November 24, 2001

Before going to residents to seek authorization for a tax increase, the Brandywine School District should look toward the likelihood of closing as many as three schools during the next few years and examine its stance concerning the number of non-teaching positions on its professional staff.

Those are among the key points in a response from the district's Financial Review Taskforce given to members of the school board and the district's top administration before the most recent board meeting. Although receipt of the report was on the meeting agenda, it was not formally presented nor discussed. Delaforum has since obtained a copy from the district office.

The latest step in a public scrutiny process begun almost a year ago, the response followed presentations and discussions this autumn about what has been done with regard to 31 

recommendations the taskforce's three committees made last February.

Taskforce co-chairmen Stephen Lehm and Kent Riegel say that there has been "considerable activity" since February and especially congratulate the district on having secured public support of its building renovation program as evidenced by the large margin by which voters authorized bonds to pay for it during a referendum last May. They call that "a very significant accomplishment and ... a major step forward in the district's strategic endeavors."

They also call attention to steps taken to put the district's financial house in order, adoption of a code of ethics and use of advisory groups to secure outside business and professional expertise. Lehm, for example, is president of Van Demark & Lynch and Riegel is the retired former chief executive of I.C.I. Americas.

That accomplishments to date have occurred during the time 

Salaries listed

These are the annual salaries to be paid to those recently hired to fill newly authorized positions on the Brandywine School District's administrative staff:

Ellen Marie Cooper, in- house attorney .................
Penny Person, construction project manager ...............
John Croney, internal auditor .............................




In addition, the board at its Nov. 15 meeting confirmed the hiring of Wendy Lapham as public information officer at a salary of $65,000.

when a new superintendent, Bruce Harter, was recruited, hired and took office reflects credit upon the board, Harter, the district administration and the former interim superintendent, Victoria Gehrt, according to the response.

All that said, it goes on to note that "much remains to be done."

The district's implementation report "focuses more on activity than results" and in a few instances does not directly address an initial recommendation, it said.

"While there are reports of activity being undertaken, the resulting results are unclear and there is little, if any, report of strategies or action steps identified that will lead to the project's completion."

In particular, the response singles out for criticism the lack so far of meaningful preparation for the tax referendum the taskforce and many others conversant with district affairs expect will take place in late winter or early spring of 2002.

Securing voter authorization for a higher tax rate "to permit the district to meet its operating income needs of the future" was cited as one of the district's top priorities in the original report and is now "its highest priority," the response said.

Nevertheless, "there is no evidence that there is a strategy or what preparations, if any, have been undertaken to prepare such a strategy or even the roles of the public affairs position and others in the district will play in the process," it goes on to say.

Coincidently and in another context at the meeting on Nov. 15, board president Nancy Doorey made it a point to say that the board has not yet set a referendum date nor even decided whether to hold a referendum. It is expected that issue will come before the board at its business meeting in December.

Getting down to specifics, the taskforce response said that securing voter support "is more than a communications exercise."

If it is to occur, the district will have to show evidence of having improved productivity and "must demonstrate by actions that it is a good steward of the district taxpayers' money."

"This challenge has been exacerbated since the taskforce [initial] report because of a declining economy," it adds.

The reference to closing schools is made in the context of a projected 16% decline in enrollment, to 9,400 students, by 2005. "This will eliminate the need for the equivalent of, perhaps, three schools," the response concludes. 

"A plan should be developed to consider the corresponding reduction of costs," it said, suggesting that "a subsequent rollback [of the tax rate] should be considered in the planning for the referendum."

Referencing a higher ratio of counselors to pupils than in other districts and noting that that has been justified as something that has "always been a priority," the response said, "This may be a worthy conclusion, but there is no explanation as to why it has been a priority and the justification for it."

It recommends "a strategy of reviewing the ratios of all non-classroom personnel on [a continuing] basis, perhaps as part of a yearly review."

"It is imperative that the district demonstrate that there are actions being taken and there is a plan in place displaying a commitment to non-classroom productivity improvement," the response said.

It calls for establishing "challenging benchmarks by job class" and meeting them on a schedule. The targets, it said, should be "in the top quartile or, at least, above the national mean." 

"The district should, where it meets or exceeds such benchmarks, promote its results and where it does not currently meet a benchmark, display the steps it is taking to achieve it." the response recommends.

Although praising adoption of the ethics code in one place, the response goes on to describe it as "too general" and lacking in necessary details.

The response  notes some "encouraging" initial steps in the right direction but said the district still lacks budget and financial reports which allow for tracking district spending. "This continues to be a serious concern as an impediment to the board's ability to exercise its fiduciary responsibilities," according to the response.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read related story: Brandywine endorses status quo
Read the original Financial Review Taskforce report





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