May 11, 2004

Having rung up record-setting victory margins in its last two tax referendums, the Brandywine School District has begun laying the groundwork for a vote tentatively planned for the spring of 2005.

"We can't go back to our community without this kind of thorough study," superintendent Bruce Harter told the organizational meeting of a taskforce charged with setting priorities for the third of three phases of building modernization while determining how best to match schools with a declining student enrollment.

At the meeting on May 10, Harter posed three questions to be answered:

Should the district "plan to consolidate students in fewer schools" or should it mount a marketing effort to more fully use its existing schools?

If 'consolidation' is the recommended option, should the present four-tier grade configuration be maintained or should alternative configurations, based largely on how the buildings are designed, be established?

What should be done to halt or reverse the downward trend in enrollment by making Brandywine schools "more attractive to families who send their children to private schools"?

The 29-member taskforce, co-chaired by Jeff Bullock and Barbara Meredith, is divided into three committees, which will study and rank buildings not yet renovated on the basis of need for upgrading; coordinate potential renovation plans with a view to achieving the most cost-effective combination of size and state financing; and to set priorities for improving athletic fields and playgrounds and how best to finance that work.

Serving on the taskforce are school personnel and volunteers from the civic, business and political communities.

The taskforce as a whole is to produce preliminary recommendations for consideration at public hearings on Aug. 24, Sept. 8 and Sept. 22, and to make final recommendations for review by the school board on Oct. 4 and adoption on Oct. 18. If that timetable is not met, Harter said, the district will be unable to receive Delaware Department of Education approval to proceed with a spring, 2005, referendum and, if successful, to obtain state financing to begin the third phase of modernization upon completion of the second phase in the 2006 fiscal year.

If timing of the capital referendum is pushed back, it would impose a choice of having to hold it concurrently with or close to a likely vote in 2006 on an increase in the operating tax rate ceiling or putting it off until 2007. A capital referendum approves, or rejects, sale of 20-year bonds with debt service funded by a separate component of the total tax rate. Operations are tax-financed on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Perhaps the most basic issue with which the taskforce has to deal is whether to maintain what is perceived to be a community preference for small primary-grade schools in light of the state's financing formula, which pegs the number of authorized teachers and associated allowances for other costs to the size of the student population. It is theoretically possible, Harter pointed out, that a school could be too small to be authorized a principal.

Overall, the district's current student enrollment, 10,569, is 88% of rated program capacity based on the type of students served. Absent effective measures to attract students from elsewhere through use of the state's public school choice law and to draw from the approximately 4,000 children living within the district's geographic boundaries who attend private and parochial schools, that gap is projected to increase. Another 400 Brandywine District students attend charter schools and would be targeted for 'return' to its conventional schools.

Harter suggested that a preliminary step in that direction would be to engage "a professional firm to see if there is really a market out there for the services we offer." A key, he added, is to continue to provide "distinctive schools and programs."

To be sure, the possible closure of a school is likely to produce the most effusive public reaction and, to the extent it would be associated with a bid for local financing for renovating other buildings, could prove to be a significant handicap. Some people are still smarting over the district's closing of Claymont High School nearly a generation ago.

The taskforce's mandate, in its final form, specifies buildings eligible for closure as those which have not been renovated nor currently are being or slated for renovation -- Brandywood, Bush, Hanby, Lancashire, P.S. du Pont and Springer -- the 'Phase Two' building whose renovation is programmed but not yet planned -- Talley -- and previously renovated buildings with significant work, such as roof replacement, remaining -- Brandywine, Carrcroft, Darley Road and Maple Lane.

Although that list is officially on the table, there appeared at the meeting to be a general consensus that P.S., the signature building of the former Wilmington Public Schools, is all but assured of passing muster and Harter specifically referred to Carrcroft as "one of our gems." Counter to some early speculation, Harter said, "We're going to renovate Lombardy [Elementary], not close it."

In considering closure -- which the district terms 'consolidation' -- Harter emphasized that the taskforce's mandate requires that "our present socio-economic balance" be maintained. The mandate defines that as the present 20%-60% range of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches while saying that reducing the upper limit to 50% would be "desirable."

Although not specified in the mandate nor referred to in the superintendent's remarks, the former Burnett Middle School building in Wilmington, and the former Pennsylvania Avenue Elementary building in Radnor Green will likely come in for consideration. Burnett currently houses the district's alternative-education program and Pennsylvania Avenue serves as the district's administrative offices.

Previously mentioned as likely to be included in the capital referendum is authorization to finance acquisition of a site for the district's bus depot to replace the currently leased one in northeast Wilmington.

On the flip side of the public-reaction coin is the taskforce's mandate to set priorities for improving athletic fields and playgrounds.

That committee will begin its deliberations around a study in 2003 by Duffield Associates, a consulting engineering firm, which recommended $870,000 worth of improvements at eight schools -- Brandywine, Concord and Mount Pleasant High; Hanby, Springer and Talley Middle; and Claymont and P.S. du Pont Intermediate. That study also recommended spending between $70,800 and $81,300 annually to maintain them after the work was done.

Because such work would not be included in the state's 60% match of districts' 40% financing of major capital projects, the taskforce's mandate calls for coming up with a method to pay for the recommended improvements. An adjunct to the building modernization plan approved for financing in the last referendum provided for levying a one-time, one-year tax to finance construction of new running tracks at the district's three high schools.

Brainstorming sessions by taskforce members after Harter's presentation covered a variety of ideas, including such things as moving administrative offices to the high-rise Burnett building; combining primary and intermediate grades into kindergarten-through-fifth or sixth grade elementary schools but housing them in separate areas in the building; providing more extensive vocational education; offering additional 'magnet' programs, such as arts education; seeking state or county support, or both, for maintaining athletic fields in return for making them available for community use; and significantly improving discipline, which is said to be the main reason why so many parents opt out of public-school education for their children.

2004. All rights reserved.

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