August 31, 2001

Students and parents generally perceive Brandywine district schools to be safe despite a steady increase in suspensions over the past five years and a nearly five-fold increase in the number of expulsions during the last academic year, according to the first report of the district's School Climate Advisory Committee.

"Although the data is not encouraging, it allows for a starting point to make plans for the future," the report presented to the school board on Aug. 30 declares.

Kittie Rehrig, coordinator of school climate at Mount Pleasant High School, told the board that the reported increases in serious incidents and resultant major disciplinary action send a mixed signal. The data, she said, can be interpreted to mean the problem is growing or that teachers and school administrators are more aware of the seriousness of so-called 'minor' instances of school violence and related incidents and are moving aggressively to counter them.

Either way or in a combination of both, it is certain there is more thorough reporting and documentation of incidents than there was five years ago, she said.

The report presents information from those years in graph form for both the district as a whole and for each of the district's 18 schools. The key finding is that suspensions have increased in a steady rise from about 3,150 in the 1996-97 academic year to about 4,350 in 2000-01. There were between one and five expulsions in each of the years from 1996-97 through 1999-2000 but 19 in 2000-01. Serious reported offenses fluctuated between 120 and 180 in each of the years covered.

The increases came despite a decline in student population by about 300, to 10,885, during the period.

A survey of staff, students and parents, taken last February by the University of Delaware's Research and Development Center found, on the plus side, that respondents did not indicate a concern about weapons or gangs in the schools, felt that discipline-code guidelines were being followed and that discipline was administered without regard to race or ethnic background. On the down side, there were reports of bullying and fighting and a feeling that there was less "positive reinforcement" available to youngsters after they moved from the elementary- to the secondary-school level.

The committee, which was formed last autumn, found that all the schools have preventative programs, conflict resolution activities and available counseling for students identified as potential disciplinary problems.

Among activities planned for the academic year that is just starting is formation in each school of committees, to include parents and community representation, to analyze discipline data and make specific recommendations for the respective schools. Data collection is to be expanded to include tabulation of incidents in which students are referred to the principal's office as well as those in which more severe actions are taken.

In another matter, the board approved the final version of a preliminary budget for the current year. It projects spending $111.8 million, an increase of $13.4 million, or 13.6%, over what was actually spent in fiscal 2001. Of the increase, however, $8.7 million is programmed for major capital programs approved in the May referendum. Projected income from all sources is $109.4 million. The difference will be covered by the district's carryover balance, which is expected to be reduced from $5.2 million on June 30 to $2.8 million next June 30.

Chief financial officer Mike Shockley told Delaforum that the budget  provides for a 3% pay raise and other elements which come out of just-completed negotiations with the teachers' union on a one-year contract extension. A ratification vote is scheduled for mid-September with the school board expected to endorse the agreement at its September meeting. Salaries and benefits account for 74% of total district spending.

This is the second one-year extension of the pact, which expired in August, 2000. Extensions have been in lieu of a new contract because of the district's financial bind. Officials have said they intend to go to voters in a referendum late in this calendar year or early in 2002 to seek authorization to increase the operating tax rate to go into effect in the fiscal year which begins next July 1.

The board was told that the committee appointed to provide oversight for the building renovation and modernization program wants to adopt a construction management arrangement different from what has been used in the past for school construction in Delaware. Reduced to simplest terms, it would involve hiring a 'total project management' firm rather than a conventional construction management firm. That firm's fee would be based on its ability to bring the project to completion on schedule and within or under budget.

Speaking for the committee, Craig Gilbert told the board that the managing contractor would be hired by bid in time to begin design late this year and construction next summer on the first of two schools to be involved -- Harlan Intermediate, which is due for a complete renovation, and Mount Pleasant Elementary, which is to be partly renovated. A further incentive, Gilbert said, is that the 'total project management' firm will want to be retained to work on the other six schools included in the already-approved program.

He said Delaware Department of Education turned down a proposal to include an on-time incentive such as Delaware Department of Transportation used to get the rebuilding of Interstate 95 north of Wilmington completed sooner than scheduled last year. The Brandywine committee is negotiating with DelDOE to get use of 'total project management' sanctioned.

Another part of the plan, Gilbert said, is to develop standard designs with the first two schools which will be applied to the other six. Classroom specifications, for instance, would be the same in all the schools. Doing that will reduce the amount of time necessary for and the cost of planning as the project moves forward.

"The University of Delaware has done a lot of standardization and students and teachers don't even recognize [the results]," he said. That gets down to such details as to weather conventional or dimmer light switches are used, but the idea is that once those kinds of decisions are made they are applied to every classroom.

The board received and referred to its policy-drafting committee, a proposal for weighting high school grades to determine class standing for graduating students. The proposal is said to eliminate the present situation in which students getting 'A's in less rigorous courses end up outranking those who get 'B's in honors and advanced-placement courses. Class ranking is one of the major factors considered in determining admissions, especially to so-called prestigious universities.

In 'clarifying' its direction to the district's Neighborhood Schools Act planning committee, the board decided that its request for racial data in the two or more plans it wants to get for consideration is an after-the-fact matter. The plans, it decided, should be drawn, as the law requires, without regard to the racial composition of the resultant schools caused by attendance patterns, but that such data be included as a point of reference when the plans are presented for consideration.

Susan Cobin, a member of the committee, noted that the school district and its Data Service Center are the sources of such information and not the committee.  "It is something you'll have to tell us; we aren't in a position to tell you," she said.

Board president Nancy Doorey said the board wants "student assignments [made] on a geographic basis, but then provide the information" about the composition of the schools as one of the elements of the ultimate decision-making.

"It seems silly not to tell the public what [the schools] are going to be like," said board member Ralph Ackerman. "They (the state legislature) have essentially said to resegregate Delaware schools. We're going back to 1968 with this; we're getting ready to take a giant step backward."

The reference to 1968 was to the year when the General Assembly established Wilmington, with its growing Black population, as a distinct entity in the state's public school alignment. That was one of the moves which led to the desegregation case in federal court a decade later. Ackerman repeated an earlier prediction that the Neighborhood Schools Act is likely to lead to a similar case.

On the other hand, board member Mark Huxsoll declared, "We have to make it clear we're not trying to fight the law."

Also referred to the policy committee for further study was a proposal by member Thomas Lapinski to set guidelines for public participation at board meetings. His proposal would allow for members of the public to comment at the start of the sessions for up to three minutes apiece to a total of 30 minutes, with priority given to those who wanted to talk about items on the meeting agenda. Other items could be brought up during the remaining time in the pre-meeting session and during a similar session at the end of meetings. Presentations of up to 15 minutes that were germane to the matters before the board could be made by other than board members if scheduled as part of the agenda at the discretion of the superintendent.

Lapinski said his idea was to encourage, rather than limit the opportunity for, public participation.

"We should accept and respect input from our community regardless of whether they agree or disagree with our decisions. Many of us ran for election on the promise to be open, honest and accountable to our constituents. We must keep that promise," he said.

2001. All rights reserved.

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