May 22, 2001

There is strong public support for the Brandywine School District's proposed building renovation program as residents prepare to vote on whether to authorize borrowing $38.4 million to finance it and spending another $948,000 to replace running tracks, the school board was told.

"Polling results show open and honest dialogue is working," said Craig Gilbert, a parent who co-chairs the volunteer referendum steering committee.

He declined later to provide specific numbers, but said the poll resulted in "a preponderance of yeses." He added that the survey "was focused ... on those with students in our schools."

While in his presentation to the board at its May 21 meeting,  he stopped short of predicting approval of either or both questions to be put before voters in the May 31 referendum, he reported that an intensive effort to reach school and civic groups and influential people  has resulted in several endorsements.

Included on the list of backers is Wilmington City Councilman Theopalis Gregory, who sponsored a Council resolution calling on the General Assembly to declare a moratorium on all school construction in the four northern districts in New Castle County until plans required to comply with the Neighborhood Schools Act are in place. State lawmakers did not agree with that idea. Gilbert said, however, that Gregory -- who served on a Brandywine financial taskforce which found a dire need for the proposed renovations -- makes a distinction between building new schools and fixing up existing ones. First school to be affected by the Brandywine program would be Harlan Intermediate, which is located in north Wilmington.

Actually, the Assembly will have the final say on the Brandywine program since the state's 60% share of the record $96 million total cost is not yet budgeted. It is included in the annual state 'bond bill', now pending before the legislature and due to come to a vote in late June. Although theoretically possible, it is highly unlikely the authorization would be removed from the capital-spending legislation or that Governor Ruth Ann Minner would exercise a line-item veto if Brandywine voters authorize sale of local bonds to match the state's appropriation. On the other hand, if voters reject the sale Brandywine would have to start the entire process from scratch during the fiscal year which begins in July.

Voters at the referendum will be asked to approve selling 20-year tax-exempt bonds to finance completely renovating five schools and doing major work at three others. Money to replace running tracks at the district's three high schools would be raised entirely with local taxes in one year. The two questions are independent of each others. Voters can approve both, one or neither.

Gilbert noted that the tracks would be used not only by the schools' athletes but also in the physical education curriculum and be available outside of school hours for community use.

It is anticipated that local debt service, assuming a  6% interest rate on the program bonds if they are authorized, will require annual increases in the major capital expenditures portion of Brandywine's tax rate over the next five years, followed by annual decreases as these bonds are paid off. However, selling additional bonds during those years to finance another phase of the long-range building program would require increases. The present capital rate is 4 for each $100 of assessed property value. It would go to 5.13 next year for school renovation with approximately 2.85 tacked onto that to finance the tracks. In subsequent years, that portion of the total tax rate would rise to 9.99, 13.18, 15.85 and 17.97. The current total rate is 92.9, most of which finances salaries, materials and other elements of current operations. Brandywine has indicated it will go to voters next year to seek an increase in the ceiling on that portion of the tax.

To determine the amount of tax, the assessed value of a property is divided by 100 and multiplied by the tax rate. In campaign literature, the district said the tax increase on the average assessment, which it said New Castle County puts at $68,257, will be $8 for the buildings and $20 for the tracks in tax bills due by Sept. 30 and would amount to $95 over the next five years.

In another matter before it at the meeting, the school board repealed a prohibition against students having cellular telephones in their possession inside school buildings during the academic day. That was one of several changes made to the district's Code of Student Conduct for the coming academic year.

Although the matter did not come in for discussion before the unanimous vote, it previously was a highly controversial issue as school administrators were torn between preventing possible disruption and parents and children strongly desiring access to the communications devices for both convenience and faddish reasons. As amended, the policy still prohibits "the use of any such device in an audible or disruptive manner." Enforcing a total ban of the easily-concealed devices, it was previously agreed, was virtually impossible.

Another key change was insertion of a provision which provides that any student helping another student to plan or carry out an act that violates the code be subject to the same disciplinary action as the perpetrator. Yet another section specifies five actions which constitute prohibited sexual harassment plus one which encompasses anything else defined as offensive in state law.

The board also received a proposal, which is scheduled to be acted upon at its June business meeting, which modifies the method by which class standing is determined. Assistant Superintendent Donald Fantine said that experience since a previous method was established in 1998 has found that it leads to several inequities. Class standing is one of the reported indices used by colleges to determine which applicants will be accepted for admission. Grade point averages, which also are an admissions factor, will continue to be calculated on a straight-line basis.

The proposed new method would base standing only on performance in basic subjects and advanced-level electives instead of all subjects. Fantine explained that some students have been signing up for study periods rather than taking such electives as music and art so as not to lower the weighted class-standing averages reflecting their performance in honors or advanced-placement classes. The new system will still provide bonuses for taking those classes.

Except for the upper 10%, whose class rank will be reported specifically, students will be grouped in ranges of 10 percentage points. For example, a student would be listed as 15th in a class of 400 or in the 80th percentile of a class of 400 if his or her actual standing was 45th.

Fantine told the board there are "almost as many ways to figure class standing as there are high schools." He said the proposed formula is based on ones used in the Ridley Park and Lower Marion districts in Pennsylvania and, as far as he knows, is different from any used by other Delaware districts.

Board member Ralph Ackerman announced at the meeting that he has decided to repay the $802 the state auditor said he owes to reimburse the district and state for pay his former wife, Linda, received when granted an improper paid leave from her job as a Brandywine High School custodian to attend two educational conventions with him in 1998 and 1999.

In a statement read at the meeting, Ackerman reiterated a previous contention that he did not seek preferential or improper treatment and that he relied on former superintendent Joseph DeJohn and former personnel director Kathleen Overstreet's determinations that the leaves were appropriate. Ackerman questioned why only he, and not those officials, are being judged accountable. He said, however, that he decided to pay to uphold his own integrity and bring closure to the issue.

There never was any allegation that Linda Ackerman's expenses to attend the out-of-town conventions were charged to the district.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: School finance officer predicts tight squeeze
Read a primer on the Brandywine bond authorization referendum
Go to the Brandywine School District Web site





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