November 12, 2001

When the Brandywine Board of Education establishes parameters for the tax-increase referendum tentatively scheduled for March, 2002, it will work from a detailed blueprint for what district officials believe the community wants for its public schools.

At a recent workshop-style meeting, the board received the first draft of an 'action plan' produced by four committees of the Vision and Priorities Taskforce convened early this year to chart a future course for the district. Formation of the taskforce was part of the confidence-rebuilding effort which led in May to overwhelming approval of a state record-tying bond issue to help finance an ambitious building renovation and modernization program and in October to a strong expression of support for efforts to avert unwanted consequences of the Neighborhood Schools Act.

"The taskforce started with about 70 people; 40 of them are still active. I have to say I'm surprised at how many have

stayed committed and enthusiastic," said Michael Stetter, director of accountability and research and taskforce facilitator.

If sticking to the assignment through a series of Saturday and summer meetings is unusual, the depth to which the committees delved to come up with its recommendations is even more so. Taking a page from corporate practice, many school districts, including Brandywine in the past, have come up with long-range plans. Generally speaking, they more often than not contain broad-brush statements that are hard to dispute but open to a range of interpretations.

The plan now on the table before the Brandywine


  • All students are able to reason, to learn and to achieve beyond state standards

  • Well-rounded students are developed through their exposure to enrichment courses and activities

  • A collaborative learning community characterized by mutual respect and trust is effectively promoted among parents, students, board members, staff and community

  • Safe learning environments are provided for all members of the school community

board is different. It gets down to plain-language specifics.

"It said how to make motherhood, apple pie and the flag come to life," Stetter said.

Some of the specifics likely to have the greatest impacts:

  • Develop a teacher salary schedule to support "aggressive recruitment" of top-level job applicants;

  • Devote at least 3% of the total district budget to professional development;

  • Expand support for libraries, information resources and literacy instruction;

  • Expand on the state student assessment program to provide continued reporting of progress, or lack of progress, throughout the academic year;

  • Provide a full-day kindergarten program for 'at risk' children;

  • Implement comprehensive early reading and mathematics programs in the primary grades;

  • Increase the amount of counseling and guidance services in the high schools with particular reference to other than college-bound students;

  • Provide incentives to increase the number of students at the middle- and high school levels taking higher-level courses and participating in state and national academically challenging competitions and activities;

  • Expand foreign-language education to include kindergarten through the 12th grade;

  • Develop 'community partnerships' to provide opportunities for courses and extracurricular activities directed toward career awareness and community service;

  • Establish a district speakers bureau and possibly a weekly television presentation;

  • Set up an alternative-education program for students in grades four through 12 with emotional and disciplinary problems.

Stetter said those and other recommendations are not intended as a pick-and-choose laundry list but  a package of interrelated components. He also said that the recommendations are intended to be implemented throughout the district no matter how the controversial Neighborhood Schools Act plan about to be submitted to the state Board of Education plays out.

He also said that, although it contains about 100 recommendations and sub-recommendations, the plan as now written is not compete, he explained.

An in-house critique before it was presented to the board on Nov. 5 determined there are at least three areas where it needs further development: provisions for serving students who are not going on to college; fleshing out the views on how technology is to be used; and determining to what extent students should participate in decisions which affect them.

A survey, 'focus group' discussions and larger group meetings are planned to sample public opinion concerning the plan.

And, of course, the biggest question of all is how much it will cost, coming as it does on top of looming budget crisis involving basic day-to-day operation of Brandywine's 18 schools. The district has said that its surplus will be virtually exhausted by June 30, 2002, the end of this fiscal year, and that it will need increase revenue to avoid program and staff cuts in the next academic year.

The board at the workshop charged the district administration to address the questions surrounding the plan and come back with answers before its Dec. 20 meeting, at which is it expected to set a date for the referendum and determine how much of a tax increase it will ask voters to authorize. Those decisions, in turn, will depend to a large extent on what pricetags are put on strategies derived from the plan for the 2002-03 and subsequent academic years.

Stetter said it is too soon to attempt to apply even a ballpark estimate of the cost of implementing all the recommendations in the plan. "It's a five-year plan. We realize it can't be accomplished all at once or even over the first year or so. ... What we have to do is 'prioritize' [the recommendations] and come up with the most efficient way to accomplish them. We have to see how much is do-able."

Emphasizing that no decisions have been reached on a staff recommendation, he confirmed that consideration is being given to asking voting residents to establish a new operating-tax ceiling with the understanding that the rate will be increased in annual steps to that level, as opposed to the past practice of putting the entire authorized rate into effect during the first fiscal year in which it is available. The current operating rate is 79.4 for each $100 of assessed property value. That is the largest component of a total tax rate of 97.

Stetter further characterized the strategic plan as anything but an educator's wish list. Rather, he said, it is intended as a way to give back to the community the kind of public education that the public is said to want. "Every student and every teacher will be held to a higher level of expectation than they have in the past," he said.

What is certain, he added, is that there will be more "active learning opportunities in the classroom."  In addition to participatory projects and activities, there will be more computer-based instruction. Teachers will be given more practical professional-development opportunities and youngsters will be directed toward more challenging courses and activities.

"Students have to be prepared to that the high-stakes [state assessment] test, but they also have to develop life skills," he said.

On the other hand, he said, the committees which formulated the plan avoided inclusion of what might be termed special-interest provisions. "We've ruled out things that would only benefit a few but which all taxpayers would have to pay for," he said.

"We have been listening to the community," he added. "What has to be determined now is whether [residents] are willing to pay for it. What I'm hearing is, 'Yes'."

2001. All rights reserved.





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