November 23, 2002

The Brandywine Board of Education granted the district a waiver from the state law capping kindergarten-through-third grade classes at 22 students but tabled adoption of a policy governing use of school facilities by outside organizations.

As Delaforum previously reported, the waiver action was expected, with 48 of the district's 136 primary-level classes oversize. Supervisor Kim Doherty, who presented the request to do so to the board, said that all schools with the exception of P.S. dui Pont Intermediate, which also houses a kindergarten center, fall into that category. Last year, there were 11 classes in two schools that exceeded the limit.

Of the oversize classes this year, 22 have 23 students, 22 have 24, and four have 25. She said that some students in 11 of those classes could be transferred to classes in the same school with fewer than 22 students and all would come in under the limit, but that would not be an educationally sound thing to do. The class-size cap is applied as of the end of October, when young children have had nearly two months to 'bond' with their teachers.

Referring to an average class size in the lower grades of 21.6, Doherty said that was a "slight gain" over last year, when the average was 21.1.The average has been inching up since hitting a low of 20.2 in the 1999-2000 academic year.

The board granted the waiver unanimously after  minimal discussion and also approved a waiver from the requirement that 98% of  state-authorized teachers be assigned to the buildings with generate those teacher 'units'. Only one district school, the Bush Early Learning Center, does not meet that requirement.

Ron Gough, spokesman for Delaware Department of Education, told Delaforum that, statewide, the trend toward reducing class size in primary grades has been continuing since the law setting the limit was enacted. This is the fifth year that it has been in effect. "It appears that all districts [have] made a concerted effort to keep classes in grades kindergarten-through-third small," he said.

Last year, 1,296, or 89% of the 1,449 classrooms at that level had 22 students or fewer, he said. That was up from 1,270, or 86% of 1,479 classes the previous year. However, seven of the 15 districts which have elementary schools were in full compliance, up from only three in the 2000-2001 academic year. Fifty-one of 93 schools met the law's requirement, up from 37 the previous year. Data from last year is the latest available.

All five of the affected districts in New Castle County granted themselves waivers last year. Gough has no way of knowing yet how many districts are seeking waivers this year. The law allows school boards to grant them to their own districts without recourse to DelDOE.

The board did not get around to that item on its agenda until 10:25 p.m., by which time no one from the general public was present to speak to the matter. The district earlier had solicited public comment, without revealing the content of the waiver request, for 14 days. There was no report at the meeting on how many, if any, written comments were received during that period.

The facilities policy was tabled after members of the board questioned absence of specific provisions governing the maintenance of athletic fields and the nonprofit organizations on an initial list of those entitled to use facilities in most circumstances without charge other than reimbursement for extra custodial and other direct services.

Craig Gilbert was not satisfied with an explanation from district lawyer Ellen Cooper that school authorities' ability to reject a request to use a field was ample provision to permit them to 'rest' a field to allow it to 'regenerate' itself. Overuse of a field, Gilbert said, can damage it. The problem involved, he said, is that someone from an organization that had been turned down "might drive by and see it not being used," resulting in a public relations faux pas.

Under the proposed policy, "we can say no and we will say no," Cooper said. The law enacted last spring, she explained, said that a district 'may' grant outsiders the use of facilities, not that it 'shall' do so.

Nancy Doorey raised the point that the freebee list included several organizations affiliated with Catholic churches and one with a church of another denomination. Cooper said that all qualified as providers of sports activities for children. and that courts have ruled that providing free public services to religious organizations  for other than religious purposes complies with the U.S. and Delaware constitutions. It was pointed out that the district does charge church groups which hold services or religious rites in its buildings.

Gilbert questioned the presence of the Y.M.C.A. on the list when that organization charges the district for use by some classes of its Camp Tockwough facilities in Maryland.

Also questioned was the status of Team Delaware, a swimming organization, which previously was cited in a state auditor's report as recipient of improper below-cost use of district swimming pools and directed to pay the difference. It was not immediately known if that has happened.

Organizations on the list will pay a reduced rate, sufficient to meet the district's cost, for use of pools, auditoriums, gymnasiums and the like.

Cooper said the freebee list was drawn up to include organizations which had actually used facilities during the past year and was not intended as inclusive of those which might ask to do so in the future. If that happens and they meet the standards set in the law and policy, the board can add them to the list. It lso can remove organizations from the list.

The board received as 'first readings' a proposed new policy governing procedures for applying for outside grants and and a proposal to modify the policy on contracts to include real estate leases.

© 2002. All rights reserved.

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