December 11, 2001

More than a year of planning involving extensive public participation will come together on Dec. 20 when the Brandywine Board of Education receives a proposed five-year master plan. With its expected adoption in final form a month later, the board and school district will concurrently ask the community, probably in April, to literally buy into the plan by authorizing a tax rate necessary to finance it.

Although the board designated completion of work on the plan as a prerequisite before scheduling an operations tax referendum, the document is intended to be much more than a piece of campaign literature. Board president Nancy Doorey described it as a blueprint which "will shape the future of the district [by] defining what the community wants to see in its schools in the next five years and beyond."

The process by which the plan has come about involved, in addition to the district administration, several taskforces and advisory groups with well over 100 active participants in a host of evening and weekend sessions.

On the one hand that has augmented the educational perspective with a wide range of financial, management, building and other expertise, she said. "We've had expert external advice on everything from building maintenance to curriculum." On the other, it has confirmed or reasserted the willingness of residents of the Brandywine community, well beyond parental participation, to be actively involved with the public school system.

"That's how it should be. After all, the community owns the district," Doorey told Delaforum.

If there has been some confusion in terms of there having been a series of reports and proposals, that has been largely the result of attempting to be as all-inclusive as possible in measuring the public pulse, she said. "They were all pieces; we're about to see now how they all fit."

The month lag between public presentation and the board's voting on a final version will provide yet another opportunity for open review and comment, she added.

There is, of course, nothing new about strategic plans, either in schools, corporations or other organizations. What is different about the one Brandywine is close to producing, compared to many others, is its degree of specificity and inclusion of measurements to chart progress on the way to the stated goals. Requiring annual and, in some instances, more frequent, reports assures that it will be a working document, she said.

The plan will address such details as how many teachers achieve national certification, the percentage of students enrolled in enrichment courses, average daily attendance and how quickly parental inquiries are handled. Activities aimed at improving results toward each of those and other stated goals are stated in the plan.

"This isn't a simple game plan, but an overall ratcheting up of the quality of education," Doorey said.,

Nor, she added, is it intended to be just an upbeat listing of educational bromides. On the contrary, it takes into account realities confronting the district.

"For one thing, we have to get a better handle on enrollment. We project a 16% decline [during the next several years]. But on what is that based? We need better ways of tracking," she said. One of the uncertainties in that regard, she acknowledged, is the impact of competition from charter and private schools. Asked if one of the objectives is to enable the district to better compete with them, she replied, "Of course it is."

The biggest and most immediate reality check is the cost of implementing the plan.

The draft to be presented to the board will attach pricetags to each of the proposals. A preliminary estimate by superintendent Bruce Harter put the cost somewhere between $3 million and $5 million in the initial years.

That, Doorey noted, will be on top of  "what we need in the way of additional revenue to just carry on with what we have." The board has been told that, absent an increase in the tax ceiling, it will face a budget shortfall in the fiscal year beginning July 1. It has been eight years since Brandywine has had an operating tax increase.

Even so, she said, the approach will not be limited to asking for more money. "We're also going to see how we can come up with dollars out of the existing budget," she said. 'Cost containment' and 'strategic abandonment' will be among the inevitable buzz words in the document. Utility costs, outside services and personnel moves are potential areas in which that will occur, she said.

A further imponderable is what will happen as a result of the state Board of Education's review of Brandywine's Neighborhood Schools Act plan. Doorey said she is "cautiously optimistic" that the district's request to be able to keep its present grade alignment and attendance areas will be approved.

"I think we made a good case that our plan is the preference of the parents and community by taking it to a vote. But we don't know what pressures are being exerted [on members of the state board] or even when the board is going to rule," she said.

If the ruling turns out to be unfavorable from the district's point of view, present leaning is not to offer a plan based on assigning students on the basis of postal zip codes, she revealed. That was the stated preference among three plans put to voters in October. Even if it gets a favorable ruling, the district is likely to consider the merits of establishing an academic magnet school, such as the one proposed in the assignment plan which was the second choice of voters.

In any event, Doorey said the referendum choice will not be between implementing the master plan or providing money to pay what the district maintains will be the significant costs of implementing a more literal Neighborhood Schools Act plan.

"One is an educational plan and the other is an attendance plan. We're not going to drop education to fund student assignments," she said.

Doorey confirmed also that the board is likely to seek voter authorization for a tax-rate ceiling with the proviso that it will implement the additional taxes as they are needed and not all at once up front, as has been past practice in Brandywine and other districts. "We're not going to collect more than we need so we can bank taxpayer money and earn interest on it," she said.

Theoretically, it is possible that the tax could be lowered in a given year -- in response to a sharp decline in enrollment, for instance -- although general inflation and plan-generated additional spending make that unlikely. In any event, she said, whatever ceiling is proposed to voters will carry a pledge not to hold another referendum for at least five years.

The likelihood that the vote will be taken in April is based on expected authorization in January for a referendum and the three months it takes to effectively conduct a campaign.  

In approaching a referendum, Doorey said she is encouraged by indications that members of the community have demonstrated trust in the district having taken steps to assure proper handling of public money while apparently being in strong agreement with some of the key, and potentially more expensive, conclusions of the taskforce which developed the long-range plan.

The former showed up in the large margin by which voters last May authorized local borrowing to finance extensive renovation and modernization of several buildings. Strong support in a random survey and 'focus groups' for a concerted efforts to recruit and hire highly qualified teachers in the face of markedly higher salaries in neighboring states demonstrated the latter, she said.

"We haven't seen that level of commitment since the old Alfred I. [du Pont] district had a full-time recruiter," she said.

"We've taken the time and made the effort to listen to the community," she said. "We're  going into this very confident that the community has told us what it wants and will support us as we provide it."

2001. All rights reserved.

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