March 20, 2001

Brandywine school board put off a decision about whether to hold a referendum this spring after running headlong into what could become a telling issue if it decides, as expected, to seek voter approval to sell $38.4 million worth of bonds to finance an extensive building program.

Members of the Claymont Community Coalition voiced strong opposition to a change now under consideration in the program which, if the state Department of Education approves, would substitute construction of a new running track and refurbishing an existing one in preference to restoring the swimming pool in the Claymont Elementary School building. 

Also at the Mar. 19 meeting, the board authorized negotiations looking for a new 10-year lease on its bus storage yard in northeast Wilmington and received a proposed school calendar for the coming year which would continue staggering school starting times three ways instead of reverting to the previous two-times arrangement.

Board president Nancy Doorey previously had said it was necessary to make a referendum decision at that meeting in order to give the state Department of Elections for New Castle County sufficient time to arrange for a vote and have results prior to the board's deadline for setting a tax rate for the fiscal year which begins July 1. To be decided is whether to seek voter authorization to sell the bonds to finance the district's 40% share of the cost of the $95 million  building program, approval to raise the ceiling on the district's operating tax rate, or both. DelDOE already has approved the state's share of the project cost, subject to obtaining local authorization for the bonds at the referendum.

Three and a half hours after the meeting's scheduled starting time and three hours after the actual beginning, Doorey announced, without disclosing a reason, that the referendum discussion listed on the agenda would be postponed until a later special meeting, most likely on Mar. 22.

Hal Stoddard, one of the Claymonters who spoke earlier in the meeting, charged that dropping the swimming pool from the building program would break a promise made in return for  support for the first phase of school modernization in a 1994 referendum.

Later, board member Ralph Ackerman backed that contention, comparing the situation to the closing of the former Claymont High School, which is still a highly emotional issue in Claymont. "The community was told in 1987 that it would be kept open; two years later a very different [school] board decided to close Claymont High School," he said. Ackerman first got into school politics as an unsuccessful opponent of the closure.

Assistant superintendent Donald Fantine said he was "not aware of any promises that were made," but he and others acknowledged that putting the pool back into service has been a part of the current building plan since it was first presented two years ago. He disclosed that a committee appointed to follow up on earlier recommendations by a financial review taskforce concerning athletic facilities and playgrounds has recommended the substitution in a report put into final form on Mar. 15.

Copies of that report were not available at the meeting. The Claymont delegation had left the meeting -- along with all but about a dozen attenders -- by the time the issue came up for discussion. Coalition secretary Nora Lossť said later that the group had heard about the recommendation and that it had been confirmed for them by Doorey and other board members.

Interim superintendent Victoria Gehrt said the committee's reasoning was that the district has two operative swimming pools -- at Concord High School and P.S. du Pont Intermediate School -- but no acceptable track on which to hold meets or practice sessions. Present tracks, she added, "are getting to the point of being dangerous."

"We need to look broadly at  what is in the best interests of our district as a whole," board president Doorey said.

A group of parents who have been involved with track and field at Brandywine High School have for several years been advocating replacing the track there. At one point they conducted fund-raising, but the present status of that effort and availability of money could not be immediately determined.

What is envisioned now, Gehrt said, is rebuilding of the track at Talley Middle School and putting a new one, to be shared by the three high schools, at a site other than one of those campuses. Fantine said a new track would cost about $350,000 and refurbishing one would run between $75,000 and $100,000. He put the ticket for restoration of the Claymont pool at between $500,000 and $600,000. There is other renovation work planned for what is now Claymont Intermediate School in the building program.

Ackerman said the pool was closed in 1991 "for lack of a $200 part," a chlorinator. Heat to that part of the building was shut off as an economy move two years later and it has been used since as a storage area. Nothing was done over the entire time to prevent or arrest deterioration, he charged.

Fantine said that Claymont might be a good location for a new track since it originally was built as a so-called all-weather track with a rubberized surface. The surface is long gone and technology has changed, he said, but the base remains. The existing track is 400 yards and the current standard is 400 meters.

Fantine also disclosed that the Wilmington city government called off discussions leading to the possibility of Brandywine sharing a property it owns along Governor Printz Boulevard where the city wants a sports complex built. The stumbling block, Fantine said, was that the bus depot would eliminate about half the required 500 parking spaces and the city would not expect the New Castle County land use department approval of such a wide variance. The county previously blocked an effort by the city to annex the site, formerly owned by an automobile dealer, just north of its limits.

Fantine said the district also looked at the possibility of parking its buses and servicing them at several sites -- including Merchants Square at Edgemoor, the closed Channin school off Naamans Road, the dairy on Beaver Valley Road and Brandywine Town Center on Concord Pike -- but could not make any of them work. The only alternative now, he said, was to seek a new lease to replace the one which expires in April.

The present site once was the location of  a Ralston Purina chicken-feed plant and is still marked by a decaying tower which was part of that facility. It is now owned by an individual, John Anthony. Brandywine's current rent is $58,000 a year.

The location, adjacent to a public housing project which is considered a high-crime area, is said to be a contributing factor to the difficulty Brandywine is having recruiting bus drivers. Several buses parked there were vandalized last summer.

The driver shortage was cited as the reason for an apparent necessity to stay with three starting times in the 2001-02 academic year. Fantine said the alternative would be to "put more kids on [each] bus." That would require lengthening bus runs -- adding an average of about 20 minutes travel time -- and making pickups only on major roads instead of within developments.

To assuage some complaints about the schedule, Fantine proposed moving up starting times, beginning the middle- and high school day at 7:35 a.m. instead of 7:45, the elementary at 8:15 instead of 8:30, and the intermediate at 8:50 instead of 9:05. That would get all the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to their homes before 4:30 p.m., beating early-winter nightfall by a better margin than was possible this year.

Gehrt said the district administration is still looking for ways to be able to return to a two-starting times schedule, but that inability to hire enough drivers is a problem which extends well beyond Brandywine. Fantine said that the idea of contracting for additional buses would not work because contractors are facing the same problems and will not guarantee their ability to serve additional runs.

Doorey suggested a solution might lie in providing additional work for drivers between their morning and afternoon transportation duties so that their pay would be sufficient to make the job more attractive. She suggest such things as data entry and lunch and playground duty at the schools. At present, even drivers who are scheduled for six school runs a day work and are paid for only a half day.

© 2001. All rights reserved.

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