December 20, 2002

Most outside organizations using Brandywine School District buildings and other facilities will have to pay at least the cost of servicing them after Feb. 15. Longer range, as a result of the state's budget problems, district residents were warned that they may well be asked to approve higher taxes sooner than after the five-year gap they were told last spring to expect.

The Board of Education on Dec.19 approved a new facilities-use policy and fee schedule which its lawyer said will bring the district into compliance with a state law enacted last June. Reworked several times and discussed in exquisite detail for nearly an hour at the board meeting, the policy apparently settles the long-standing problem of how much compensation private swimming associations should pay to use Brandywine pools.

After the board formally adopted a final budget for this fiscal year -- which includes provisions for complying with Governor Ruth Ann Minner's request to give back $925, 799 in state money to which the district is entitled -- vice president Nancy Doorey declared that, as a result of the reported outlook for state financing in fiscal 2004, "we may have to have conversations about going back to the public [for a tax increase authorization] sooner than we anticipated."

State financing is the largest source of school revenue.

The resolution of the swimming pools question led to one last significant amendment to the proposed policy before the board voted unanimously to approve it. That exempts the pools from the list of district 'equipment' which selected organizations can use without having to pay any fee. As a result, they now have to pay at least the servicing cost.

It is not clear why the new state law defines swimming pools as 'equipment' along with such things as overhead projectors, gymnasium matting and the like, but lawyer Ellen Cooper told the board that it had to find a compelling "governmental reason" for treating them differently from that other stuff. They finally did so by deciding that extra maintenance that would be required for outsider use of the pools would siphon off significantly more money from the district's primary mission of educating children than running a projector. Jeffrey Edmison, executive director of the support services division, who had the assignment to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's in the policy, said he wasn't going to attempt to assign a figure to the latter.

After some more debate, the board decided to leave it up to Edmison to decide whether whether "we should pull the plug" and drain the pools after the academic year ends -- and thereby make them unavailable to any user during summer months -- or keep them operating against the possibility that the fees most likely users would be required to pay would more than offset costs and thereby generate some modest profit for the district.

Edmison apparently solved a long-standing dilemma, which previously reached the level of being questioned by the state auditor of accounts, over whether private swimming clubs should be allowed access to the pools while paying virtually nothing. His solution, which the board bought without hesitation, was to make any outfit which charges participants in its program more than $100 s year ineligible for inclusion on the list of organizations entitled to free use of facilities.

That effectively eliminates Team Delaware, whose use of pools on a preferred basis, has been widely questioned. Earlier in the meeting, Jerry Martin, of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, presented the board with a resolution the council passed asking the district to charge all 'non-exempt' pool users fees that would at least cover costs other than what would be incurred by servicing the pools for school use.

In the process of devising the participation-fee stipulation, Edmison significantly pared down an earlier list of about 25 outside organizations so entitled to five. In addition to those charging fees, several previous users were dropped because they did not respond to a request for information. Edmison warned the board that "when the word gets out" about who is not on the list "my phone and yours will start ringing." Those excluded can apply to the board to be placed on it.

Presently, the list includes Boy, Girl and Cub Scouts, Brandywine Little League, St. Edmond's Academy and St. Mary Magdalen athletic programs and the Wilmington Department of Parks & Recreation. Also listed are district-related organizations such as parent, and activity-sponsor clubs and employee groups.

To be eligible for the freebee list or to use facilities at cost, the policy said, an organization must be nonprofit and serve children or youth. All others will pay according to a fee schedule which is above cost and, Edmison acknowledged, was put together rather arbitrarily.

Everybody will be required to pay $15 per application to cover the cost of processing and scheduling, which will be handled in the district office by an assigned hourly-rated employee. The fee will be the same whether the request is for a single use or several scheduled over a year. Present contracts will be honored until their stated expiration dates or Aug. 30, whichever comes first.

The budget was approved by a 5-1 vote, with board member Thomas Lapinski dissenting. He later said he did so because the document presented to the board "did not tell me enough about how federal funds will be spent so that I could see they're being spent properly." Chief financial officer David Blowman said he would provide that information. :Lapinski, however, still cast his negative vote. Member Ralph Ackerman did not attend the meeting.

As previously reported by Delaforum, the budget calls for spending $98.5 million with projected revenue of $99.7 million, which will leave an anticipated carryover surplus $1.3 million when the fiscal year ends on June 30. (The mathematical disparity is the result of rounding.)

Blowman said that, contrary to previous indications, the spending plan does not shortchange the district's long-term strategic plan. "We're moving ahead with the plan," he said, adding that budgeted spending this fiscal year is mostly for developing components of the plan and therefore lower than it will be when the plan reaches the impementation stage.

He agreed with board members that the plan should go forward despite the district's and the state's tight fiscal situations. "The strategic plan is not an addition or a luxury," he said. "It is a very significant commitment."

A former ranking official in the state Department of Education, Blowman said the present outlook in Dover is that Governor Minner will have to be even more parsimonious in drafting her spending recommendations to the General Assembly for the fiscal year which being July 1 than she has been in cutting this year's budget to meet a projected shortfall in state revenue. "It's a tough environment," Blowman said.

That led Doorey to suggest that putting the strategic plan into effect could require setting an operating tax rate higher than the ceiling of 98.2˘ per $100 of assessed property value that voters approved last April. The district said then that it would phase in the increase over five years and not seek to raise the ceiling before them. That promise, however, was specifically conditioned on not encountering "unforeseen circumstances." The present operating tax rate is 95.6˘ and the total rate is $1.1809.

Doorey said there may be room for additional cost cutting -- she suggested the district's share of student transportation as a possiblity -- but added that "12 months from now, we're going to have to get serious about holding those [tax increase] conversations."

In other matters before the board:

  • An advisory committee recommended a significant increase in the amount the district spends to maintain its buildings and other physical assets. Pegging the allocation for that purpose at $1.5 million less than what a comparable-size company in industry would budget, the committee called for bringing district spending up to industry standards over a 10-year period. The committee did say that Brandywine's maintenance spending was not out of line with what other public school districts spend.

  • It approved a three-year labor contract with the Food Service Workers Association, which represents 95 cafeteria employees. It calls for raises of  55˘,  60˘ and  65˘ a hour in each of the coming years in the district's share of their pay. The state pays most of their wages. That is roughly proportionate to raises given teachers and paraprofessionals in their new contracts. As it did with those, the board voted without disclosing any details of the agreement in public session but, unlike what happened with the earlier approvals, the district provided a copy of the contract immediately after the board meeting.

  • It approved an undisclosed performance evaluation of Superintendent Bruce Harter.

  • Renewals of administrators' contracts was not brought up nor mentioned during the public session. Because of a requirement that anyone whose contract will not be renewed at the end of the academic year be given six months' notice, school boards usually deal with that matter at their December meetings.

  • It did approve -- again without discussion or disclosing what was involved -- what Cooper described only as "the personnel issue that was discussed in executive session."

© 2002. All rights reserved.

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