April 11, 2001

Rebuffed by voters in its bid for authorization to sell bonds to finance the $74 million local share of the cost of capital improvements at all its schools and construction of two new ones, the Red Clay Consolidated School District will be back -- possibly before the current fiscal year runs out on June 30 -- for a second try.

Although reticent to be specific about timing until the administration and school board have had a chance to digest results of the failed referendum, both Superintendent Robert Andrzejewski  and William Manning, president of the board, told reporters soon after the votes were counted on Apr. 10 that again presenting essentially the same plan to residents is a sooner-or-later certainty.

"The need doesn't go away," Manning said, adding that he has never known a school building proposal to gain acceptance the first time it was submitted to a vote.

Red Clay's was turned down by 53% of the 11,803 people who went to the polls. That was about an 11% turnout of adult residents of the district. The vote was 6,271 opposed to 5,532 in favor.

Had the bond issue been authorized, the way would have been cleared for Red Clay to move ahead on a multi-year $185.2 million program to upgrade infrastructure, modernize and replace obsolescent features, including athletic facilities, at all 23 existing school buildings and to build 600-student elementary schools in Stanton and near Hockessin. That would have been by far the most extensive school building program ever undertaken in Delaware. The state matches the local contribution on a 60-for-40 basis.

"The plan we presented was one that made sense. I still think it makes sense," Manning said. While admittedly ambitious, it was scaled down, with guidance from outside professional experts, from what would have been desirable to what is necessary, he said.

District officials had said the various projects are needed not only to bring the buildings up to the snuff to meet technology and other requirements for current teaching practices but also to provide capacity to fulfill the long-range plan to do away with traditional public school attendance patterns and allow parents free choice of which schools their children will attend.

"Obviously we are disappointed" by the outcome of the referendum, Andrzejewski said. "The most disappointing thing about it is that the kids are the ones who lose out in the long run."

As workers from the state Department of Elections for New Castle County tabulated the votes, evidence of widespread division among residents of the district emerged. Margins ranged down from 70 percent approval by  those who turned out to vote at Brandywine Springs Elementary School in Mill Creek Hundred to 14% at Baltz Elementary in Elsmere. The polling place at Latin American Community Center in the near west side of Wilmington produced the largest proportion of favorable votes, but only 43 people used the machine there.

Voters at H.B. du Pont Middle School and the Chinese-American Community Center in the vicinity of where one of the new elementary schools was to be built were supportive, but voters at Stanton Middle, the site of the other new elementary school, turned down the bond issue by a decisive 64%. Highlands Elementary in west Wilmington, where air conditioning was to be installed and other immediate steps taken to accommodate a plan being developed to initiate year-around schooling, registered a 54% negative vote.

Since residents could vote at any polling place, results do not necessarily reflect sentiment at a given school. People, however, more often than not vote at the location nearest their residence. And every Red Clay school hosted parent-attracting events during voting hours. Friendly student greeters were posted at the entrance to the former Wilmington High School, which now houses Charter School of Wilmington and Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

"I think we did a good job getting the message out," Andrzejewski. said.

He speculated, however, that the plan may have been too large for residents to digest. The decision to wrap it in a single package which resident could, in effect, vote up or down may have doomed it. Manning said, however, that he remains strongly opposed to splitting, for instance, construction of new schools from renovating existing ones. "Everybody goes through this together. I'm not ready to split it up into [separate projects for] parts of the district," he said.

Andrzejewski thinks that a sputtering economy could have had a bearing on the outcome and suggested that the relatively large number of private and parochial schools within Red Clay's borders may have been a contributing factor.

Manning said lack of support by the leadership of the union representing district teachers, for what he described as "petty political reasons." had an influence. He explained that had to do with their being "obviously worked up about charter-school proposals."

Also, he added, "there was some misinformation spread about." A particular point was a perception, which he branded as false, that the district's embrasure of public school choice not only for district residents but also families living outside the district is driving its desire for additional student capacity. "The notion that we keep Red Clay children out to let others in is absolutely baseless," he said.

With the fiscal and academic year winding down, the timing of another referendum is uncertain. Andrzejewski said it might be appropriate to mount an effort before June 30, when the present Delaware Department of Education certificate of necessity authorizing the building projects expires with General Assembly passage of the state capital authorization, or so-called bond bill, expires. A weak economy, he reasoned, might preclude DelDOE from sanctioning such a large venture in fiscal 2002.

Manning said he is "just one of seven" board members who will make the decision, but indicated he is not particularly disposed toward a quick return and doubts that waiting a few months would jeopardize being able to seek the entire program. "Even if the certificate expires, I think it would be difficult [for DelDOE] to justify denial of the same thing they granted before," he said.

Chief financial officer Richard Moretti said another vote could be arranged within about 30 days after a board decision to hold one. State law prohibits school districts from holding more than two referendums in any 12-month period, but a requirement that six months pass before returning to the voters was repealed several years ago.

2001. All rights reserved.

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Red Clay banks on voters seeing the big picture
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