
"This discussion about the elementary schools isn't going to be done tonight," said school board member Sara Wilkinson.
During the March 14 school board meeting, members discussed a Facilities Task Force recommendation for new elementary schools, improvements to the Sussex Consortium and additions for the middle schools. The task force recommended submitting a plan by June to the Department of Education for approval, which is needed before Cape school district can present voters with a building referendum.
"We need to know what's doable in the time frame that we've got," said board President Andy Lewis.
With modular trailers housing several classrooms at both Beacon and Mariner middle schools, the board agreed classroom additions are needed to house the burgeoning student population. The board also appeared to agree with a task force recommendation to move the Sussex Consortium entirely into the Lewes School. District offices and Osher Lifelong Learning classes that use the Lewes School would be moved to the Fred Thomas building adjacent to the Lewes School property.
Lewis said action on the middle school additions and Sussex Consortium will be placed on the agenda at the next school board meeting.
Director of Administrative Services Brian Bassett said it would cost about $2 million to build six new classrooms at Mariner Middle School and about $4 million to built 12 classrooms onto Beacon. If DOE and voters approve the plan, the state would pay 60 percent of building costs and the district would pay 40 percent.
Sussex Consortium building costs are 100 percent paid by state taxpayers.
Elementary school plan
The task force recently proposed building four new elementary schools and renovating a fifth so all would be large enough for 700 students. Milton Elementary would be renovated while new schools would be built at Shields, Rehoboth, H.O. Brittingham and on an undetermined parcel west of Route 1.
Board members wanted more information on where a fifth elementary school would be located and which middle school the students would attend. Bassett said the district requested a detailed population study of the district from the University of Delaware to determine where future growth may occur. The cost is $12,500 for the study. Bassett said he did not know how long it would take to complete the report.
It was the issue of the two Milton schools, however, that drew the most discussion.
"The perception is that Milton Elementary offers more than HOB," said board Vice President Spencer Brittingham, who told the board about a recent request he received from a parent who wanted her child choiced into Milton because she said it was a better school. "We have to find a way to alleviate the perception that Milton and HOB are separate but equal."
Separate but equal is a term established in a U.S. Supreme Court case in the 1890s that legally justified segregated train cars, schools and other facilities. The concept was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, then the court held segregated schools violated the rights of black citizens.
Board member Noble Prettyman agreed with Brittingham. He said he disagrees with district lines drawn by the school board in 2002 that created two racially distinct schools about a mile apart. According to DOE statistics for this school year, the student population for Milton Elementary is 71 percent white, 13 percent black, and 9 percent Hispanic. HOB is 39 percent white, 24 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic. Both schools also have about 5 percent multiracial students.
"We worked so hard to integrate schools then in 2002, they segregated schools," Prettyman said. "I don't condone what happened when they drew the line."
He said it is a problem "when you're told by teachers in Milton Elementary that if the children from HOB come to MES, they'll be failures."
Both Brittingham and Prettyman supported the idea of building one large school in Milton similar to a school-inside-a-school concept at Kathleen Wilbur Elementary in New Castle County. There, younger students are separated from older students but they share the same facilities.
Task force member Anna Moshier of Lewes said 24 educated people worked on the recommendation for months, and she took issue with the board discussing combining the Milton elementary schools into one.
Referring to the task force report, she said, "I think it needs to be listened to not just smashed."
While Prettyman was speaking about the problems at Milton and HOB elementaries, Moshier interrupted from her seat in the audience that the board should change district lines to address the issue.
School board member Roni Posner said the board has discussed redrawing the lines to integrate the schools.
"We've agreed the situation needs to be resolved," she said.
However, Brittingham said it will take more than redrawing the lines to fix the population inequities as long as the district allows parents to choice their students into specific schools.
Brittingham requested the task force reconvene to consider building one, large elementary school in Milton. He also asked the group to narrow down where a fifth school could be located and which middle school the students there would attend.
"Our board has to do what is best for all the students and all the people in the district who are going to pay the bills," Brittingham said.
Superintendent Robert Fulton said the task force should meet within two weeks to discuss the options.