January 10, 2002

Brandywine School District residents will be asked to make a relatively small investment to achieve a significant educational return. That is the thrust of a 'case statement' in support of conducting an operating-tax referendum presented by Superintendent Bruce Harter to the school board.

The board at its meeting on Jan. 17 is expected to schedule a referendum to seek an increase in the ceiling on the district's operating tax rate. The vote most likely will take place some time in April.

A 'steering committee' to muster support for a favorable vote on the proposal already has been formed. The district's finance committee voted unanimously on Jan. 8 to recommend holding the referendum. At the board's workshop session the previous evening, Harter made a detailed presentation during which he said additional local tax revenue is needed to avert a serious budget crisis and to permit implementation of a strategic plan "to improve education of our students."

As Delaforum previously reported and Harter confirmed, that will require an increase in the tax ceiling of about 18.5 for each $100 of assessed property value. Deviating, perhaps for the first time, from standard practice in Delaware public school districts, the Brandywine board would agree to set annual tax rates at whatever level, up to the ceiling, is necessary to meet budgeted spending.

If the board adopts Harter's proposal, the full authorized amount would not come into play until the 2006-07 fiscal year. Harter estimated that the fiscal 2002-03 increase would be 16.2 and that that would revert to 15 the following year before increasing gradually each year to the maximum.

The current operating tax rate is 79.4, which includes a one-time 3 levy authorized by voters last May to finance construction of running tracks at the district's three high schools. The rate also includes 32.6 carried over from the former New Castle County district and apportioned among the four northern districts on the basis of enrollments.. The total Brandywine tax rate, including debt service, is just over 97.

Each cent of tax translates into about $315,000 of revenue for Brandywine. Taxes and other local sources provide 35% of the district's total revenue. State support accounts for 61% and federal money constitutes the rest.

Harter said he will recommend that the board promise not to seek another increase in the tax ceiling until 2007.

Board president Nancy Doorey noted, by way of perspective, that an 18 increase is actually less than the 19.7 increase that the then board proposed and voters approved in 1994.

While telling both the school board and the finance committee that his referendum proposal "is built around a specific set of goals and a strategic plan," Harter said  the additional spending that will require will amount to a small fraction of the district's $100 million-plus budget. "It is only 2% of our total costs, but it will make a tremendous difference," he said.

Of the 16.2 that he estimates would have to be added to the tax rate in the 2002-03 fiscal year, 5.7 would go to finance elements of the strategic plan. The largest portion, 6.9, would be needed to rebuild the budget's carryover reserve to $3 million. It is projected to drop to $1.5 million by June 30. In addition to providing a safety margin in the budget, the reserve finances spending during the early months of the fiscal year until tax revenue is received in the autumn. School tax is payable on or before Sept. 30, three months after the start of the fiscal year.

Harter said that more than $1 million of the estimated $1.9 million net cost of the strategic plan during the first year would be earmarked for recruiting, retaining and training teachers. "This funding is not for across-the-board salary increases, but for targeted investments," he said.

For example, he told the board, the district would like to be able to hire "20 of the best teachers we can find in the middle Atlantic states" in February and March even though that could turn out to be more than were required in September under state allocation standards to serve actual enrollment. The district would have to bear the cost of such overstaffing.

"The best teachers are not always available in August," he said, noting that Brandywine hired 65 teachers during that month in 2001. He said both newly graduated and experienced teachers would be sought and that, in doing so, "Brandywine would offer salaries competitive with any other district in the state." New teachers would receive supportive mentoring during their first two years and all teachers would be given enhanced continuing professional training.

About half of the remaining $900,000 of first-year spending would go into early-childhood education "where a relatively small investment can make a huge difference to children in learning to read, write and perform well in mathematics," he said. Other elements of the plan include providing incentives for students to pursue more rigorous academics and establishing an in-district alternative education program.

Of the specific initiatives to be undertaken during the first year, he said "70% don't require additional spending," he said.

Meeting the increased cost of present services since the last tax increase eight years ago and instituting a preventative maintenance program over and above what the state provides in the way of support for minor capital spending are the other elements requiring a tax increase, Harter said.

At the same time he indicated taxpayers will not be asked to bear the full burden. He said an "aggressive cost-containment" effort will slice just over $1 million from current spending.

He said the number of central-office administrators will be reduced from 18 in fiscal 1994 to 13 for next year with the elimination of two such positions. The board in December voted not to renew one administrator's contract when it expires June 30. Harter said he regards that action as a 'personnel matter' in the context of Delaware's public disclosure law and declined to identify who is affected. Board president Nancy Doorey said that all contract renewals were for one year. The district in the past has had longer extensions.

Along with such cost cutting would be some shifting of central administration to the schools. Harter said there would be a concerted effort to keep the present 91:9 ratio of school to support spending. "We're already lean and we want to stay that way," he said.

To augment tax revenue, Harter said the district is stepping up efforts to secure additional grant financing from private sources. The first-year target is to increase other than entitlement grants aligned to the strategic plan by $100,000 during the first year.

Less specific but potentially significant, he said, is the additional enrollment and revenue that could be obtained by "attracting students back to public education from charter and private schools" by enhancing what is already the widely quality of a Brandywine education. "We think we can turn the tide" of a projected steady decline in enrollment, he said.

He also said the district is forming yet another community volunteer committee to look into what it should do with its surplus property -- specifically the long-closed Channin and Old Mill Lane school buildings -- and to relocate its school-bus operations and storage yard.

Harter said that, while he is confident the board, administration and referendum committee "can make the case" for public approval of the tax proposal, there is a serious threat inherent in voter rejection. In addition to not being able to initiate the plan, he warned of a need for immediate "drastic reductions" in present programs.

He noted that the district also is faced with potential fall out from the impending public release of a report of a further state audit investigation. Conducted last summer, it found problems with property management and the arrangement by which the swimming pool at P.S. du Pont Intermediate School was made available to a private organization. Although Harter said steps have been taken to correct the situations and prevent recurrence, expected publicity about the report -- including the inevitable rehashing of "the integrity issues [we've had] in the past" -- could have a negative impact on the referendum.

2002. All rights reserved.

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Read previous story: Size of school tax hike hinted
Read the draft of Brandywine's strategic plan