December 4, 2001

School construction and renovation plans in both the Red Clay and Brandywine districts are not in jeopardy as the result of recession-induced cutbacks in state spending. Previously published reports hinted that their timing might be.

Noting that education "has always been the top priority" in the state's capital spending budget, Dave Hall, assistant director for policy and planning in the state budget office, told Delaforum that Red Clay will be able to begin work on its program during the fiscal year which begins July 1 is referendum voters give it a green light.

Todd Conn,  Brandywine's director of school facilities, told a school board meeting on Dec. 3 that an official in the Delaware Department of Education "has assured me that, provided nothing changes, our funding should not be disrupted."

DelDOE has not responded to several Delaforum requests for comment and clarification following publication of a newspaper article to the effect that there will not be enough money in the fiscal 2003 kitty to meet school construction and other capital spending already programmed for the coming fiscal year. Figures cited were $118 million available against $131 million committed.

The implication was that if money already earmarked won't be available, there is unlikely to be any new commitments sought when Governor Ruth Ann Minner submits her budget proposals to the General Assembly early in the coming calendar year.

The Brandywine board authorized superintendent Bruce Harter to negotiate a construction management contract to oversee total renovation of Harlan Intermediate School and the replacement of windows at Mount Pleasant High School. Both jobs are scheduled to begin in summer, 2002. Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. was selected as first choice for that role with Bancroft Construction and Barclay White Skanska picked as next in line if a satisfactory deal cannot be cut with Whiting-Turner.

A proposal put before the Red Clay school board on Nov. 14 calls for spending nearly $190 million during the next five years to build a new elementary school in the Hockessin area and to renovate and upgrade every school in the district. That amount of spending would be a record for any Delaware school district. Voters last March turned down a bond authorization for a somewhat smaller proposal.

Chief financial officer Richard Moretti said the new proposal was crafted with the knowledge that there could be a curtailment of state capital spending as a result of the slipping national economy.

Red Clay proposes spending $30.8 million in fiscal 2003 and $40 million, $40.4 million, $42.1 million and $34.3 million, respectively, in subsequent fiscal years. Voters will be asked to authorize local borrowing, by way of selling long-term bonds, to finance the district's 40% share of those amounts. The state would provide 60%, most of which would be borrowed money.

" I have confidence that we will be receiving funding from the state upon passage of a referendum.  Should there be a severe shortage of funding, our program may have to be phased over a longer than the five-year period proposed, however," Moretti said.

Hall said an assumption that new projects would not be added to the existing mix is not valid and added that the premise upon which it was based is not likely to hold.

"How much will be available will depend on what [the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council] tells us next April and May," he said. "Then, if the referendum [is successful], we'll sit down with the district [officials] and see what we can work out."

Basically, he explained, the approach if the state comes up short will be to stretch out projects over several spending cycles -- a practice that is considered normal anyway. "The practice is for districts to come with a total [project] amount. But there is no way they can spend all that in one year, so it ends up being spread over three years or longer," he said.

Hall said he is aware of the total amount Red Clay would be seeking, but is not familiar with details of the plan. He also said it would be inappropriate at this time to comment on specific elements of that or other plans.

In general terms, however, a building already under construction or in the process of being physically renovated would not have that work stopped, he said. 

2001. All rights reserved.

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