December 31, 2001

When residents of the Red Clay Consolidated School District go to the polls during a bond referendum on Mar. 6 the question won't be only, or even primarily, about constructing a new school. According to district officials, they will be choosing between up-to-date and substandard facilities.

"There's no fluff in this. We're being fiscally responsible," chief financial officer Richard Moretti told Delaforum

While it may be understandable that a superficial glance at the district's $195.3 million capital program would tend to focus on the proposal to build a 600-student elementary school in the Hockessin-North Star area, Moretti pointed out that accounts for less than 7% of the planned spending.

The largest amounts will go for upgrading electrical and ventilation systems and air conditioning the two-thirds of the interior space not presently conducive to warm-weather activity, he said.

Adding sufficient classroom space to several buildings to eliminate the need for 15 modular units is another key element. Dating back to 1996, they provide seats for 588 youngsters in 27 classrooms. That is the equivalent of another school.

Enhanced security, handicapped accessibility and playground and athletic facilities are yet other elements.

There are projects slated at all 24 school buildings, ranging in scope from a half million dollars worth of work at the newest, Brandywine Springs Elementary, to $23.6 million at the Wilmington campus, which houses Charter School of Wilmington and Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

Moretti said that a complete line-item listing of planned projects in each building will soon be made available at both the affected locations and on the district's Web site. The latter now contains an overview of the plan which can be accessed through the link at the bottom of this article.

Referendum voters actually will be asked to authorize borrowing $78.1 million through the sale of bonds over a six-year period, starting in the fiscal year which begins July 1, to finance the local 40% share of the total cost.  The state is expected to provide $117.2 million.

State budget constraints as the result of a slumping economy forced Red Clay to extend its planned program an additional year. Although state officials have said there likely will not be enough money in the next capital budget to finance existing commitments for school construction, Moretti said the district is counting on sufficient flexibility and General Assembly support to enable it to start implementation of its plan in fiscal 2003.

Bond authorization includes acceptance of a capital tax rate to cover debt service -- payment of principle and interest -- during the life of the 20-year obligations. The district estimates that will average 8 for each $100 of assessed property value over the entire period and reach a peak of 13.6 during the sixth fiscal year.

Moretti said the district decided to present a single comprehensive proposal rather than break it into separate components "because we didn't want to pit one community against another." 

He acknowledged that entailed some definite risk because both the total package and the district financial obligations would be all-time Delaware records and because Red Clay voters have twice rejected comparable building plans. The most recent was last April when $74 million local financing for a $185.2 million program was turned down by a 53%-to-47% margin.

On the other hand, he said, Red Clay is asking approval for only part of what could be called reasonable projects. "It would cost $350 million to $400 million to do everything that has been identified in each of our buildings. We have tried [instead] to address the major needs of the district," he said.

If that is done, he added, the buildings will be able to serve virtually another generation without additional major work. "It will carry us 15 to 20 years into the future, not counting the possibility of the need for another school," he said.

Most likely reason such a need will arise -- perhaps in about five years -- will be a decision at either the state or district level or both to provide full-day public kindergartens.

The present proposal for one new school building represents a scaling down of a proposal for two of them in the 2001 referendum. Moretti said the idea of placing one mext to Stanton Middle School was dropped because "that site was not supported by the community." 

There is no elementary school in the northwest section of the district. Also, Moretti and other district officials have said that additional capacity is needed if Red Clay is to achieve its goal of becoming a district in which most, if not all, school attendance is determined through the state's public school choice system. The district has offered that long-standing objective as its Neighborhood Schools Act plan.

An only somewhat less innovative goal is being advanced as basis for putting air-conditioning of Highlands Elementary at the head of the implementation schedule along with acquisition of property near Hockessin for the new school. Highlands, which is located in west Wilmington, has proposed going to year-around schooling beginning as soon as September, 2002. If so, it and an elementary school in Seaford would be the first such in the state.

Even so, Moretti said, the steadily increasing number of students signing up to attend summer classes -- plus the need to accommodate the state requirement for mandatory summer school as part of its annual assessment testing program -- defines air conditioning as a present-day necessity. 

"Classroom temperatures can easily reach 80 or more in September and October and May and June," he said.

Further, there is a public consensus on the need to upgrade security in school buildings, he said. Red Clay is piloting a state program for computer monitoring by video cameras at McKean High School and is looking to such thing as card-controlled building entry.

Other infrastructure upgrades are necessary, he said, to comply with current clean-air and other building standards. The needs, he explained, show up in such basics as the number of electrical outlets in some rooms. 

"The average age of our buildings is 42 years. They weren't designed for today's teaching and learning," he said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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Read previous story: Red Clay schedules bond referendum in March
Go to the building plan presentation at the Red Clay Web site