September 24, 2004

None of the building options being considered in the Brandywine School District will have more or less "educational impact" than any of the others, according to superintendent Bruce Harter. Nor, he said, will any affect any of the district's programs.

Harter spoke as the district administration and the volunteer advisory taskforce appointed to recommend at least two possible plans to the school board brought four options before the first of three public hearings.

Some of the approximately 70 attenders at the session on Sept. 23 questioned what would happen to existing programs for both 'gifted' and 'special needs' students as well as other offerings. "They will all continue although some may end up on different locations," Harter said.

Jeff Bullock, co-chair of the taskforce, stressed that no final recommendations, let alone decisions, have been made. Recommendations will come after the taskforce receives and digests responses from the public. "We're trying to figure out what scenario we focus on to recommend," he said.

The decision on what to propose to the Delaware Department of Education to secure state approval

and financing is up to the school board, he said. The deadline for that is Oct. 31, but Harter said DelDOE is likely to grant a two-week extension to ease the time pressure.

"Ultimately it is not our decision how the district moves forward. It is the decision of you who live in the district," Bullock said. The district intends to go to the voters in a referendum in the spring of 2005 to secure authorization to sell bonds to finance its 40% share of the capital costs of what will be the third and final phase of an extensive building renovation program which will involve all its schools.

That there is still flexibility was illustrated by the taskforce's having reinstated an option between Brandywood and Lancashire Elementary and Hanby and Springer Middle as candidates for closure under two of the options. That either-or choice existed early in the taskforce's deliberations, but later on the panel in its open meetings appeared to be agreed upon Brandywine and Hanby as the more likely choices.

The revision appeared in printed material distributed at the hearing and contained in a Power Point presentation. However, Ed Capodanno, chair of the taskforce's committee which dealt with

Someone took his or her view concerning Brandywine's facilities plan options to travelers on Grubb Road.

building evaluation, made a case at the hearing for keeping Springer open because of its larger size and location on Shipley Road, a main highway. He said Lancashire is favored because it is on Naamans Road. Being on the roads, rather than nestled within residential developments, provides easier access, he explained.

As was expected, potential closure of Hanby dominated the testimony portion of the hearing. To a person, the teachers, students and residents who spoke opposed doing so, mostly on the grounds that the school has a reputation for providing high-quality education and is highly regarded.

Doris McKenna, one of the objectors, said Hanby's location in Chalfonte adjacent to Jester Park makes its site a prime candidate for residential development, which she implied is undesirable. "Improve what we have; don't destroy what we have," she said.

Capodanno said that any building which is closed will be demolished and the land on which it stood declared surplus. When that happens, the state, which 'owns' 60% of the property, has a procedure to follow which involves offering it to a hierarchy of buyers beginning with public agencies, Bullock said. He acknowledged, however, that the General Assembly frequently trumps that with case-specific legislation. Taskforce co-chair Barbara Meredith, who is employed in the development business, flatly denied a community rumor that discussions with one or more potential developers are underway.

Taskforce member John Skrobot, who was involved in planning the 2001 referendum which financed the second phase of the building program, denied a contention that a promise was made then that Hanby would be renovated in the third phase. Susan Dupre, who is on the Hanby staff, said that was done in order to recruit volunteers to promote approval of the bond issue. Skrobot acknowledged there "may have been" an oral statement to that effect, but said it was not made a part of the referendum proposal nor contained in published material supporting the bond issue.

"I don't know what happened in 2001. For the purposes of the taskforce, that is not really a factor," Bullock said.

Noting that he attended elementary, middle and high schools in what was then the Claymont district and all three are now history, he said that neither he nor any other member of the taskforce "wants to close any schools" but that doing so might be necessary "for the good of the district as a whole."

"We need to put our heart-felt feelings for these schools aside. ... It's what comes down to dollars and cents," said taskforce member Leslie McGuigan.

In his testimony, Alex Rittberg questioned the validity of the prediction of as much as a 10% decline in enrollment over the next few years, the main basis for the overcapacity justification for closing schools. Five of 20 houses on his street in Graylyn Crest have been sold recently by owners who are up in years and all were purchased by young families he said, adding that that is more likely to be the future course of the residential market in Brandywine Hundred.

Changing the district's grade configuration to three from the present four tiers, which is called for in two of the options, was criticized by some speakers as producing too wide an age gap between fifth- and eighth-graders. Judith Curtis, the district's director of educational services, said that can be controlled by providing separate programs and 'teaching teams' for the different grades.

Curtis said the district now experiences a noticeable drop in enrollment among the students moving from third grade in elementary school to fourth in intermediate schools. Debra Silverman, who recently moved to Delaware, said she was advised before doing so to "avoid the four-through-six [grade] schools." That, she said, has caused several people whose jobs are coming to Delaware to continue to live in Pennsylvania. Two of the district's three intermediate schools are in the city of Wilmington and the other is in Claymont.

Harter said that maintaining the present "socio-economic balance" in the district's schools is desirable in order to retain the services of good teachers and "provide better education for all our students." It is an accepted view among educators that 'high-poverty' schools with a high proportion of students from low-income households offer an inferior product, he explained. All the taskforce options, he said, satisfy that criteria.

"There are challenges [in whatever option is decided upon], but we don't see any that are insurmountable," Bullock said.


2004. All rights reserved.

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Brandywine taskforce hears first objections to closing schools
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