News

June 22, 2002

Superintendent Bruce Harter blamed the new financial crisis in the Brandywine School District on "layer after layer of inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal practices." That explanation came a day after he acknowledged at a school board meeting that the district has overspent this fiscal year's' $29 million local-funds budget by about $3.5 million.

After being told that fiscal woes run much deeper than had been indicated by cutbacks in its arts and physical education programs, the board put off setting the tax rate for the coming fiscal year until shortly before it is due in July.

The shortfall undercuts the projections upon which the operating-tax referendum held in April was based and will result in a razor-thin balance in local accounts when this fiscal year ends on June 30.. As a result, the district will be unable to meet summer payrolls and other obligations without borrowing from the state. Coming just two months after voters authorized up to the equivalent of $6 million in additional property taxes, initial effects of the situation have caused consternation among some parents and other residents.

"That's a huge amount to be off. ... The question arises: Why didn't anybody see this?" an obviously distraught board president Nancy Doorey said at the meeting on June 20.

"We presented the board with the best information that we had," Harter said, adding that interim financial officer William Bentz "made a series of discoveries after he arrived."

District lawyer Ellen Cooper hinted at the cause when she cryptically referred  to "issues that we may not be able to discuss in public session ... [that are] more appropriate for executive session." Doorey remarked that, under state law, public bodies can discuss only personnel matters and pending and potential litigation behind closed doors, but neither she nor other board members pressed the matter.

Harter, however, was more forthcoming in a subsequent message to business and civic association officials who have been serving as advisors to the district.

"It is now clear that the heart of this error is a long-standing lack of appropriate position control and authority for hiring. Over the past several years, increasing numbers of staff were 'creatively' shifted [and charged] to local and other discretionary funds," he told them.

"Unraveling this will take several more weeks of intense work," he added.

Beyond controversial program cuts already disclosed and others under consideration, Doorey indicated at the meeting that the board might be forced to renege on its promises to impose only part of the tax hike authorized at the April referendum and not seek another one for five years or jeopardize Brandywine's  long-range plan for educational improvements. "Something is going to have to give," she said.

Harter said in his message to business and civic association officials that an immediate problem is that the district is "currently in bargaining with our teachers' union who [sic] saw the successful referendum as the final hurdle to gaining what they see as a long-overdue significant salary increase."

The district also is in negotiation with two other employee bargaining units. Salaries and benefits are, by far, the major elements in school district budgets.

Noting that the size of the tax ceiling increase the district sought, and won by a large margin, was based on projections that were supposedly scrutinized by committees of volunteers with financial expertise from  the community and businesses, Doorey said, "It's heart-wrenching to learn there were so many fatal flaws in the information we were given."

Later in the meeting, as the board took corrective action, Harter identified failure in the past to follow state bidding laws regarding contractual services as one of the shortcomings Bentz discovered.. Harter also said the board last year set the tax rate component which finances the district's technology program higher than the amount the state allows. Both situations have been reported to the state auditor of accounts, he said.

"As soon as I got here I realized you had a problem," Bentz said. Harter brought Bentz, retired director of business and finance for the Colonial School District,  into Brandywine on a temporary basis in April after Michael Shockley, chief financial officer, went on long-term sick leave the previous month..

It was Shockley who provided the projections. He was widely praised at the time for getting the district's fiscal affairs in order after former superintendent Joseph DeJohn's administration had been cited by the state auditor for several instances of financial mismanagement. Shockley also was favorably cited for managing finances in a way which enabled the district to delay going to voters for more money from the spring of 2001 until this year. The educational plan underlying the referendum proposal was developed over the course of that year.

Delaforum was unable to locate and solicit comment from Shockley as this story was being prepared.

David Blowman, formerly executive assistant to state Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff, is scheduled to become Brandywine's chief financial officer on a permanent basis on July 1. Bentz has agreed to be available to help in the transition, Harter said.

