October 18, 2002

Anyone who wants to enroll in a Brandywine district school under provisions of the public school choice law will have to have a valid reason for missing the annual application deadline. The school board ended the former practice of generally accommodating latecomers whenever there is room for them.

"Part of the problem has been using substantial local discretion. That we intend to stop," Superintendent Bruce Harter told the board.

Revising the district's choice-law policy and adopting new procedures to go with it headed a crowded agenda at the board's meeting on Oct. 17.  Other actions included:

  • Receiving extensive revisions to the policy governing use of school facilities by school-related and outside groups;

  • Formally adopting a preliminary $99 million operating budget for the current fiscal year;

  • Ratifying a new labor contract with the union representing paraprofessional employees;

  • Granting pay raises to administrators, specialists and secretaries;

  • Upgrading the level of a new administrative position and immediately hiring someone to fill it; and

  • Authorizing the hiring of a construction management firm for the planned renovation next year of Concord High School.

The school-choice issue centered around a provision in the seven-year-old state law which allows consideration of an application received after the deadline if there is a 'good cause' for its being late. The deadline is the second Wednesday of January.

The law enumerates several 'good causes' but the list ends with a phase referring to any reason that is similar to the others. That is widely interpreted as allowing school districts to decide what else might constitute 'good cause'. Neither Delaware Department of Education nor any other agency is empowered to police those decisions.

Until now, Brandywine has interpreted the law liberally on a case-by-case basis. Harter described that as "some kind of brokering outside the concept of the law." Acceptance of applications pretty much has depended only on space being available in the school the student wants to attend and agreement by the principal there to accept the student.

The revised district policy uses the same list as the law, without the law's 'etc.' phrase. The procedures adopted for the coming 'choice' season -- early November until mid-January -- include the same list ending with "circumstances consistent with the definition of 'good cause' in [the] policy." Harter said that is how the law will be strictly applied from now on.

"This allows us to treat all parents requesting choice for their children equally. I am not sure we have been doing that," said district lawyer Ellen Cooper.

Harter said the new policy will not eliminate late applications, but "the vast majority will not meet our [new] definition of 'good cause'."

Board member Thomas Lapinski, who has been a persistent critic of the way Brandywine has handled the 'choice' system, charged that there has been considerable abuse. "I have expressed my sentiments behind closed doors and in open session. We have created high-poverty schools," he said.

He ended up voting against the revised policy, without explaining why he did so, but voted in favor of the procedures based on it. The policy was approved by a 5-1 vote and the procedure unanimously. Member Harold Thompson did not attend the meeting.

When vice president Nancy Doorey questioned before the vote a clause in the procedure statement which stated as a determining criteria "the demographic composition of the [receiving] school," specifying race and gender, Cooper ruled that was applicable when the district was under the federal court desegregation order but is no longer now that the order has been lifted. The clause was stricken.

Doorey was told yes when she asked if the revised policy would preclude accepting a student deciding in mid-summer to transfer from a nonpublic school into a district school other than the one to which he or she would be assigned based on residence. The decision would have to have been made before the previous January, Cooper said.

Member Ralph Ackerman questioned why the district would want to refuse admission to a 'choice' student coming from another district if space is available. In the case of interdistrict transfers, the sending district is required to pay the receiving district the average local cost of educating that student. "If they want to come in from [elsewhere], I would take them at any time," he said. He voted in favor of both the policy and the procedure.

The proposed facilities policy also is intended to bring Brandywine into compliance with state law -- this one enacted during the General Assembly session which ended in June. It requires that districts make school buildings available for community and other pro-bono use, but on a basis which recovers additional costs incurred by doing so.

The Brandywine proposal is to establish three classes of users: groups associated with the schools, such as band boosters, and other nonprofit organizations deemed worthy of special consideration, which would be accommodated without charge; other nonprofit, governmental and similar organizations which would pay minimal fees to cover the costs of such things as heat and light; and other groups, including commercial ones, which would pay a full rate.

Jeffrey Edmison, executive director of support services, said principals still will have final say over whether an intended use or organization can be suitably accommodated. But he said, adoption of specific rules for arranging building use and paying for it will eliminate complaints that the district has been inconsistent in that regard and shortchanging itself.

He presented a proposed fee schedule for the two paying categories divided into two levels each, based on the size of the schools and their facilities. The board will have to specifically approve which outside organizations will be entitled to free use. Examples of likely candidates previously suggested are Boy and Girl Scout troops, which have long traditions of using school buildings.

