September 30, 2004

Opponents of closing any schools in the Brandywine district turned out in force at the third of three hearings on possible plans which include doing so and challenged the basic assumption on which those plans are based -- an anticipated decline in enrollment.

"It is very clear that the move to close schools is premature and possibly unnecessary. ... It is not a fact that continuing decline is inevitable or inexorable," said Steve Tanzer, a resident of Arden who is running for election to the General Assembly from the district which includes the two schools that have emerged as the most likely to be closed.

His opponent, incumbent representative Wayne Smith, drew the loudest applause from the approximately 200 attenders at the session on Sept. 29 after he challenged the assumption that an aging population in Brandywine Hundred would result in significant districtwide overcapacity. As present residents move out or pass on, "people who buy their three- and four-bedroom houses are going to have kids," he said.

Smith, who leads the Republican majority in the state House of Representatives, also warned against what he said is likely to happen to the sites of Brandywood Elementary and Hanby Middle School if either or both of those buildings are demolished. Delaware Economic Development Office is "on the prowl for larger sites" at which to locate businesses it attracts, he said.

That is not an idle threat, he maintained, in view of the fact the development office attempted to secure the nearby site of the long-closed Channin school in order to locate an office building there. Unlike the Channin site, which fronts on Naamans Road, Hanby and Brandywood are within residential developments. State agencies, however, apparently are not bound by county zoning restrictions.

Frank Dougherty, a long-time resident of Chalfonte, where Hanby is located, testified that, "never in my 40 years [there] have I seen so many small children." Moreover, he added, there is potential to increase enrollment by soliciting the large percentage of families living in the Brandywine district but sending children to parochial and private schools.

"We have the capacity to serve far more [students]; the question is how to we get there. ... We need to find out why they are not sending their kids to Brandywine," said John McClellan, of Foulk Woods.

Julie Shenk, who was a member of the school board when it closed Claymont High a decade ago, testified that she "came out of retirement" to urge the district's facilities taskforce and the present board to take another look at population and enrollment projections in reports the district commissioned from the University of Delaware.

Superintendent Bruce Harter acknowledged during a Power Point presentation that there is a fairly wide variance in projected downward trends in enrollment between now and 2014 in reports from demographer Edward Ratledge, who heads the university's Center for Applied Demography. The 2004 report showed a lesser decline than the one produced in 2003.

Still, Harter said, there is a likelihood that the district will have as many as 26% more seats than it has students to sit in them by the out year.

"We've been careful to allow for flexibility. ... If the numbers [in the U. of Del.] studies are in error, we will not be short-changed," said Jeff Bullock, co-chair of the facilities taskforce. He said that even the most drastic of the four scenarios now under consideration provides 12% overcapacity.

In a preamble to the hearing, which was held in the Hanby school auditorium, board president Nancy Doorey said the school board is "nowhere near a final decision" on what alternative to pursue. "These are not final proposals; they are tentative" she said.

Doorey also promised the public an additional chance to "register your input" before the final decision is made. She stopped short of endorsing an idea put before the taskforce during the early stages of its deliberations this past summer concerning the possibility of holding a plebiscite, as was done when the district was developing its Neighborhood Schools Act plan. But she did refer to "another round after the [taskforce] recommendations are finalized."

Bullock later in the hearing and in a different context referred to "whether [the board] pursues one of these scenarios or decides to go with something else." He also said that the four possible plans which have been put forward were culled from "more than 100 possible scenarios."

The announced procedure is for the taskforce to convene again to come up with at least two options to present to the board. In order to get on the track to obtain authorization for state financing in the capital budget to be adopted by the Assembly in the spring of 2005, a final plan is due to be submitted to the Delaware Department of Education by Oct. 30, or possibly two weeks later if DelDOE grants a requested extension.

Taskforce member Edward Capodanno warned that putting off for a year the third and final phase of Brandywine's extensive renovation program, of which any building closures would be a part, would result in at least a 3% escalation in its cost. District residents would have to authorize the sale of bonds to finance the 40% local share of the cost of the program and a referendum is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2005 to that end.

Whatever is done, Doorey cautioned, "it will be another 20 years before we have a chance to make significant change to our buildings."

District officials on the taskforce sought to ally what appeared at the hearing to be a main concern -- the number of students in each classroom. Chief finance officer David Blowman said class size is a function of enrollment, not the number of buildings and their size. A state formula determines how many teachers the district has to spread among its schools, he explained.

"Nothing we have done will in any way affect class size," Bullock said. He added that the taskforce is conscious of the need "not to reduce [any] building size to the point where we don't have enough classrooms and have to resort to [using] trailers."

2004. All rights reserved.

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