Immigration a hot topic at IRSD school board meeting

Date Published: 
August 1, 2014

The tribulations of the nation’s Southern boarders have reached up to pinch Delaware this week as the Indian River School District Board of Education discussed the impact of immigration on local schools.

Gov. Jack Markell recently wrote to state legislators that of 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the U.S. from the southwestern border since last October, 117 children were officially placed with Delaware families recently.

Board Member Donald Hattier wanted to discuss the local effects at their meeting on July 28.

To protect their privacy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not share the identity or location of these families, but Hattier imagined a number will come to the district.

“Some of these children may enroll in Delaware schools while awaiting processing by federal authorities, as immigrant children ordinarily do,” Markell wrote.

“If they don’t read English, Spanish or anything else, they’re going to affect us,” including graduation rates and Adequate Yearly Progress, he noted, with both measures used to gauge a school’s success and funding. “If they don’t speak English, don’t we have to hire extra ELL teachers?” Hattier asked.

“We have been receiving additional students the last several years,” Superintendent Susan Bunting said. “We have not had official indication these kids will be added to our population. We are the fastest-growing district in the state.”

As long as children enroll by Sept. 30, IRSD will get the state funding it needs for teachers and other resources.

However, the district doesn’t get extra money for English Language Learners, like it does for special education, despite the unique learning needs.

“We try to have people on staff who are ELL-certified, and they will work with our ELL students,” Bunting said.

Currently, the IRSD is designing two classrooms at G.W. Carver Academy for children who “do not speak any English at all … and are in need of the very, very basics — maybe they do not even read or write English,” Bunting said.

“If the students come to us when they are young, they can be assimilated into our students,” soaking up English like a sponge at a young age, she said, even being ready for kindergarten if they enroll at Project VILLAGE.

“It depends on what age level they might arrive. We have no idea if we will be getting accompanied children at all. Or if we will be getting younger ones. … We are waiting,” Bunting said. “If they arrive on our step, we will work with them.”

But one problem could come from the children who arrive after Sept. 30. Last year, Sussex Central High School enrolled about 70 students after that deadline, receiving no extra money from the State to pay for the resources needed for those additional students.

“But it is tough, and it impacts the school,” said former Sussex Central High School Principal Jay Owens said in May.

To fill the students’ schedules properly, they’re sometimes sent to classes where they don’t understand what’s going on. Some have a paraprofessional to help them. Some have never attended school before and can’t read or write even their native language.

They aren’t likely to be very successful under that system, Owens had said.

“We’ve never seen an influx like this,” Hudson said in May.

Hattier and fellow Board Member Shaun Fink said this week that they were extremely upset with the governor not keeping the IRSD in the loop.

Bunting said she had attended meetings with Delaware’s U.S. Congressional staff where immigration was a hot topic.

“Did anyone in those say they’re in favor of sending kids back?” Hattier asked.

“They didn’t say it,” but all options are being weighed, Bunting said.

“This is gonna cost us an arm and a leg,” Hattier said, suggesting that the IRSD send the children away or demand government funding on the children’s arrival, even after September.

“I’m not anti-kid,” Hattier clarified. “I just have grave concerns what this is gonna do for the school district. It’s going to create problems.”

Bunting said the district can continue making inquiries.

“We are the people who are held accountable,” Board Member Rodney Layfield agreed. “We’re trying to do the best for our students, and we can’t do that when we don’t have the numbers.”

Board Member Leolga Wright noted that some children don’t always speak the truth when prompted, giving false names and more.

Hattier asked about vaccinations. All children entering public schools is in Delaware have a right to prove they’ve been vaccinated. After 14 days, they can be excluded from school until proven to be vaccinated. La Red Health Center has been contacted to help expedite any such problems, Bunting said.

The immigrant children typically live with extended family members or friends and must provide some proof of local residence, said Director of Curriculum & Instruction LouAnn Hudson. If they sign a legal affidavit claiming their birthdate or other information falsely, they could be expelled for lying.

If sent from dislocation center, they generally come with paperwork and a sponsor named, she said. Homelessness laws can also require schools to accept the child immediately, with a federal law superseding school policy.

“If a kid shows up with no adults, they can enroll themselves, and we have to enroll them?” Board Member James Fritz asked.

“They typically show up with an advocate or advocate lawyer,” Hudson said. “To my knowledge, there are none who do not live with relatives. Of the students we have registered so far, I know of none who have shown up unaccompanied.”

Staff were asked how this affects disciplinary procedures.

“Typically, it’s not our Hispanic students who get into trouble,” Bunting emphasized.

Moreover, they’re not untouchable.

“Once they’re enrolled, they’re ours, and they have to abide by our rules. There are consequences,” Bunting said.

