October 19, 2001

Cost of implementing the Neighborhood Schools Act in the Brandywine School District will be significantly higher than first estimated, superintendent Bruce Harter told the school board. Eventually, he said, it could amount to as much as $25 million.

In another matter at its monthly business meeting on Oct. 18, the board formally ratified a $150,000 settlement of the civil lawsuit stemming from the dismissal of Richard Hauge, the administrator who touched off the investigation into the district's financial affairs which ultimately toppled its previous administration.

Harter said that previous estimates which put initial implementation costs at just over $2 million, net of savings on bus transportation, were too low. They did not take into account continuing additional operating expenses which, over the ensuing 10 years will run somewhere in the range of $23 million to $25 million, net, before taking inflation into consideration, he said.

Representative Wayne Smith, who sponsored the controversial legislation, and other Republican state representatives from Brandywine Hundred who supported it, Robert Valihura and Gregory Lavelle, claimed that the district's estimates are exaggerated. They said that cumulative net savings over 10 years would be between $488,000 and $3 million. If a provision in the district's calculations to cover staff planning and orientation to new buildings during the transition is eliminated, those amounts would increase by $610,000.

The legislators said cumulative savings would offset cumulative costs somewhere between four and eight years from implementation.

"From day one, the Brandywine School District has downplayed the overall cost savings aspect of the neighborhood schools plans. When analyzed, it is clear that residents of the Brandywine School District will have lower tax rates and less expensive schooling as a result of adopting one of the proposed neighborhood school plans now before the school board," they said in a press statement.

Harter said at the board meeting that his data was developed from "a conservative application" of actual spending in the Charlotte, N.C., area and Montgomery County, Md., to deal with a concentration of students in 'high poverty' circumstances in some schools. Brandywine has been told it will have two or three such schools, depending on which student-assignment plan it adopts, whereas it now has one. A 'high poverty' school is defined as one in which more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.

"I doubt that Washington (the federal government) will say, 'Now that you have "high-poverty" schools, we'll give you more money.' What they'll do is ask us, 'Why did you create "high poverty" schools?'," he said.

"Significant additional resources will need to be provided to these schools annually in order to 'hold harmless' the students assigned to them and bring their achievement at least to the level it would be if assignments had not been changed," the district said in a 16 page tabloid newspaper size flyer now being mailed to all residences in preparation for a vote on Oct. 30 to gauge residents' preference among the three plans being considered.

Harter's presentation to the board was essentially the same that is in the flyer.

Even though expected savings in transportation costs have been shifted out of the original implementation estimate and into the estimated annual operating costs, the former still come in between $2.4 million and $2.5 million, depending on which plan is selected, he said. Those expenses include such things as moving costs, paying teachers to participate in the process, purchase of new books to serve revised grade configurations, and installing science laboratories and establishing music and athletic programs at P.S. du Pont, which would come to include seventh and eighth grades.

Annual operating costs, net of transportation savings, is expected to range between $2.3 million and $2.5 million, again depending upon which plan is selected, according to the estimates.

A major element in that is staffing additional classrooms needed to accommodate smaller classes that are deemed necessary to effectively teach high concentrations of poor students. Harter said the limits would be 15 in kindergarten, 17 in grades one through three, and 22 in grades four through six.

Another cost factor, he said, would be providing incentive pay to attract experienced and 'quality' teachers to accept assignment to the 'high poverty' schools. The figures Harter presented are based on paying a bonus of $3,000 a year.

The Neighborhood Schools Act provides that Brandywine and the three other northern New Castle County districts that are required to realign their student assignment patterns will receive one-time appropriates of $1,250,000 to cover transition costs and will be entitled to whatever transportation savings the state realizes during the first 10 years after implementation. The state pays the entire cost of getting pupils to and from school.

The earliest any Neighborhood Schools Act plan can be implemented is September, 2003.

Harter told the board that, with the mailing of the flyer, Brandywine is initiating an intensive get-out-the-vote campaign. The board previously has said that results of the selection among the three plans will be binding if the turnout is equal to or greater than the nearly 10,000 who voted in the bond referendum last May.

The plans which will go before the public and eventually the school board call for assigning students to schools with modified attendance areas based on either postal zip codes or the geometric midpoints between schools, or establishing a 'magnet' school on a 'campus' which includes the P.S. and Harlan Intermediate buildings in Wilmington.

A second question on the ballot will be, in effect, a plebiscite on the Neighborhood Schools Act itself, although the ballot will note that the school board has no authority to change the law.

As soon as this vote is out of the way, the district will turn its attention to another one, tentatively scheduled for next March. That will seek an increase in the ceiling in the district's operations tax rate. To that end, board vice president David Adkins said that it is anticipated that a five-year strategic plan for the district will be ready for adoption in December. The plan and costs associated with it will form the basis for what will be sought at the referendum.

The Hauge settlement was reached and presented to the board at a special closed-to-the-public executive session on Oct. 11. It provides that Hauge will receive $75,000, which will come from a district insurance policy, and his lawyer, Barbara Straton, will get an equal amount toward her legal fees, paid from district funds.

It was not disclosed how much Barry Willoughby, the lawyer the district hired on a special basis to defend it in both the Hauge suit and one by Thomas Lapinski, former principal of Mt. Pleasant High School and now a board member, has been or will be paid.

Willoughby said the settlement was "entirely a matter of economics." He explained that allowing the Hauge case to go to trial would cost the district at least $150,000 in pre-trial proceedings alone and, even if it were to win the case, it would be much better off to end it at this point.

Both Willoughby and board president Nancy Doorey indicated that the district thought it would win the case if it did go to trial, but that there were advantages to being done with the matter left over from the administration of former superintendent Joseph DeJohn. Hauge had charged that his contract as district business manager was not renewed because he called in Thomas Wagner, state auditor of accounts, when he learned for questionable spending of district money.

Former board member Larry Nicholson and former business manager Patrick Miler  pleaded guilty and no contest, respectively, and received probation as a result of criminal charges stemming from the investigation.

In a written statement issued after the settlement was publicly disclosed, Hauge said he was "grateful" for the settlement, but "disappointed [that] the board has failed to include an apology to me and to the residents [of the district] for the manner in which the entire DeJohn fiasco was handled."

"In failing to squarely and honestly admit their mistake, the board sends a message that they either do not understand or do not believe that firing someone for reporting criminal activity is not only wrong but contrary to the public interest.  In either event, this aspect of the settlement leaves the board out of sync with the constituents they represent, and offers the specter that  employees in the future will continue to be harassed and fired for attempting to expose criminal activity and misconduct," his statement said..

2001. All rights reserved.

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