March 28, 2001

Failure of voters in the Red Clay Consolidated School District to authorize bonds to finance the local share of a building and renovation program would seriously impact the district's basic ability to effectively educate all its students, board members and administrators told a sparsely-attended community meeting in Hockessin.

"We're in very deep trouble" if it is not approved, said board vice president Irwin Becnel. "Ten years ago, we had 13,500 [students]; we're now up to 16,000 and we're going to continue to see growth. If this referendum doesn't pass (sic), we won't have the seats."

"It [would] impact our ability to reduce class size; impact our ability to have neighborhood schools. ... We could not provide the kind of education we want to provide [for] our children," board member Loretta Rice added.

Superintendent Robert Andrzejewski said the district would be hard put to accommodate an expected influx of students from private and parochial schools when the Neighborhood Schools Act goes into force. "When people rediscover the [public] schools, they will not pay to send their children to where they are now," he said. Citing an unidentified real estate source, he said that "for the first time, properties on this side of the [Delaware-Pennsylvania] line are selling at a higher rate than across the border." Real estate taxes in Delaware, he added, are a half to a third of what they are in Pennsylvania.

Backing up those views was Robert Bartoli, principal of H.B. du Pont Middle School. He said that building is literally overflowing -- into four modular classrooms. The auditorium, where the Mar. 27 meeting was held, has 225 seats, too few to accommodate a full grade, which has about 250 students. Individual classes average 30 to 32 students. If there were an emergency, it would be difficult to quickly evacuate the upper floor by way of crowded staircases. "It's amazing how well the kids have managed it," he said.

H.B., along with all other schools in the district, would be in line for extensive renovation if the $74 million bond issue is authorized at the Apr. 10 referendum. Selling long-term bonds over a five-year period would qualify the district for $111.2 million in state money.

Bartoli said that H.B.'s allocation will provide for a new and larger library to be built where the modular units now stand and conversion of the present library into science laboratories, replacing ones that now have to double as classrooms. Districtwide, the plan calls for providing more capacity to replace a total of 18 modules now in use; air conditioning all buildings, looking to the possibility of year-around schooling; renovating other infrastructure; and upgrading high school athletic facilities. 

There was no indication at the meeting nor have district officials previously stated publicly what alternatives would be pursued if bond authorization is not obtained. 

Chief financial officer Richard Moretti said that, based on being able to borrow at 6% interest and having total property value in the district grow at an annual rate of between 1% and 1%, debt service could be met with a capital expenditure tax rate estimated to average 8.72 for each $100 of assessed property value over the 24-year life of the bond issues. The peak 14.62 increase would occur the fifth year out. The rate will decrease year-to-year after that as bonds are paid off. 

"It is a tax level we believe our community can support," he said.

Moretti disclosed that a draft agreement to acquire most of the 'Williams farm' property on Little Baltimore Road opposite Hockessin Hunt is now circulating among New Castle County officials. The plan is for Red Clay to  buy about 10 acres on which to build a 600-student elementary school and for the county to purchase about 33 acres to become parkland. Ed Williams, who attended the meeting, said he will retain the remaining 10 acres and continue to farm there.

"I've always wanted it to stay open space. This [arrangement] is as close as we can come to that," he told Delaforum after the meeting. Having lived there since 1944, Williams once had a dairy herd of 110 cows, operating as Mitch-Will Farms. He now raises hay for horse fodder.

During the meeting it was said that an alternative to the school-park plan would be for a commercial builder to put up 100 or more houses on the tract. "If they get those houses and we don't build the [new] school, where will they (children who will live there) go?" Rice said.

Williams said later that he had turned down a proposal by Toll Brothers Inc. to buy the property, but that firm has told him the offer still stands if he changes his mind. It is zoned for residential use.

Moretti declined to disclose the price or other terms of the draft contract. It is indicated, based on difference between the allocation for the Hockessin school and a virtually identical one in Stanton, that Red Clay has earmarked about $2 million for property acquisition and related costs.

Although both the H.B. situation and the planned new elementary school would seem to be  significant  community issues in the Hockessin area, the meeting was attended by fewer than two dozen people. And most of those are associated with the district or involved in the referendum campaign.

Whether that reflects apathy or predetermination of how people will vote, Becnel said it is imperative that a fire be lit under Red Clay voters. "We can expect 10,000 'no' votes; we have to turn out 10,001," he said.

Andrzejewski said that all schools in the district are planning events on Apr. 10 to attract parents, who are prospective supporters of the bond issue, to the buildings, several of which also will be polling sites. A special effort is being made to garner support through distribution of literature at pre-kindergarten schools. Lawn signs are to go up over the Mar. 31-Apr. 1 weekend.

"I believe we can demonstrate good stewardship of the people's money. We're not going to spend extravagantly and we're only going to sell as many bonds as we need," Becnel said. 

Authorization of the bond issue, he added, will enable Red Clay to fully implement its plan to become an all-choice district. "We can almost guarantee that 90% or better will get their first choice of elementary school and the rest will get their second choice," he said. He added that limited 'preference zones' would put children who live very close to buildings at the top of the list for admission there, but that all attendance will be determined through the state's public school choice procedure.

"I know that 'preference zones' can be controversial -- people who live in them like them and people who don't live there don't -- but I think we have the best plan," he said. Following the traditional 'feeder pattern' system, children living in the Hockessin area are assigned to attend Lewis Elementary School in Wilmington, he noted.

2001. All rights reserved.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous story: Red Clay banks on voters seeing the big picture
Read the  Department of Election's referendum information
Go to referendum information on the Red Clay district Web site





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