January 29, 2004

Brandywine School District has no choice but to charge for material it provides under the state's Freedom of Information Act, president Nancy Doorey said as the Board of Education was presented a revised policy to do that.

If the policy is approved, probably at the board's February meeting, copies of documents would cost 25 a page plus the cash equivalent of the time it takes a staff member to prepare the material.

In addition to receiving the proposed policy changes, the board, at a meeting on Jan. 28, also

  • was told the design for Forwood Elementary School, which will be totally renovated during the 2004-05 academic year;

  • approved the final version of a policy governing use of school facilities and equipment by outside organizations; and

  • got an update which showed progress toward fulfilling the district's long-term strategic plan.

Instead of acting, as had been expected, upon the simple revision of the freedom-of-information policy published in the meeting agenda, which would have set a 15-a-page fee, the board was presented a more extensive rewrite by staff lawyer Ellen Cooper and agreed to hold off a final determination for a month.

The proposed revision, Cooper said, is not intended to restrict access to information that is in the public domain. "We want to be responsive to the public, as long as it does not take away staff time from our primary mission, which is education," she said.

Cooper recently was designated to be the district's Freedom of Information Act officer, replacing Wendy Lapham, the public information officer, who formerly had that duty.

Doorey pointed out that state law said public agencies "shall" impose "a reasonable charge" to recover costs of complying with freedom-of-information requests. "Twenty-five cents per page is well within what already has been determined to be a reasonable fee," she said.

A neighboring district, which she did not identify, charges 50 and the state Supreme Court's going rate is $1, she said. Delaware Department of Education, on the other hand, does not charge "unless they have a voluminous request," she said. Until now, Brandywine has not charged unless the material was delivered on electronic disc or tape, in which case $1 was charged. The proposed revised policy would retain that fee.

Board member Thomas Lapinski asked how many freedom-of-information requests were received in 2003 and how many pages of material were involved. Cooper said she did not have that information, but would be able to ascertain at least the number of requests.

No one from the public spoke to the issue at the sparsely-attended meeting.

Board member David Adkins questioned whether 25 would be "enough to cover the time it takes for [a staff member] to find the document, walk to the machine, make copies and walk back."

More detailed accounting along those lines is required by sections of the proposed revised policy dealing with documents and records containing confidential information as well as data deemed in the public domain. Cooper said an example would be salary records which contain, in addition to the salary, which is public information, the person's Social Security number, which is considered confidential.

In such cases, a staff member would have to review such a document before it is released. A copy upon which the confidential material can be blacked out would have to be made and a second copy made so that it is rendered totally unreadable.

The formula for determining the fee for doing that is to multiply the time it takes by the employee's hourly wage rate or the hourly equivalent of his or her salary.

The facilities-use policy, which has evolved over a long time, establishes a uniform arrangement by which outside groups can make use of school rooms, auditoriums and gymnasiums for such things as meetings, sports and other activities. It also establishes rental fees for their use and enables the school board to designate, upon request, governmental and nonprofit organizations as qualified to use the facilities without charge.

The main features of the Forwood school design include separate driveways and pick-up areas for busses and private vehicles, a kindergarten wing with its own outdoor play area, and a sloped roof to accommodate heating, air conditioning and other mechanical elements. The new traffic pattern was described by architect Perry Willis as also being a boon to the crowds that turn out on Saturdays when the property in North Graylyn Crest "becomes a soccer mecca."

Willis said that, for security purposes, there will be additional outside lighting and that the area underneath an elevated building wing will be fenced. A new sprinkler system will be installed and the building, which was constructed in 1962, brought into compliance with all current building codes.

The strategic plan update showed that the district is well ahead of its goal of providing full-day kindergarten to children deemed to be 'at risk'. The 2003 goal was to have been 38% of such children, but the proportion actually enrolled is 58%.

All but one of the 70 teachers newly hired for this academic year is teaching in the subject area in which she or he majored in college. There are now 28 nationally certified teachers employed by the district and four others have left after achieving certification.

Brandywine's starting salary for new teachers with a bachelor's degree is $33,357, which is higher than the five other public school districts in New Castle County, but ranks 28th among 36 districts surveyed. The other districts are in neighboring areas of Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. At the high end of the scale -- a teacher with a master's degree and 15 years of experience -- Brandywine stood 22nd, outranked in New Castle County by only the Colonial district, which was 21st.

2004. All rights reserved.

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