April 15, 2002

Brandywine school officials, staff and supporters are looking for Apr. 23 to be the day when residents finally put an end to eight years of financial controversy and agree on a course which is expected to fully restore the district's preeminent position in Delaware public education.

"As far as I know there isn't any organized opposition," declared Superintendent Bruce Harter while assessing the probability for success at the coming tax referendum. The statement was significant. Harter is the first of four Brandywine chief executives, dating back to establishment of the district in 1982, who could make it.

The last time Brandywine went for an increase in its operating tax, opposition congealed in an organization known as Citizens for Fair School Taxes. It was unsuccessful in blocking a second effort in May, 1994 -- the first try failed in November, 1993 -- but the group's continued sniping at financial practices was largely responsible for the resignation of former superintendent Carl Smith. Smith's successor, Joseph DeJohn, was ousted as the result of even more questionable practices.

Although Citizens no longer exists, one alumnus has remained vocal in district affairs. On several occasions, however,

Jack Wells has publicly expressed support for the course Harter's administration and the present school board, led by Nancy Doorey, have taken. He, Allen Kemp, founder of Citizens, and Jerry Martin, another alumnus, have submitted a newspaper article supportive of the tax increase.

It also took two tries -- in March and October, 1987 -- under superintendent Frank Frugoli  for the district to secure its first operating-tax increase after being formed by the break-up of the consolidated New Castle County School District, established five years earlier by the federal court's racial desegregation order.

Doorey expressed confidence that an approach which mustered extensive involvement by not only parents but also business people and the general public has produced momentum for a tax increase that will be difficult to resist. "It's hard to imagine [that] this proposal [which] we have in front of them doesn't reflect what this community wants," she said.

Brandywine's referendum record




Mar. 1987 - Operating tax:
13,154 48% 52%
Oct. 1987 - Operating tax
18,527 64% 36%
Nov. 1993 - Operating tax:
18,693 47% 53%
Nov. 1993 - Bond issue
16,994 50.1% 49.9%
May 1994 - Operating tax
25,248 58% 42%
May 2001 - Bond issue
9,998 76% 24%

SOURCE: Dept. of Elections

Nevertheless, Doorey disclosed that the district intends to conduct the equivalent of 'exit interviews' with voters on Apr. 23 to determine what led to either their favorable or unfavorable vote. If the increase is rejected, she said, the board will alter its spending plan in line with poll results and go back to the voters for a second try in June.

Although no one is openly talking that way, Brandywine would be elated if the coming vote approximates the landslide 96%-to-24% margin by which a state-record-size bond issue to finance school building renovations was approved last May. That 'vote of confidence' is believed to be the largest-ever  favorable margin in a Delaware school referendum. The turnout, however, was by far the lowest of Brandywine's six referendums.

The district has mounted a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign, involving a large cadre of resident volunteers and financed, according to Harter, entirely by contributions. Everything from lawn signs urging residents to "vote for [sic] the referendum" to a telephone 'hot line' are being used. Congressman Thomas Carper, whose children attend district schools, has endorsed the tax increase and less prominent folks are participating in a barrage of letters-to-the-editor in the local press. The district has published and mailed to every residence a special issue of its newspaper.

If voters approve the 18.8 increase in the operating-tax ceiling, Brandywine will be able to begin implementing a five-year comprehensive plan which includes, among other things, a concerted effort to recruit high-caliber teachers, incentives for teachers to achieve national certification and students to pursue more demanding courses, and establishment of an international program with an 'academically rigorous' curriculum at Mount Pleasant High.

Failure to obtain approval to raise taxes, Harter warned at the workshop, will have dire consequences. He presented a tentative plan which calls for laying off at least 40 of the district's 812 teachers and possibly as many as 65, cutting back sports and other extracurricular activities by as much as half, and rationing classroom supplies.

The uncertainty about the number of teachers to be affected lies in the fact that teachers receive automatic pay increases as they add years of service. Because seniority determines those to be laid off, the lowest-paid will be the ones to go. Although retirements will take some of the more senior teachers, Harter said his preliminary calculations indicate that the average salary could actually increase. Immediate effect of reducing the size of the teaching staff will be an increase in the number of students in each classroom.

Acknowledging that brandishing such threats could be considered a referendum-campaign tactic, Harter said he is "not trying to create panic or fear" but added that he "would be remiss if I didn't tell you what will happen if the referendum fails."

According to the latest district financial reports -- issued after the departure of its chief financial officer, Michael Shockley, on extended medical leave -- Brandywine will literally run out of money soon after the present fiscal year ends on June 30. Even with a severe cost-containment effort in place, its reserve of local funds will be down to about $400,000, considerably less than necessary to meet payroll and pay other bills until fiscal 2003 tax revenue begins to come in next autumn.

Restoring the reserve to $3 million, which is considered the minimum prudent amount in a budget which calls for locally-financed spending of about $30 million, is the first priority if voters approve the tax-ceiling increase. Even so, the district will have to secure an advance on its state allocation for the coming year for use until proceeds from the tax come in.

Board members questioned whether it would be necessary to return immediately to a 10% reserve, noting that the district eked by on about half of that amount last year and budgeted for only about a third of it as a cushion this year. Unexpected expenses, such as higher insurance premiums, cut it much further. No action was taken on that point but Harter was directed to produce an alternative plan for post-referendum cuts, if they become necessary, with a smaller reserve.

Also pending as the fiscal year turns is a new teachers' contract. They are now covered by the second of two one-year extensions agreed to by their union in light of the district's financial situation. Both union officials and the district administration have imposed a tight lid on the course of contract discussions, but there are indications that many teachers feel that they have accepted less than their due in the way of pay increases in the two contract extensions.

2002. All rights reserved.

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Strategic plan will chart future of Brandywine schools
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