July 16, 2004

Deciding how much capacity is too much and how much is too little looms as the most challenging task facing the taskforce charged with recommending a plan for the third and final phase of the Brandywine School District's building renovation program and the capital spending referendum to finance it.

Barbara Meredith, co-chair of the taskforce, said the question to be answered is straightforward: "What is the district comfortable with?"

As the planning process involving school officials and community and business representatives got underway, it was all but a foregone conclusion that the proposal which will go to the school board would involve closing one or more of the district's 18 schools.

And the taskforce's facilities committee did, indeed, come up with a pair of scenarios that, if adopted, would do just that. One which keeps the present four-tier grade configuration calls for shutting down Brandywood Elementary. The other, which eliminates the intermediate-school tier, fingers Hanby and Springer Middle Schools. Both call for replacing the Bush Early Childhood Center with a new building and moving district administrative offices out of the former school building in Radnor Green.

But discussion at a meeting on July 15 clearly indicated that a simple choice between the plans will not be the final answer. The four-tier scheme would leave the district with space for 1,800 more youngsters than it expects to have enrolled in the 2009-2010 school year. The three-tier one cuts that to a more acceptable 850 overage, but virtually all of the extra space would be in secondary schools with enrollments in some kindergarten-through-fourth grade elementary schools actually exceeding their capacity.

Not closing any building would result in excess capacity of about 2,400 seats when the renovation program is completed.

A further complication is to be found in the fact that the state Department of Education's benchmark for helping to finance school construction work using the 60%-40% formula is $175 a square foot. Exceeding that guide does not automatically result in the state rejecting a project and it also is possible, if referendum voters approve, to make up the difference between actual cost and state financing with local money, according to David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer.

Although Ed Capodano, a construction business professional, said the guide is unrealistic in light of present-day building costs, it could drive a decision to replace rather than renovate Brandywood and-or Lancashire. With estimated costs of $215 or $218, they are by far the most expensive of all the proposed projects except for replacing Bush school. Brandywood and Lancashire are within a mile of each other in northwestern Brandywine Hundred.

If it were decided to go to a three-tier grade configuration with fifth-through-eighth grade middle schools, a way could be found to get around the dilemma by making Harlan an elementary school and leaving either Hanby or Springer open, taskforce members suggested.

Judy Curtis said reducing capacity to close to present and projected enrollments could be harmful, especially at the elementary school level, to the district's state intention to mount an aggressive campaign to attract students from private schools and from outside the district. She is the administrator in charge of the district's 'choice' program.

Superintendent Bruce Harter said that a just completed marketing survey found that 82% of parents of children living in the Brandywine district but attending private, parochial or charter schools profess to be 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied'. Only about 4% of those surveyed said they were 'not satisfied' and would consider transferring their children to a public school.

Although he had just received the results of the survey by an outside firm and had not fully reviewed them, he said "a perception of academic quality is at the top of the list" of reasons why parents opt for nonpublic education.

Board president Nancy Doorey said such things as published reports of the Delaware State Testing Program give a false picture of the Brandywine district's standing in that regard. Realignment of grade configurations and attendance areas in the Red Clay and Christina districts, she said, has resulted in "raising the socio-economic levels" of some of their schools while "Brandywine has chosen to keep our integrated schools." She added that, as a result, "we have a real uphill battle when those reports come out."

Rick Gregg, principal of Brandywine High, suggested the possibility of housing a theme school with students from fifth grade through 12th in one of the high school buildings as a way of absorbing some excess capacity. He pointed out that the Red Clay district has been successful in doing that with the Cab Calloway School of the Arts.

Doorey said that adding fourth grade to the present elementary schools would result in having to accommodate more classes in the same number of classrooms as now and that would likely increase class size up to and possibly beyond the 26 pupils the district considers to be the limit.

Harter said that, when deciding upon where to move the district headquarters, it would not be necessary to come up with a single venue. "Other districts have [administrative offices] in different locations and it works out well," he said.

Jon Husband, who is an official in the New Castle County Department of Special Services, said a review of previously stated cost estimates for facilities improvements recommended by the athletics and playground committee found that $2.8 million is a more realistic estimate. Including construction of an extensive youth sports complex on the Claymont Intermediate School campus would raise that to $3.8 million, he said. The previously stated estimate was $1 million.

2004. All rights reserved.

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