January 18, 2002

The Brandywine school board set Apr. 23 as the date for the district's operating-tax referendum. As Delaforum previously reported, the district will ask residents to approve an increase of 18.8 in the ceiling on the local rate with the understanding the the maximum rate will not be imposed until the 2006-07 fiscal year.

"It's an incredibly responsible proposal. You've given us something that is very easy to sell," board president Nancy Doorey told superintendent Bruce Harter after the board's unanimous vote at its business meeting on Jan. 17. Several members of the audience rose to applaud the action.

In a presentation not substantially changed from ones he made two weeks earlier to a board workshop and the district's finance committee, Harter said the higher tax is needed to stave off a serious budget crisis resulting from the district's having spend down its surplus reserve, finance elements of its long-range strategic plan and meet the rising cost of basic operations.

The district last sought, and obtained, approval for a tax increase in the spring of 1994, following an unsuccessful attempt in late 1993.

Along with approving the holding of a referendum, the board agreed to deviate from usual practice in Delaware school districts by imposing the higher rates in steps, starting in the fiscal year which begins July 1. It also charged the district finance committee to independently review and make a recommendation about what rates should be set in subsequent years. Depending on enrollment, income from grants and other factors, those rates could be lower than what is presently projected.

"We are making a commitment that we will not set a tax rate higher than what we actually need," Doorey said.

Included in the approved proposal was a pledge not to seek another increase for at least five years.

School taxes, expressed as an amount for each $100 of assessed property value, consist of several components. The total operating rate, in turn, is the sum of the rate established by the former New Castle County district and rates established by the four local districts established in the early 1980s. The county rate is 46.8 and Brandywine's current rate is 32.6. Under the plan approved by the board, the latter would go to a maximum of  48.8 in fiscal 2002-03 and 48.2, 48.9, 50.2 and 51.4, respectively, in subsequent years.

In addition, voters last year authorized the sale of bonds to finance building renovation and modernization resulting in a capital spending tax to finance debt service going from the present 5.13 to a projected 17.97 over the five-year period. The board also imposes taxes to finance minor capital spending, technology and tuition for special-education students it cannot accommodate. Revenue from those taxes cannot be diverted to other uses.

The total tax rate, now 97.03, is thus projected to climb to $1.2867 by fiscal 2006-07 if voters approve a higher operating levy.

In seeking public support, the board and district administration are looking for backing for a strategic plan developed with extensive community participation over the past 14 months. The plan was formally adopted by the board in a separate vote before it turned to the referendum proposal.

The two elements are directly related, Harter said, although the estimated cost of implementing the plan will amount to only about 2% of the district's total budget. Both he and Doorey said that is tantamount to asking the public to pay for improvements that the community told the district it wants.

"I could not be making a case for an operating [tax] referendum without the strategic plan behind it," Harter said.

Biggest component of the is recruiting, training and retaining teachers. Early-childhood education, more rigorous academic programs and alternative education are the other elements. Harter said 70% of strategic-plan financing will come from shifting existing resources.

He said the plan, unlike previous long-range planning, comes with stated targets and requires periodic reporting on progress toward achieving them. It also will be subject to at least annual revision so that it remains viable for the ensuing five years.

Harter's referendum proposal also included a provision to cut administrative and other costs by just over $1 million and to establish a fund for preventive maintenance that goes beyond what the state provides for that purpose.

In a related move, the board approved establishment of three new committees of volunteers from the community. One will be charged with making recommendations concerning the district's surplus property, including the long-idle Channin and Old Mill Lane school buildings and the site of the parking lot serving the public library in Talleyville. The other panels will advise the district concerning cost containment and building maintenance.

2002. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Harter makes a case for a tax hike
Read related story: Strategic plan will chart future of Brandywine schools
Go to the Brandywine School District Web site for referendum, strategic plan and related information