One of the nation's most daring school desegregation programs has been seriously damaged here by a volatile mixture of money, racism and politics.
These ingredients have been part of a strike that has kept nearly 3,000 teachers and 51,000 students out of schools in the Wilmington area for five weeks.
School labor, civic and political leaders began lengthy negotiations over the weekend in a desperate attempt to end what all agree had become an ugly affair. But even if they succeed and all of the striking teachers and teacherless students return to school tomorrow as is hoped, the consensus is that the damage done to the nation's most ambitious school desegregation program will be difficult and painful to repair.
"There's going to have to be a new beginning. We are going to have some very real, very severe problems cropping up. There is no way you can avoid that after something like this," said Ruth Graham, the cochairperson of Citizens Alliance for Public Education, a local interracial parents' group.
The irony is that the desegregation program started smoothly when schools opened here three months ago. Eleven school districts - 10 in the predominantly white suburbs and one in the predominantly black city of Wilmington - merged to form the New Castle County School District. A busing program involving 21,500 of the new district's 54,000 students began with few problems. Anticipated violence did not occur.Extra police were not needed. To many it seemed that 21 years of legal fighting over the local desegregation issue had ended in peace.
But there was a time bomb, left in plain view, but ultimately ignored underrated, and mishandled by major parties in the program's implementation. The bomb went off Oct. 16 when nearly 3,000 of the new district's 4,000 teachers walked off their jobs to protest salary discrepancies and working conditions.
Most of the striking teachers are white. All are members of the New Castle County Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, a teachers's organization whose main strength is in the nation's suburbs.
Most of the estimated 1,000 non-striking teachers are black and former employes of the now-defunct Wilmington school district. They are mostly represented by NEA's rival union, the American Federation of Teachers, which has its primary strength in the nation's cities.
The former Wilmington district teachers are paid from $500 to $4,978 a year more than their colleagues, depending on which of the 10 other formerly separate districts their colleagues came from.
One school of thought says that the former Wilmington teachers were better represented by the usually more agressive AFT - thus their higher salaries. Another says that the Wilmington teachers had received more money as "combat pay" because they worked in a tough inner-city area. Still another says that the peculiar way in which Delaware teachers are paid - 70 percent in state funds. 9 percent in federal money, and 21 percent in funds derived from local property taxes - worked to the advantage of Wilmington, which, paradoxically has a larger property tax base and a larger "poverty base" that helps to trigger federal aid.
No matter, says Michael Epler, the NCCEA president. "If everybody is now working in one school district everybody should be paid on the same basis of experience: and that is the point of the strike," he said.
According, the NCCEA has demanded an immediate "leveling up" of salary. The New Castle County School Board has countered that demand with a proposal to equalize salaries over a three year period because, according to school officials, the board has no money for immediate full increases.
State officials, many local business leaders, and some independent parties involved in the negotiations agree.
"The teachers wanted to scare up a lot of emotion with the equal pay for equal work rhetoric. But they forgot one thing. To achieve the principle of equal pay for equal work, you've got to have money. And nobody seems to know where that money will come from," said one of the negotiators who requested anonymity.
Epler conceded that the school districts' merger gave his union an advantage it lacked previously, when it represented nine of the 10 suburban school districts and had to negotiate nine separate contracts. The merger of the districts also allowed the merger of the local NEA affiliate groups who overwhelmed their AFT opposition last February to become the bargaining agent for the new district.
But the local union leader insisted that his group was not trying to expolit the situation by a "willful disruption of the school year."
"I can say categorically that our strike was not intended to impede the desegregation effort," he said in a statement supported by many. "We even worked without a contract for six weeks because we did not want the contract issue confused or overlaid with the desegregation issue," Epler said.
He added remorsefully: "But now, things have become so screwed up and so awfully involved with racism." On that point, too, there is widespread agreement.
Black teachers crossing white picket lines have called "nigger" as often as they have been called "scab," according to many reports. Many of the blacks, in turn, have called their peers "honky."
There is also the problem of higher-paid black teachers who have been transferred to predominantly white schools and who are now working alongside their lower-paid white counterparts.
"There is this feeling among many of the whites that the blacks getting the higher salaries are inferior teachers," said one ranking school board official who asked not to be identified.
However, James H. Sills, Jr. the only black on the five-member county school board, stressed that racism is only one of several factors involved in the strike and endangering the school desegregation program.
"The national rivalry between the NEA and the AFT is just as intense as the local rivalry." Sills said. "No one can prove it, but there is strong feeling that the NEA is using Delaware as a test case because it has the first school desegregation program involving more than two school districts, and that takes in a huge suburban area," he said.
"That's an absolute fairy tale," countered Gary Watts, NEA's Washington-based director of field services. "That's naivete of the highest order . . . With the way school desegregation is going in places like Dttroit, where they have spent the last 15 years trying to develop a metropolitan plan, it would take us forever to try to export a movement like that," Watts said.
Politics is also a contributing factor to the tensions generated by the strike. Local school districts in the state had always wielded substantial political power and enjoyed considerable autonomy. The merger of the 11 districts has created a new super district in the northern part of the state, much to the chagrin of the downstate districts.
The new district has jurisdiction over 60 percent of the state's public schools and is the second-largest governmental unit in Delaware, after the state government.
"Before, the downstate districts were competing on an equal basis with the upstate districts for their share of the state pie," said Frederick H. Stern, press secretary to Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) DuPont. "Now, that's been greatly changed, and the downstate people are scared. Frankly, I don't blank them," Stern said.
NCCEA officials have argued that because of that fear and the general antipathy of the legislature toward the New Castle desegregation program, the state is reluctant to provide any money for an equalization of salaries.
"They would like to keep this thing going. It's a matter of divide and conquer," Epler said.
Stern disagreed. "Most of us wert against the desegregation program. But we did our best to implement it fairly when we had to. But the fact is that in this case, you can't use desegregation as an excuse to level up salaries as quickly as the teachers want it when the money isn't there to do it," Stern said.