News

June  29, 2004

Before it's ready to go to voters the list most likely will be shorter and the pricetag smaller, but Brandywine School District officially launched the third and final phase of its building-renovation program with a $130.8 million wish list.

The school board unanimously approved for submission to the state Department of Education a preliminary plan which calls for a complete overhaul of the landmark P.S. du Pont building in north Wilmington, replacement of the Bush Early Childhood Center in Talleyville with a new structure, constructing a combination facilities maintenance shop and bus depot at a site yet to be determined and remodeling four other schools and the district's administrative headquarters in Radnor Green.

The plan will be filed "knowing full well that, with our declining enrollment, we are not going to be renovating all of them," Superintendent Bruce Harter said.

In other matters at its meeting on June 28, the board:

Voted to impose an 8% increase in the rate for calculating the property tax due on Sept. 30.

Approved a 'tentative' $106.8 million operations budget for the fiscal year which begins July 1.

Was told that the professional mentoring arrangement for newly hired teachers has been extended from one to three years in an effort to stem what board president Nancy Doorey an "alarming" rate of attrition among young teachers.

Unlike the approach taken in previous phases of the building renovation and modernization program, the coming one will be based on an architectural and engineer study conducted by five

consulting firms and confirmed by the district's volunteer facilities committee, which is made up of people in the construction and related fields.

Board member Craig Gilbert, who was involved in planning the second phase and the bond referendum which authorized its financing, contrasted that with what happened in 2001 when "the information was sketchy at best."

David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, said the study was expensive, but will prove well worth the money spent over the

Estimated Costs

Bush

Brandywood

Lancashire

P.S. du Pont

Springer

Hanby

District office

Transportation/

  facilities complex

Total

$    6,354,535

11,452,085

11,754,642

42,044,265

23,957,460

21,937,947

6,356,724

 

6,991,726

130,849,384

course of several coming years. He did not specifically state the cost, but linked it to a reported $1.1 million spent on contractual services during April. That was more than double the amount spent in any previous month of the current fiscal year and brought the 10-month total to more than was spent in all of fiscal 2003.

John Read, the district's capital projects manager, told the board that current planning is geared to providing building components which are expected to last for 30 years. "We shouldn't be putting in products that have a six-to-eight-year life," he said. State policy is to finance capital spending with money borrowed by selling 20-year bonds.

Applying the state's 60-40 school construction cost split to the initial version of the plan, Brandywine voters would be asked to approve a $52.3 million bond issue at a referendum anticpated to be held in April or May, 2005.

The board is scheduled to vote on a final version of the plan and terms of a referendum to finance it in October. That decision is to be based in large part on recommendations from a taskforce which is looking into the district's anticipated facilities needs and is expected to conclude that one or more buildings be closed.

Meanwhile, Read said, DelDOE will review the initial submission prior to determining which components to include in a certificate of necessity, which is tantamount to approval to proceed.

Regarding necessity, Read said "none of these buildings are falling down tomorrow" but added that "our newest building opened at about the same time as Veterans Stadium." That Philadelphia sports facility was branded as obsolescent, replaced and demolished this year.

In something of the same vein, he pointed out that Brandywood and Lancashire, the elementary schools included in the phase three plan, were designed with classrooms clustered around 'centrums', which were all the rage in the late 1960s, but are now considered educational dinosaurs. It probably would be more cost-efficient, he said, to replace those buildings, but the plan as it now stands does not recommend that.

It does recommend that Bush be replaced with a new building, which probably would be located in what is now a parking lot at Concord Pike and Whitby Drive. The lot previously served the now-closed Concord Pike Library. The school district owns that property.

Read said that it would cost significantly more to reconfigure the existing building to accommodate the pre-school children that it serves. Moreover, he said, the building, which has 23,000 square feet, is too small. The program there requires 27,000 square feet, he explained. He said the need for replacement "is so glaringly obvious" that any alternative would be unreasonable.

By far the largest single project, at an estimated cost of $42 million, is P.S. du Pont. Constructed in 1935 by Wilmington Public Schools as a junior-senior high school, it now serves fourth, fifth and sixth grades. It was previously remodeled to accommodate that age group, but basic infrastructure was not touched.

