August 31, 2001

Superintendent Bruce Harter was authorized by the Brandywine school board to initiate a process leading to the possible hiring of five additional administrators. If carried to completion, that would fill one vacancy in top-level management and establish four new positions. Harter did not put a pricetag on his proposal, but said that in the long run it would save the district money.

In addition, he told the board at its meeting on Aug. 30, that two of the new jobs -- an internal auditor and a full-time lawyer -- would give the district in-house capability to deal with problems of a nature that have forced it into an unwelcome spotlight of public scrutiny in recent years.

After a brief discussion, the board voted the authorization unanimously.

In office just shy of two months, the superintendent has spent some of his time poking his digital camera into some obscure corners. He prefaced his request with an unusually candid public presentation of photographs showing computer monitors, keyboards and other haphazardly piled paraphernalia moldering  in the basement of Mount Pleasant High School and the closed swimming pool at Claymont Intermediate School.

The electronic equipment -- and a now-rare typewriter -- apparently has lain undisturbed in the pool since August, 1966, when Mount Pleasant moved back to its permanent location near Penny Hill after a year at Claymont while its building was being renovated. Harter said he had no way of telling whether the equipment was functional at the time, but in any event should either have been properly disposed of or sent to another district school or state agency that could use it. It apparently is unusable now. The state has laws and regulations governing the disposal of surplus property.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the Brandywine district is again being investigated by the state auditor of accounts -- this time in connection with the alleged theft of computers from Mount Pleasant. A confidential source has told Delaforum that neither students nor teachers are suspect in that situation.

The other permissions Harter requested and was granted were to initiate moves to fill the assistant superintendency vacated by the retirement on Aug. 1 of Frank Castelli and to seek candidates for possible positions as manager of records and educational information and as in-house construction manager to oversee the district's five-year building renovation program.

Brandywine has an assistant superintendent for school operations, Donald Fantine, but did not fill the post of assistant superintendent for curriculum when Victoria Gehrt, the leading candidate for that job a year ago, was hired instead as interim superintendent. Castelli has been on medical leave for more than a year. Gehrt has gone on to become superintendent of the Bensalem, Pa., school district.

The manager of records and educational information apparently would hold a middle-management position and be an eventual alternative to use by the district of the Data Service Center established by a consortium of the four northern New Castle County conventional school districts under the now-lifted federal court desegregation order.

Brief reference was made to the apparent publication of a long-awaited report by the Red Clay Consolidated School District on the results of a study of whether central records service is economically justifiable now that there no longer is a legal requirement to have one. Red Clay did not immediately respond to a Delaforum request for a copy of the report.

Harter presented the Brandywine construction manager position as one that would last only for the duration of the renovation program. But board members and district officials have declared that the present second phase of construction will, subject to voter approval of local financing, be followed immediately in 2006 by a third phase.

The superintendent's presentation was a complete departure from the usual school board meeting fare in that it not only focused on shortcomings but did so graphically.

Just by relatively casual observation, it is obvious to a newcomer that "our property-management [procedures] are extremely deficient," Harter said. An internal auditor, who would report directly to the superintendent, would be charged with turning that situation around.

In the west Florida district from which Harter came, property management was added to the other criteria on which principals and other administrators were judged during annual job performance evaluations. "We had a problem where a lot of property was listed [on inventories] as 'unable to locate'. In the first year after we held principals responsible, there was a dramatic drop in the amount of property we were 'unable to locate'," he said.

Harter also questioned whether state and district policies covering the use of state-owned automobiles are being followed. Maintenance and other employees, including Harter, whose jobs require them to quickly access district sites during off hours or who have other reasons are authorized such vehicles, but they are supposed to be used only for job-related travel. "I don't know that they're not, but we ought to have a way to check on whether our people are following through on the policy," he said.

Board members sat with obviously rapt attention when Harter showed a photo of some electrical cords dangling through a displaced ceiling acoustical tile. He described that as a minor, but significant, fire-code violation. Opening a gap in what is supposed to be a physical barrier, such as a ceiling, provides an avenue for the quick spread of fire, he explained.

"We ought to have a much higher level of consciousness about fire safety than we have now  in our buildings," he said. That also would come under the auspices of an internal auditor.

The in-house attorney would replace the district's dependence on outside counsel -- and pare its legal bills by about $100,000 a year, Harter said. The current preliminary budget calls for spending $225,000 on legal services during this fiscal year and the financial report presented at the board meeting showed $85,525 spent for such services through July 31, the first month of the fiscal year. Because of the lag in building, most if not all of that obligation was incurred during the previous fiscal year. Bills last year totaled $353,000, Harter said.

David Williams is Brandywine's lawyer.

Harter did not indicate any dissatisfaction with services the district is receiving, but said there have been "a number of situations where I am reluctant to call a lawyer, but I wouldn't hesitate [to seek legal advice] if I just had to walk down the hall to his office."

He said he was not sure if a qualified lawyer could be hired "for [a salary] amount that would save us the kind of money we're looking for," but posting and advertising the position would provide a way to test the market.

In ultimately approving his request to post and begin advertising for both that and the other administrative positions, the board specified that, with the exception of the assistant superintendency, the positions do not yet exist. The board also will have to approve any actual hiring.

Harter said his reason for seeking preliminary authorization was to get what promises to be a long process started. "The process will give the board and the public plenty of time to react" before any additions are made to the administrative staff, he promised. Moreover, he added, "an organization is under no obligation to fill a position it advertises."

He anticipated one likely public reaction by noting that Brandywine's compliment of administrators is below that of other districts in New Castle County and the national average. "We have 16 [authorized] slots in the district office, [but] we only have 13 filled at the current time," he said.

From a management point of view, Harter said the ratio of Brandywine administrators to Brandywine employees is well above the averages in various businesses and industries -- which he used a Power Point chart to illustrate. "Very few businesses would tolerate making a manager responsible for evaluating 60 employees. We're well beyond what would be acceptable in those places," he said.

On the other hand, he said, the public is conditioned in contrary fashion by "a myth [that is] out there about the number of administrators we (schools) should have."

Board members were generally responsive to Harter's request. Thomas Lapinski characterized it as "very positive and essential."

Board president Nancy Doorey calculated that the net cost to the district might fall into the range of $80,000 to $100,000 this year. She said she would like more information before deciding whether to approve spending that money.

Only vice president David Adkins raised the point that was near the surface through the discussion: With a "very tight budget this year" and anticipating seeking approval at referendum for an operating tax increase, "can we afford it?" he asked.

2001. All rights reserved.

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