“We have been told by the administration that, before any child is placed, the USHHS vaccinates and provides health screenings for that child,” Markell wrote. “The USHHS will not place a child … that has an illness that is contagious or if the child is found to present some other danger to the community based on their behavior or known history. However, we should keep in mind that these children generally leave their homes to escape violence, not to participate in it.

Surprise costs

North Georgetown, Long Neck and East Millsboro elementary schools are currently under construction for the addition of eight classrooms apiece.

Each of the schools have presented unique challenges, such as North Georgetown’s unmarked underground utility vaults (some in use), Long Neck’s invasive utility lines and East Millsboro’s soil problems.

At Long Neck, Booth estimated that Delaware Co-Op will charge around $6,000 to move a 7,400-volt line. With fiber optics running nearby, Verizon could charge more.

“Change orders” can be “dirty words,” said Layfield, expressing frustration with the situation.

Booth noted that the IRSD would be paying to move those lines, whether they had been unearthed now or last year.

At East Millsboro, the original 8-inch estimates of topsoil have multiplied into 2 feet of soil that needs to be shifted.

Fink was incredulous that the soil readings changed so vastly since the winter boring tests and that the problem was only discovered now, during construction.

“Yes, some of those issues should have been caught. [It’s] not to the level I would have wanted it to be,” said Brad Hastings of Becker Morgan Group, adding that the company would “stand by and support” the district’s investigation.

It’s so early in the investigation process that Booth was still receiving updates and estimates just before the board meeting began. He said he aims to keep everyone in the loop, to ensure the best decision-making.

Meanwhile, the IRSD could be paying $2 million more than originally anticipated, thanks to all the headaches.

“We did know as we’ve been going along that there was potential that it would be $2 million, based on additional costs,” said Patrick Miller, chief financial officer. “Looks like that’s going to be $2.2 or $2.3 million more than [originally estimated].

“We knew what our allocation was [when we went to bid],” Miller said. But since the 2012 estimates and 2013 referendum, market prices have changed.

The board planned to talk specifics later, in executive session.

Builders still aim to finish North Georgetown by mid-November, East Millsboro by early December and Long Neck by the new year.

Selbyville Middle School and Phillip C. Showell Elementary are next in line for construction (four and two new classrooms, respectively). The board approved the preparation of bid documents on Monday, and Fink demanded reassurance that precautions would be taken to avoid future construction surprises with the Selbyville schools.

Prayer at board meetings

The IRSD School Board is shaking the dust off a years-old dispute regarding prayer at board meetings.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly decided to uphold a lower court ruling in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, ruling that elected legislative bodies, such as city councils, can begin their meetings with prayer.

The board used to open each session with a board member leading the others in prayer. In 2008, the anonymous Doe family sued IRSD, arguing that the prayers (often invoking the name of Jesus) before school board meetings were unconstitutional.

The district eventually lost the case, after several appeals, and in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which automatically upheld the U.S. Court of Appeals that public prayer led by school board members is unconstitutional.

“It hinged upon the fact that we cannot give prayer — Christian prayer in particular — at our board meetings if we invite students,” Bunting said. It could be considered “trying to influence students in a religious manner.”

Recently, after speaking to their attorney, Jason Gosselin, School Board President Charles Bireley reported that, “As long as we have our policy of inviting students to our meetings … we do not go back to doing what we did before.”

The July board meeting itself was actually devoid of students, and the board might have initiated prayer themselves on Monday but did not. However, since the Appeals Court decision in 2011, community members have prayed aloud during the public comments portion of nearly every regular board meeting.

Still, board members expressed an interest in inviting Gosselin or another authority to speak to them about potential options.

On a related note, Religious Freedom Day will be added to the school calendar. Since 1993, U.S. presidents have named Jan. 16 as Religious Freedom Day to honor civil liberties, which includes freedom of religious belief.

A member of the public previously asked the board to consider the matter, and they unanimously approved the addition.

In other Indian River news:

• School meal prices will remain the same this year, marking “the 10th straight year” without a student platter price increase, said Clifton F. Toomey Jr., supervisor of nutrition services.

That’s $1 for elementary lunch and $1.10 for middle and high schools. Breakfast costs 60 cents regularly. Reduced-price lunch platters cost 40 cents, and breakfast costs 30 cents for eligible students.

However, teacher prices required an increase, to $3.31. Historically, the district has raised adult prices by 25 cents, so the teacher price should be $3.50 for the next several years.

• During public comments, Kim Allison said the board will be approached soon with a request to begin a girls’ lacrosse program at Indian River High School. She strongly encouraged the board to approve it.

“There’s excitement in the community, … in the school, about it. I would love to see the same opportunity brought to the girls here,” she said. “I know it will cost a few dollars, but it will be well-spent.”

The next regular Indian River School District Board of Education meeting is Monday, Aug. 25, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.