November 16, 2001

Declaring that they "meet every test of the law," the Brandywine school board voted unanimously to adopt the district's current grade configuration and attendance pattern as its Neighborhood Schools Act plan and to submit it to the state Board of Education for approval.

The action taken at the board's monthly business meeting on Nov. 15  reverses a decision made 10 days earlier to proffer a plan which would assign students to schools based largely on the postal zip code in their home addresses and present the status quo as a favored alternative. That vote was 7-2, with all of those voting affirmatively indicating that they did so reluctantly.

By eliminating any lingering ambiguity in its position, the board has asserted the primacy of local control of public education. "In the end, the voters of Brandywine, along with their elected representatives on the Brandywine board, have concluded the Brandywine Plan is the only plan that meets all the requirements of the act," the plan document states.

In effect, the Brandywine board has challenged the state board and, ultimately, the General Assembly to concur with that conclusion.

What the document refers to as the 'Brandywine Plan', is the current alignment of grades into four divisions as originally mandated by federal court in its desegregation decision with children living in Wilmington assigned to suburban schools for all but the fourth, fifth and sixth grades and suburban children assigned to schools containing those intermediate grades in the city or Claymont.

In a detailed 'Power Point' presentation at the meeting, superintendent Bruce Harter said that "a closer reading" of the controversial law, particularly its preamble, convinced him that the present arrangement satisfies both its letter and spirit. Among other things, he said, it assigns most students to schools near their homes, is neutral on race as a basis for assignments, will be "fair and equitable" to all students and reflects the will of the community.

Brandywine submitted its plan literally at the 11th hour -- sending it by electronic means after the board's evening  meeting adjourned. The four conventional school districts in northern New Castle County were required to file plans on or before Nov. 15. Harter will make a presentation to the state board on Nov. 27.

The 30-page document sent to Dover covers  the zip-code plan, but focuses on why it is undesirable. The plan states: "While the zip-code plan is relatively straightforward and does meet the strict configuration requirement of [the law], closer scrutiny reveals that it falls short of meeting the other requirements of the act and would be detrimental to many students and schools."

In several ways, Harter said, implementing that plan would create "substantial hardship" in Brandywine and thus violate the intent of the law. Specifically, he singled out the displacement of some 5,000 students, nearly half the district's enrollment.

Harter said the practical effect of the present arrangement is to avoid having any 'high poverty' schools by dispersing children in areas of the district with lower average personal incomes. A 'high poverty' school is one in which a majority of students qualify under U.S. Department of Agriculture standards to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

The superintendent said that concentrations of students with lower socio-economic backgrounds result in schools with overall poorer academic performance. To support that contention, the plan cites the recently published Delaware Department of Education school performance ratings. "The district with the highest percentage of all schools under school review -- Red Clay -- also has the greatest disparity of income levels among [its] schools," the report said. Red Clay has seven schools so designated; Brandywine has one. 'Under review' is an euphemism for schools not showing sufficient academic improvement in state assessment testing.

Harter referred to the likelihood of "teacher flight" from such schools which he said would run counter to the need to have more highly qualified teachers there. He also said providing additional services to those schools would be extremely costly.

During the board's discussion of Harter's presentation, president Nancy Doorey said that supporting the zip code plan would be tantamount to "telling taxpayers we have to come up with several million [dollars] for a plan you say you don't want on top of coming up with money for other initiatives."

Residents who turned out on Oct. 30 to vote on three proposed plans endorsed the status quo by a 68%-to-32% margin. Countering a claim that was not an accurate gauge of sentiment in the district, vice president David Adkins noted that every district resident age 18 and older had an opportunity to cast a vote and presumably anyone who cared about neighborhood schools, one way or the other, would have taken advantage of that opporunity. Board member Janice Tunell added that the result "was not one time, [but] something we've heard over and over again."

In another matter at the meeting, the board gave first reading to a revised policy that district administrator Barry Bogden said will result in consistent application of the district's fee schedule for use of school buildings and other facilities. The previous policy, he said, actually ran counter to state law in that it promoted arbitrary decisions on whether facilities could be used and the charging of fees.

The new policy, if adopted as seems likely in December, provides for off-hours and subject-to-availability use by charitable organizations or for charitable activities by reimbursing custodial and other actual costs and at the stated fees for other purposes.

Although adopting the new policy is part of a long-running review and revision of all district policies, Delaforum has learned from informed sources that previous rentals of one facility, the swimming pool at P.S. du Pont Intermediate School, was one of the subjects of a just completed state audit of the district. Results of that audit are expected to be made public soon by the state auditor of accounts.

Another policy presented at the meeting would slightly modify priorities and procedures for applying the state's public school choice law and deal with terminations of choice assignments for academic and disciplinary reasons -- something that administrator Wayne Emsley said has been rare.

The board approved an interim policy for assigning additional weight to grades earned in higher-level course in determining class rank for present high school freshmen and sophomores. It changes the method that has been in use and which will be applied to present seniors and juniors. The district administration has been directed to come up with a new arrangement for future classes.

The board granted a waiver from the state law which limits the size of primary grade classes to 22 students for 11 of the district's 137 kindergarten through third grade classes. Seven are at Mount Pleasant Elementary and four at Carrcroft. The largest class is an 'academically gifted' second grade at Mount Pleasant, which has 26 students. Eight other classes are above the cap, but do not require waivers because they have teacher aides assigned to them, Emsley said.

Harter, who came to Brandywine from Florida, said districts there and elsewhere around the nation would be more than pleased "if they had those numbers." Emsley said that with only two of its nine elementary schools out of compliance with the law and the number of oversize classes having declined from 52 over the four years that the law has been in effect, Brandywine is leading the pack. Red Clay required waivers for all 12 of its schools, Colonial for all 10 and Christina for 12 of 15, he said. The law sets the limits but empowers districts to waive the requirement if they do not meet it.

The board approved the hiring of Ellen Marie Cooper as in-house attorney, John Croney as internal auditor, and Penny Person as construction project manager. All fill recently authorized positions unique to Brandywine. Wendy Lapham was hired as public information officer. Salaries were not immediately disclosed.

2001. All rights reserved.

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