July 23, 2004

Brandywine School District's facilities taskforce appears headed toward reaching a consensus which favors closing three schools and building one or, possibly, two new ones while reverting to a three-tier grades alignment.

The proposal presented by David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, is far from firm, but attenders at a taskforce meeting on July 21 were in general agreement that the plan, with two modifications, will significantly reduce the district's expected overcapacity while garnering enough public acceptance to secure voter approval to borrow enough money to finance it.

"There are an infinite number of new scenarios [and] anything is going to generate some amount of controversy," said Jeff Bullock, co-chair of the taskforce.

Described by Blowman and superintendent Bruce Harter as a 'synthesis' of ideas previously offered by the taskforce's three committees, the plan would:

Eliminate the intermediate level by reconfiguring the grade structure to kindergarten-through-fourth; fifth-through-eighth; and ninth-through-12th.

Close Brandywood Elementary and build a new school on the Lancaster Elementary site to replace both of the existing schools.

Renovate Springer Middle or replace it with a new building while converting it to an elementary school and close Hanby Middle.

Convert Mount Pleasant Elementary to a middle school and recently renovated Harlan Intermediate to an elementary school.

Close the Bush Early Education Center and reassign the pre-school age youngsters it serves to one or more of the elementary schools instead of constructing a new Bush building as previously suggested.

The committees meeting separately agreed that Mount Pleasant Elementary should remain an elementary school while the renovated Springer stays a middle school. School board president Nancy Doorey then proposed that Hanby be renovated and Springer closed so that one area of the district --  Brandywood, Chalfonte and adjacent small communities -- "not have to take the entire hit."

There was something of a contradiction in that as Blowman had explained that the main reason for selecting Lancashire over Brandywood for retention was ease of access. The Lancashire site is off Naamans Road while Brandywood is in the development of the same name. However, Springer is off Shipley Road and Hanby is in Chalfonte.

No vote was taken at the taskforce meeting and it was agreed that there will be further refinements before the plan or plans are taken to public hearings prior to going before the school board for final approval.

If the three-tier plan Blowman presented is accepted, the district would have capacity for 11,500 students against a projected 10,100 enrollment when the third and final phase of the district's building renovation program is currently planned to be finished in 2010. That would vary somewhat if the committees' modifications were accepted.

In response to the school board's requirement that the taskforce also come up with a plan which retains the present four-tier grade configuration, Blowman presented an alternative which called only for closing Brandywood and Bush and building new at Lancashire. That, he said, would reduce excess capacity from 2,400 if nothing is done only slightly to 2,000. That plan came in for virtually no discussion at the meeting.

In response to a question, Harter said there is no precise definition of what constitutes overcapacity in a school district. "There is no clear-cut standard except to have enough," he said.

Still to come is a determination of what changes in attendance zones will be required to fulfill the plan. Harter noted that the district remains committed to "keeping our socio-economic balance" and that, as a result, children in "some neighborhoods will not go to the closest schools."

Noting that changing the zones is likely to generate the most controversy, Bullock said that can best be addressed by "balancing the disruption that causes by emphasizing the advantage of going to [fewer] grade levels."

Neither of the plans involved doing anything about the previously discussed proposal to move the district's administrative office from Radnor Green. It was mentioned that several school buildings would have enough spare space to handle parts of the administrative structure. Harter said there is no impediment to splitting up the structure, which, in fact, many districts do.

Blowman said current thinking is to leave the ultimate decision pending and "go where the capacity is when this all shakes out."

He did not explain the apparent sudden dropping of the idea of replacing Bush other than to say that the currently accepted approach to 'special education' is "as much inclusion as possible" and relocating the Bush program to one or more elementary schools would be in line with that.

Also left unmentioned were the futures of the leased bus depot and the Burnett building. In regard to the latter, Harter said the multi-story former school in north Wilmington will be needed as a 'holding school' during the third phase of renovations. Beyond that, he added, "we don't see it as part of our future [planning] to return it to school use."

Among the points raised during the committees' discussions was the justification for building new while anticipating a declining enrollment. The response there was that it can be more cost-effective, especially in a situation like the one which exists with Brandywood and Lancashire. Interior design of those nearly identical buildings is considered educationally obsolete.

While it was agreed that doing away with Brandywood, an in-neighborhood school, would seem counter to the idea of favoring local setting, the committees were told that the reality of today's world is that few parents are willing to have their young children go it alone. Judy Curtis, director of educational services, said that only three Brandywood children, out of a total of 386 there, are 'walkers'.

Projected capacity of Mount Pleasant Elementary in the four-tier alignment would be about 1,000 students, which is about double the traditional size of an elementary school in the Brandywine district. That could be handled, attenders were told, by dividing the students into units as is now being done at P.S. du Pont Intermediate.

Doorey said the key to a successful reconfiguration of the district lies in incorporating it with the district's strategic plan. "Regardless of what we do, it isn't going to affect learning," said assistant superintendent Tammy Davis.

2004. All rights reserved.

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