March 6, 2001

Apr. 10 looms as a do-or-die day in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. That is when up to an expected 20,000 residents will go to the polls and, district officials say, decide to a large extent what public schooling in the area will look like for the next quarter century or so.

If voters authorize a record bond sale, the physical structure of the schools "will be pretty well set for 25 to 30 years, except for programmatic changes," said chief financial officer Richard Moretti. Primarily, plumbing, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and mechanical systems will be updated with modifications made, as required, to classroom, science laboratory, library and athletic facilities.

Not only will approval to finance the $74.16 million local share of a state-approved $185 million construction and renovation program provide modernization of infrastructure, it also will give pubic 

approbation to the district's decision to break with long-standing tradition and provide all 16,000 students and their parents free choice of where and what kind of school they want to attend.

Included in the program is construction of two 600-student elementary schools -- one in Stanton and the other in the Hockessin-North Star area. They account for about $22.4 million of the program.

When they open -- Moretti said that could be as soon as September, 2002, if voters agree -- Red Clay will have sufficient room to totally convert to a kindergarten-through-fifth grade elementary configuration and, according to school board president William Manning, virtually assure that everyone living in the district will get to go to the school of first choice. That is now the situation at the high school level. Red Clay has 15,800 students.

That is significant in that Red Clay's board apparently will opt to submit employing the state's public school choice law as its plan for complying with the Neighborhood Schools Act. That plan is due to go to the Delaware Department of Educate in November. If DelDOE buys into the idea, it probably will mean that Red Clay will be the first of the four northern New Castle County districts formerly covered with the federal court desegregation order to come into compliance with the post-desegregation law.

In addition to student capacity to handle an all-voluntary student attendance pattern, the district would be poised when the 

Red Clay building program
School Cost

Brandywine Springs
A.I. du Pont
H.B. du Pont
Forest Oak
Linden Hill
Richardson Park
Stanton Middle
Telegraph Road
Wilmington campus


$    8,271,200

$ 185,401,700

* new building (Hockessin cost includes possible land acquisition.)

the five-year program is completed to deal with what educators define as the major immediately pressing refinements to their delivery of service. They include school all year around, full-day public kindergarten, before- and after-school child care and the ability to become only the second of the state's 19 districts to meet the mandated limit on the size of primary-grade classes without waivers from the law.

"All those things are coming and we'll be ready," Moretti said.

Next to the new schools, Highlands Elementary, which is now studying feasibility of a year-around program, stands next in line. Moretti said that, too, could be in place in the 2002-03 academic year. "If the referendum goes through (sic), we'll begin implementing [the program] immediately on an expedited schedule," he said.

There would be some work done at all 24 schools. The largest appropriation is earmarked for the Wilmington campus, which houses Red Clay-chartered Charter School of Wilmington and the Cab Calloway School of the Arts. The smallest slice would go to Brandywine Springs Elementary, which opened last September in the renovated former Hercules Inc. marketing center.

Deborah Noennich, director of communications services, referred to the district's intent as "being able to provide prototype schools" for the just arrived new century.

Interestingly, in crafting the program and its referendum approach, Red Clay broke with immediate past precedent and decided to give its residents a single up-or-down choice. Last time out -- in 1997 -- the ballot was divided into three questions, of which voters approved two.

It was a conscious decision this time, Moretti said, to put all the eggs into the proverbial one basket. 

"We didn't want to pit community against community or development against development. It (the program) was designed as a single package and we're going to put it out there as a single package," he said.

Nor, he added, is he overly concerned with the fact that the authorization request -- and resultant increase in the district's tax rate -- are by far the largest ever sought by a Delaware district. It is nearly double the previous record, a $96 million program with a $38.4 million local price tag, approved in the Colonial School District.

If Red Clay voters give their assent, the capital expenditure tax rate will increase an average of 8.72 for each $100 of assessed property value over the 24-year life of the bond issue. The peak 14.62 increase will occur the fifth year out. The rate will decrease year-to-year after that as bonds are paid off.

Red Clay currently has a capital expenditure, or debt service, rate of 1.6. Its total rate is 87.5 on residential property and 95.7 on commercial property. The difference results from the district's having adopted the state-financed reduction in the residential rate. Officials have said there is no need to increase the present operating-tax rate for several years. Moretti said property value in the district is increasing by about 1.5% annually.

Moretti said going for broke represents a decision to level with Red Clay voters. "We're saying this is what is needed to maintain quality education in this district," he said.

If everyone in the district had their druthers, the program would have come in somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 million, he said. "We started by asking [teachers, administrators and parents] what they would want if they could have an ideal school. We then took that and asked what was essential to have a good school that could offer a quality program," he explained. DelDOE further pared the program before granting the required certificates of necessity.

In dealing with infrastructure and building needs, Red Clay is in a curious situation. The new schools, if they are built, will contrast with one, Alexis I. du Pont Middle, which is more than 100 years old. There never was any thought of replacing that building at Westover Hills, or the venerable Emalea Pusey Warner building in Wilmington because structurally they could never be duplicated, he said. Interiors of both the old buildings and other existing ones will be brought up to current standards, he added. 

Moretti said there also never was any question that schools in the city would share in the program, even though Wilmington city government is headed toward possibly or eventually establishing a separate school system. "Why not [include them] -- they're our kids," he said.

Noennich said being straightforward with voters is more likely to work than any attempt to feed them the program piecemeal. "Last time, the referendum had three parts and the people didn't believe us when we said they were all [of] equal [need]. We now have 18 trailers (modular classrooms), waiting lists [for choice applicants] at a lot of schools, and classes beyond the [elementary class-size] cap. The trailers alone are equal to a school. And in the northwest quadrant, the need for space is desperate," she said.

She said the district and all its schools will devote the next month to an intensive information effort to "acquaint everyone with the facts" prior to voting day. To that end, Red Clay has hired Rob Clemens, previously a member of former U.S. Senator William Roth's staff, to coordinate the effort.

District officials say they are giving residents an honest count of what the situation is and confidently awaiting their response in the voting machines.

2001. All rights reserved.

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