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.
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
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."
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."
public hearing Harter had described the initial findings as
coming "as a great surprise to me and all the staff."
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."
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."
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
(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.)
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
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.
DISTRICT TAX RATES
Total tax rate
Click for an explanation of how school
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."