Edmison did not explain apparent wide disparities in relative relations of  minimal fees and the full ones. A gymnasium in a large building, for instance, would cost those entitled to the  former $25 for the first three hours and $5 an hour after that while a full-fee group would pay $125 and $30 respectively. A cafeteria, without use of the kitchen, however, also would be $25 and $5 for a low-fee user but only $90 and $25 for one paying full freight. A classroom would go for $10 and $2 at the low end and $20 and $8 at the other end.

Use of swimming pools -- the issue which brought facilities-use practices into public view -- would be $30 an hour for the selected groups and $100 an hour for others. Any group in either category charging an admission fee for an event in an auditorium, gymnasium or cafeteria would pay a premium -- $400 for three hours plus $100 for each additional hour in a large building and $300 plus $75 in a smaller one.

The revised facilities policy was presented on a first-reading basis with the board expected to take action at its Nov. 21 business meeting. It was explained that voting on the choice-law policy at the same session at which it was presented was necessary because of the law's requirement that procedures for the coming year be in place by Oct. 31.

Before the board adopted the budget by unanimous vote, chief financial officer David Blowman flatly denied that it reflected reductions in the amount of money made available to schools. "That is not true. ... School allocations are up about 2% over last year," he said when member Craig Gilbert said that "the first thing I hear is that building budgets are down."

Blowman went on to explain that schools "are still feeling the residual effects of what we had to do to get back into the black" before the end of the past fiscal year. Although he added that "budgets are still tight [and] we are a long way from being out of the woods," he repeated an earlier assertion that "we have not touched principals' budgets nor [central office-based] instructional services."

The budget itself was approved unanimously and without discussion. It is unchanged from what was previously presented, and reported by Delaforum, at a board workshop meeting. The final version of the budget is scheduled to go to the board for approval, in what Blowman said will be a somewhat different format, in December.

A labor contract with Local 752 of the American Federation of Teachers, an A.F.L.-C.I.O. union representing Brandywine paraprofessional employees, was ratified without any discussion or explanation of its terms in public session. Unlike what occurred when a similar approach was taken at a previous meeting when the board ratified an amended contract with the Brandywine Education Association, the teachers' non-affiliated union, no summary of the terms was provided to attenders after the board voted this time

Delaforum has protested and filed a request for disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act, but a reply had not been received as this article was being prepared.

The board also voted to match the 2% pay raise negotiated with  the teachers' union in the locally-financed portion of the salaries of administrators, specialists and secretaries. Those who are paid entirely with district money will receive a 3% increase, which Harter said is the approximate net teachers have received this year as a result of a raise in the larger state portion of their pay.

The fiscal note in Harter's recommendations said only that they " have been budgeted in to [fiscal year] '03 preliminary budget." The raises will be made retroactive to July 1, he said.

With regard to administrators, Doorey cast their raises in the context of a growing shortage of  principals and  holders of other education management positions. "We have to see what [else] we need to do to stay competitive," she said.

Harter asked and the board agreed to eliminate the administrative position of testing coordinator and replace it with that of supervisor of accountability. A supervisor outranks a coordinator and, he said, is paid $4,000 a year more.

"The pool of candidates that applied for the coordination position did not meet district expectations. We do know that, by upgrading the position, we will get candidates who can not only coordinate the testing but also take on key areas from the strategic plan," his written recommendation stated.

Later in the meeting, just before the routine approval of personnel changes, Harter distributed an agenda addendum to board members which listed Julie Schmidt as a new hire to fill the new position. It omitted her salary and there was no information pertaining to her background and credentials presented in open session.

The board voted without dissent to approve all the personnel changes.

The full list revealed that Penny Person, construction project manager with responsibility for overseeing the district's extensive renovation program, had resigned. There was no mention of that in open session.

Included in the new-position recommendation was a request for board approval of a revision to the district's organization chart -- which was not distributed -- which establishes, as previously discussed, a dual reporting role for internal auditor John Croney. He will be responsible to both the board and Harter.

Brandywine Hundred-based Nason Construction was given preference among four firms to be construction manager for the Concord High project. Harter was authorized to negotiate a contract with it. The fall-back candidates, in order of preference, are Bancroft Construction, Whiting-Turner Construction and E.D.I.S. Inc.

Gilbert told fellow board members that Nason got the nod largely on the basis of its proposal to assure that its work will be done in a way which "provides for the safety of students" who will be on the Ebright Road campus concurrently. One of the specifics, he said, is aimed at preventing use of foul language on the job.

2002. All rights reserved.

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