In a different context, Doorey said she had been told by DeJohn when she was elected to the board in 1999 that no teachers were being paid totally from district funds. She made that remark after Doris Stevenson, director of human resources, said that as many as 40 were so financed as declining enrollments reduced the size of the state-authorized teacher pool  Specialists such as gym and music teachers are paid from the same state allotment as classroom teachers. The district administration was reluctant to cut the specialists' programs, Stevenson said.

"If we don't reduce [the number of] specialists, it increases class size," said Leslie Morrill, curriculum supervisor.

"We're now playing catch-up for five years of not doing right," Doorey said.

On the other hand, she made it a point to praise Harter and Bentz for "being so honest and forthright" in describing the present state of affairs. Referring to Harter, she said, "There will be a temptation of some [people] to hold you personally responsible. But, you are the one taking us out of this. Thank you for your leadership and honesty."

As Delaforum previously reported, Bentz had prepared a tax-rate proposal for the meeting which called for imposing a 48.8 per $100 of assessed property value district tax rate to finance operations during the fiscal year which begins July 1. That was what  the board had set before the referendum as the amount it would impose as the first of five annual steps to reach the 51.4 the voters authorized. Those figures are somewhat deceptive in that they refer to only one component of the tax rate. Among other elements, there is a 46.8 countywide tax to finance the local share of the cost of operating schools. The bottom line in Bentz's proposal was a total tax rate of $1.1745, a 21% increase over the year now ending..

But he told the board that the 48.8 rate, and the nearly $5.2 million in additional revenue it will bring in, will not cure the problem. "If you don't make some serious [budgetary] changes, that money is going to go away a lot faster than you expected," he said.

Doorey proposed that the board delay setting the tax rate until close to the July 11 deadline for submitting it to New Castle County, which collects school taxes as well as its property tax. The taxes are due Sept. 30. "We need to have better information before we act," she said.

The board scheduled a special meeting on July 9 to set the rate, preceded by a 'public hearing' on the issue the previous evening. Both meetings will begin at 7 p.m., probably in the district administrative office in Radnor Green. The board also has a so-called 'workshop' meeting scheduled for the same time and place on July 1.

Harter told the board that he expects to be able to provide the requested 'better information' by July 8, but said he will not have a preliminary budget for the 2002-03 fiscal year until September. Past practice has been for the preliminary budget to accompany the tax rate proposal. School districts cannot adopt final budgets until late in the calendar year because the amount of state money they receive is based largely on enrollments as of Sept. 30.

Brandywine is projecting an enrollment of 10,378 in the coming academic year, down from 10,557 in the year just ended. A continuing year-to-year decline in the number of Brandywine students is attributed mainly to demographics and the impact of charter schools.

The financial discussion followed a parade of six speakers availing themselves of the public comment portion of the board's agenda to object to the proposed elimination of a director of arts education and reducing physical education classes to one a week in elementary schools.

Harter had already backed off from the former into a compromise calling for establishing a supervisor of arts and enrichment position, which the board approved later in the meeting. Supervisor is an administrative office a step below a director. No one will be hired for the position, however, until the budget situation is clearer, he said.

Stevenson's monthly activity report presented to the board referred to terminating all temporary-contract teachers in June and indicated that some teachers with regular contracts also were let go. District spokesperson Wendy Lapham told Delaforum that she was unable to provide the respective numbers as this story was being prepared.

Regarding physical education, Harter said the availability and widespread participation in community youth sports leagues will offset any harmful effects of the planned cutbacks.

The board's rarely enforced three-minute limit on remarks during the comments session was strictly observed at the meeting.. Cooper cut off two of the speakers' presentations. When an attender remarked aloud during the board's discussion, "How far does enrollment have to drop before we cut math?" she ruled, "We're not going to debate. You'll have [another] opportunity for public comment at the next board meeting."

2002. All rights reserved.

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Read previous story: Brandywine looks at a 21% tax hike
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