July 10, 2002

Voting unanimously at its most acrimonious public session since it was deposing the former superintendent two years ago, the Brandywine School Board, as expected, approved a 21% increase in the district's property tax. The rate that will be charged in tax bills soon to go out and due on Sept. 30 will be $1.1745 for each $100 of assessed value, up from 97.03 last year.

While a considerably longer public hearing on the issue the previous evening drew nothing stronger than a little sermonizing, the sparsely-attended special meeting with a single-item agenda on July 9 produced a comparison of the district's current financial situation with the Enron, Arthur Andersen and World Com scandals, a suggestion that administrators take an across-the-board pay cut, and a call for the resignations of the current superintendent and unspecified board members.

The meeting ended in some confusion when board president Nancy Doorey asked for and received a motion to adjourn while Rick Walsh, who identified himself as a parent who had gone through 12 years of years of Brandywine schooling, was still disputing a ruling by the district's lawyer, Ellen Cooper, that he was out of order in demanding to know who will be held responsible and disciplined for reputedly false and misleading financial reports previously cited as the cause of the present problems. She said that, under both state and federal law, such matters could be discussed only in closed-door sessions from which the public is excluded.

Earlier in the session retired former assistant superintendent Donald Fantine took the podium to lash out at Superintendent Bruce Harter and the board for allegedly attempting to shift blame for its financial problems to former chief financial officer Mike Shockley. Fantine described Shockley as widely recognized for "honesty, integrity and extreme professionalism."

Shockley has been on long-term medical disability leave as the result of complications of diabetes. Harter has said that after Shockley left in early March, an inquiry into the district's financial situation led to his discovering that the projected end-of-fiscal-year balance was much lower than thought and that further probing turned up what Harter, in a message to business executives and civic association officers, referred to as "inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal practices."

At the public hearing Harter had described the initial findings as coming "as a great surprise to me and all the staff."

"Mike Shockley didn't leave suddenly," Fantine said at the meeting. "You've been playing a shell game with the numbers. ... The former board made a three-year referendum last seven years; you couldn't make this referendum last three weeks."

When Doorey admonished Fantine for brining up a "personnel matter" in public session, he shot back sarcastically, "But it's all right for you to do it."

Without specifically referring the Shockley by name, Doorey had said at the public hearing that, in setting parameters for the tax referendum held in April, the board relied on financial reports and projections which later proved to be "dramatically incorrect." She said, "The information wasn't there to tell us we were spending at a rate much faster than we had budgeted." In particular, she charged that monthly financial reports given to the board did not reflect a steadily declining projected end-of-year-balance.

(Delaforum has been unsuccessful in several attempts to solicit comment from Shockley. Fantine took retirement rather than accept a Harter-imposed and board-sanctioned disciplinary demotion in position accompanied by a salary reduction.)

There was something of a surrealistic aura around discussion of the core tax issue at both the public hearing and the special meeting.

All references defined the issue as whether to impose the 48.8 local operating tax rate the board had said

would be the first installment of a five-year implementation of the new rate ceiling authorized by voters at the referendum on April or to go higher. The ceiling is 51.4. That somehow got translated   -- both at the sessions and in subsequent media reports --  into the lower amount not being a tax increase although the new rate is half again as high as the 32.6 rate it replaced.

The local operating tax rate, moreover, is only one component of the total tax rate. Neither the full rate nor any of its other components was  referred to orally on either evening although it was listed, without comparative figures, at the bottom of a document available at the special meeting.


Component 2001-02 2002-03 Change

Operations (county)
Operations (district)

$ 0.4680
$ 0.3260

$ 0.4680
$ 0.4880

$ 0.1620

Operations (total)

$ 0.7940

$ 0.9560

$ 0.1620

Debt service
Minor capital

$ 0.0513
$ 0.0950
$ 0.0155
$ 0.0145

$ 0.0780
$ 0.1220
$ 0.0040
$ 0.0145

$ 0.0267
$ 0.0270
($ 0.0115)

Total tax rate

$ 0.9703

$ 1.1745

$ 0.2042

Click for an explanation of how school taxation works.

When the board voted, the motion was simply to "accept the superintendent's recommendation," which had not been read or stated orally. The vote was 5-0, with two members, Mark Huxsoll and Harold Thompson, absent. Both of those attended the public hearing.

 Unmentioned at any time during  the proceedings was the state-financed school tax reduction on primary residences. Brandywine was allocated $2,158,200 in the budget bill enacted by the General Assembly in June. The law provides that school districts can either pocket that allocation and use it for current expenses or pass it on to taxpayers. In Brandywine's case, passing it on would have been equivalent to a 6.75 reduction in the tax rate. Brandywine in past years has elected to pocket the money, which presumably is what has happened this year as a result of the board's having taken no public action on the matter.

In all cases, tax rates are applied against assessed property value. In Brandywine Hundred and north Wilmington, the average ratio of assessment to market value is 44%. Using that guide, a typical suburban residential property which would sell for $150,000 will be taxed $775.17 this year, up from $640.40 last year. If any owner or co-owner is age 65 or older, the first $1,000 of tax is cut in half. Under that law, the district is reimbursed by the state but does not have the option of pocketing the money if it denies taxpayers that break.

Before taking its vote, the board went into an executive session with the indication that it would receive a briefing from Harter about the status of negotiations now underway with the teachers' union. Salaries and benefits are the largest element in school budgets and there have been indications in Brandywine that the administration and board are amenable to giving teachers a significant raise in the coming academic year in recognition of their having held the line in temporary contract extensions during the past two years. Both sides have agreed to and have so far been successful in maintaining a tight veil of secrecy about what is going on in the talks.

Doorey said that, despite a need to restore a balance of workable proportions, the district will "stand by our strategic plan" although it may have to defer some items in the plan beyond the coming year. An obvious first candidate for delay, she said and Harter agreed, would be the $600,000 earmarked for additional preventative maintenance of  buildings.

Implementation of the plan was given as the major goal of securing voter authorization for a tax increase. The five-year plan calls for such things as aggressive teacher recruitment, expanded alternative education, and institution of an academically rigorous international curriculum at Mount Pleasant High School.

Craig Gilbert, who took his seat on the board on July 1, said before the vote that the board "has less than an adequate understanding" of the district's financial situation but expects it will be able to remedy that.

Harter at the public hearing promised to deliver "a very solid budget" for the coming year, although it will not be available in preliminary form until September. The board  in the past has received a preliminary budget in June and approved it in July. Doorey called for the district administration to produce the fiscal procedures manual which previously had been expected to be ready last March.

Board member Ralph Ackerman, on the other hand, preceded his vote by remarking that he is "absolutely disgusted with the whole process." He said he is "still waiting for an explanation [of] how this happened" adding that "if there has to be pain, it is going to have to fall back on the administration and employees of this district and not the kids."

2002. All rights reserved.

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