November 22, 2002

Long on reluctance and short on enthusiasm, the Brandywine School District enlisted in Governor Ruth Ann Minner's war on state budget woes. It will commit $925,799 to the campaign, most of which will come from areas that district officials say will not have a direct adverse impact on the instructional program.

In the most extensive and dramatic public reaction by a district so far, Brandywine's chief financial officer, David Blowman, presented the school board with a list of possible cuts in its own budget which would provide the money to meet its share, based on enrollment, of the $10 million worth of givebacks of state funds which the governor has requested from the public schools system.

The list developed by Blowman and superintendent Bruce Harter actually totals $1,131,747. Blowman explained that was intended to provide a bit of wiggle room when it comes to deciding which programs must be pared to come up with the money.

"We were only asked to give back $925,000; that's all we're going to give back," he declared. "We're not doing this out of the goodness of our heart or because we just happen to have $925,000 lying around."

Both school officials repeatedly insisted that the list is tentative. The items which will be recommended to be cut will be folded into the final version of the district budget for the current fiscal year. That will be presented to the board in December and likely approved in January. Blowman promised to provide a list to pinpoint where the cuts show up in the final document.

The board was told at its regular meeting on Nov. 21 that, if the State Budget Office approves, $735,813, or 79% of the cuts, will come in the form of credits for partial sate financing that would be required for positions left unfilled for some or all of the fiscal year. Those include 10 custodians the district does not intend to hire; teachers and administrators not on the payroll until as late as early October, three months after the fiscal year began; and some positions that would have been financed under the state's 'academic excellence' program.

Blowman said that, contrary to what was reported in one newspaper account, Brandywine schools currently are operating with their full complement of state-authorized teachers.

Other cuts which could be made, according to the list, would be in school-based discipline, cash awards to schools for good performance on state academic assessment tests, professional development and minor capital improvements. The district also would not claim the $14,000 it is still owed as reimbursement for costs incurred in coming up with a plan to implement the Neighborhood Schools Act. (The complete list can be accessed by using the link at the end of this article.)

Although not asked to take any definitive action at this time, members of the board spent the better part of an hour discussing the situation. The conversation clearly reflected the extent of ambivalence that surrounds the issue. Comments ranged from the practical to the patriotic

Blowman, who came to Brandywine from an upper-echelon position in state government -- he was administrative assistant to Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff -- assured the board that the budget crisis is real and that Governor Minner "held off as long as she possibly could" from asking public schools for support.

"The situation is what it is. The governor is not exaggerating," he said.

He said the turnaround in the state's fiscal position had been evident for some time. "It has been three years of a worsening situation," he said. Given that education represents a third of state spending, "it was inevitable that, sooner or later, we were going to have to help out," he said.

It is better, he added, that the request came now rather than later in the academic year when more of the state money the district receives would have been spent. Looking beyond that, he said, "If the shortfall is not met, public education will be hurt in the long run."

Harter said that the sense of a recent meeting of superintendents of districts in New Castle County was that cutbacks in the state's budget for fiscal 2004, which the governor will present to the General Assembly in January, "will be three or four times what they're asking for now."

Although Minner couched the givebacks in the guise of voluntary contributions, Blowman pointed out that reality dictates that refusal to go along with it would put an offending district in a bad light when it comes to future dealings with her and other state officials.

"When the state had windfalls, we shared in them," board vice president Nancy Doorey said. "It is not the state's problem; it's our problem. We're all Delawareans. We should do it because it's the right thing to do."

Nevertheless, she went on to say,Brandywine is probably better prepared than most other districts to deal with the situation because of its previous efforts at cost-cutting. The custodian positions for which it now hopes to take credit for not filling, for instance, were not planed to be filled this year.

She lauded Harter for prudence and fiscal responsibility in bringing that about. "Eighty percent of the givebacks are the direct result of the planned drive for cost-efficiency [under] his pro-active leadership," she said.

Some of the rest of the cuts, she added, will likely come from spending less than originally planned on some aspects of the district's long-range improvement plan but more than had been spent previously in those areas.

"It could have been a heck of a lot worse," Blowman agreed. "Most [of the giveback credit] could come from things we weren't going to do anyway. We're still on the plus side of that equation."

He said the one bright spot in the situation is that the governor and her administration are allowing districts maximum flexibility in how they define their response to the giveback request. "They are willing to listen right now to [talk about] areas that used to be sacred," he said.

Most significantly, there appears to be a good possibility that the state will allow districts to skirt legislative requirements attached to some appropriations. It could even amount to granting "a blanket waiver," he said. He was not specific in defining which, if any, of the possible Brandywine cuts would require waivers.

In deciding how to respond, he said, it was agreed that the district would not simply "shift from state dollars to local dollars"; that is, pay for some of the things the state finances with local revenue.

Board member Craig Gilbert said getting that across to the public will be important in view of the overwhelming support the district received in its tax-rate referendum last spring.

Ralph Ackerman was the only board member to comment specifically on Blowman's list. He questioned, for instance, deferring maintenance of its buildings, pointing out that that expedient had been frequently used in the past and resulted in the necessity for extensive renovations now.

Blowman did not defend any of the items, saying that "is why we thought it important to shoot beyond our [giveback] target -- so we can work backwards," He said that, when the list was shared with school principals and administrators, the items which drew the most concern were possible cuts in discipline programs and reimbursement of tuition teachers pay for further education.

Doorey suggested that a possible alternative might lie in the sale of unused assets. "We have parcels sitting there which are becoming community eyesores," she said with apparent reference to two former school buildings.

Mark Huxsoll said another possibility might be tapping private sources for grants to support activities which would be curtailed in the absence of state financing.

© 2002. All rights reserved.

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