Delaware lawmakers have approved a bailout, teachers have gotten pink slips, and turnaround consultants have been hired—all for a budget crisis that former leaders of the state’s largest school district say doesn’t exist.
The dispute began last month, when a state-appointed review team released a preliminary report suggesting that the 19,000-student Christina school system faced a deficit of more than $13 million, out of a $300 million budget.
Amid fears the district might not make payroll, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, brokered a deal to lend the district up to $20 million. Meanwhile, the district gave layoff notices to 75 teachers and hired the New York City-based consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal to sort things out.
Some state leaders point fingers at Joseph Wise, who left Christina’s superintendency to become the schools chief in Duval County, Fla., last fall.
“It appears that the former administration didn’t reconcile, on a regular basis, here’s how much revenue we have and here’s how much we’re putting on the books in terms of expenditures,” said Jennifer Davis, the Delaware state budget director.
Mr. Wise says that’s baloney. In an eight-page letter, he attributed the charges of mismanagement to “reckless and irresponsible election-year politicking.” He further criticized the district’s current leadership for not questioning the release of the financial review, which he maintains was “acknowledged to be far from complete.”
While in Delaware, Mr. Wise often banged heads with state policymakers. He and two top aides who followed him from there to Duval County also say the initial state review doesn’t reflect all revenues. Further complicating the picture, the Christina district hosts several statewide programs that charge tuition to other districts in Delaware.
Superintendent Lillian Lowery attributed some of the dispute to “a matter of interpretation” over how monies could be used. “The district [under Mr. Wise] read the code and interpreted it one way,” she said last week, “and the intent of the law was something different.”
A more detailed state report on district finances is expected soon. School board member John Mackenzie said he hopes it doesn’t derail the improvement effort begun during Mr. Wise’s tenure. “The bottom line is: We want to continue to drive that forward,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week