Read noted, for instance, that its entire wastewater disposal system is connected to the city's sanitary sewer system and will have to be separated to go into the current sanitary- and storm-sewer systems. Energy-inefficient windows, which are 10 feet high, need to be replaced -- at an estimated cost of $1.2 million. Also, three of the building's five boilers were not converted to burn natural gas, have been unused for many years and must be removed. "The coal chutes are still there," he said.

On the other hand, such mid-1930s touches as the design and decor of the school library need to be kept. "You couldn't begin to afford to build that library today," he said.

While theoretically on the table to be considered by the taskforce for closure, P.S. is all but assured of escaping that fate. It has long been considered one of Wilmington's architectural assets and is listed on the National Register of historic buildings. Read said he has "met with the historic [preservation] folks" and has received their support. That was based, he explained, on "what we did at Harlan." Historical and architectural features of that nearby building were preserved during its phase two renovation.

As expected, the tax rate for the coming fiscal year was set at $1.1875 for each $100 of assessed property value. Following the practice of prior years, the board did not consider passing through the state-financed tax relief subsidy to residential taxpayers. Districts have the option of doing that or keeping the money -- about $2.2 million in Brandywine's case -- to help finance operations.

Biggest component of the tax rate increase is for debt service, which will go up 5 to 12.8. Blowman said that it was decided last year not to spread that over two years because resultant revenue was not immediately needed to finance retirement of bonds and payment of interest. Brandywine has seven outstanding bond issues, dating back to 1995.

The new rate was approved unanimously with the proviso that it be rolled back by 1 in the unlikely event that the General Assembly does not require districts to hire reading specialists for a new program. The pending state budget bill permits districts to pay their share of those salaries with revenue from the minor capital expenditures component of the tax rate, which is not subject to voter approval.

The Brandywine rate brings the local current expense component to the 51.4 ceiling authorized by voters in the 2002 referendum. As has been anticipated for more than a year that is being done a year earlier than had been expected at the time of the referendum. The next operating tax referendum is likely to be held in the spring of 2006.

No one from the general public showed up to testify at a public hearing on the tax rate held before a recent 'workshop' meeting of the board.

Five members of the board voted to approve the budget. Thomas Lapinski abstained, without giving a reason for doing so, and Sandra Skelley left the meeting before that vote was taken.

As Delaforum previously reported, the fiscal 2005 spending plan is 3.6% higher than the one for the year now ending. Blowman pointed out that the budget is 'tentative' because information about the level of state financial support is not yet known. A preliminary budget will be presented in August and a final one in November or December when actual data is available.

He said the tentative budget includes a 'place holder' for additional spending to finance a new contract with the teachers' union. The present contract expires in August and a new one is now being negotiated. If past practice is followed, the Brandywine administration will not disclose contract terms until after they are final and have been ratified by the school board and a majority of union members.

A salary and employee benefit analysis in the budget document puts the fiscal 2005 total at $76.1 million, up 3.5% from what was budgeted for fiscal 2004.

Pat Guzzo, coordinator of professional development, told the board that the one-year professional mentor arrangement for newly hired teachers, which has been in place since 1998, is being extended to include their second and third years of employment.

New teachers are paired with veteran teachers in the schools to which they are assigned. The veterans, who are paid a stipend for their services, in effect, show the newcomers the ropes. Guzzo said a frequent complaint among new teachers is reluctance to go to experienced colleagues with questions or to seek advice "out of fear that they will be [seeking] something they're expected to already know."

The mentoring will be augmented by 'coaching' at the district level and an expansion of the number of available professional workshops from seven to 25 during the coming academic year. Several of the current new hires also are participating in summer sessions, she said.

The program includes all newly hired teachers with some variations for novices and for those who have had prior teaching experience.

Guzzo cited a Harvard University study which found that, nationally, 40% to 50% of new teachers leave the profession within five years of starting. She and Doorey said they have seen Delaware statistics and they are comparable. They did not disclose what they are.

Assistant superintendent Tammy Davis said Brandywine so far has hired 35 novice teachers for the coming academic year. It expects to hire more in August, after the total number of retirements from the district's teacher force is known, she said. Last year, a total of 67 new and experienced teachers were hired.

2004. All rights reserved.

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