November 17, 2004

Brandywine School District officials reported progress toward reaching the state-mandated limits on class size in the primary grades, but the school board had to grant a waiver from complying fully with the law.

"The class-size law has focused attention and has clearly driven down class sizes," said David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer.

Coming from top management in the state's third largest public school district, that runs counter to claims from elsewhere in the public school establishment that the legislature established the cap without providing for the state to provide the financing necessary to achieve it. The law, oddly enough, does permit district school boards to waive the limits if they are violated. In practice, a majority of them do.

In Brandywine's case, the number of kindergarten-through-third grade classes with more than 22 students at the end of October, the annual reporting date, was half what it was a year earlier -- 19 versus 39. Average class size in those grades throughout the district was 19.9 children, down from 21 in 2003.

Material made available to the public at the meeting did not identify the schools with oversize classes nor give the range of class sizes.

Blowman said even fewer classes would have come in under the 22-student limit had parents been willing to have their child transferred to a class with fewer than 22. But two months into the academic year, he said, "it isn't worth the disruption just to make the numbers look better." Being assigned to a new teacher after having gotten to know one is upsetting to children, particularly in the primary grades.

With regard to the other component of the law, Brandywine came within four schools of meeting the requirement that the number of teachers on their faculties represent at least 98% of the number of state-authorized positions for which they would qualify under strict application of the state's student-teacher ratio formula. The schools are Carrcroft and Mount Pleasant Elementary, and Claymont and Harlan Intermediate.

Blowman and administrator Kim Doherty attributed improvements in managing class size and assigning teachers to an arrangement whereby the central office administrators and principals collaborate on making assignments through a committee which begins its work in the spring and continues until enrollment data is on hand after the official headcount is taken in September.

The school board granted a combined waiver by a five-to-one vote with Thomas Lapinski casting the negative vote because, he said, he had not been furnished sufficient information prior to the meeting. Sandra Skelly abstained without stating a reason.

In another matter at its business meeting on Nov. 15, the Brandywine board received preliminary schematic plans for renovation of Talley Middle and Lombardy Elementary. Those projects -- the last in the second phase of the district's three-phase building program -- will begin in the summer of 2005 with completion scheduled in time to reopen the schools for the 2006-07 academic year.

Talley will be housed during the 2005-06 year in the high-rise Burnett building and Lombardy will make its home in the Mount Pleasant Elementary building.

More than 80% of the work at Talley will involve upgrading the mechanical, heating, ventilation and plumbing infrastructure, according to architect Chandra Nilekani, of Anderson Brown Higley Associates.

Realizing the necessity for "letting the public see what they're paying for," she said some of the rest of the budget will go toward "improving the look of the entire building." John Read, the district's building projects manager, said Talley, which opened in 1972, was "designed during a dark period of time in architecture."

One such improvement is a redesign of the entranceway. The relatively spacious lobby leading into two corridors will be narrowed and only one corridor will provide access to the rest of the building. That is not only esthetic, Nilekans explained, but will contribute significantly to improving security by requiring anyone entering the building to begin at the front office.

The cafeteria will be redesigned to resemble a shopping center food court and the auditorium, gymnasium and libraries brought up to present-day standards. Classrooms are to be re-sized and reconfigured to fit more closely with the current middle school 'team-teaching' approach. They were originally designed in accord with the former junior high school mode.

Cost of that project has increased from $11.4 million for its original scope in 1997 to $12.2 million in this plan. A 'wish list' of possible alternatives to be added onto the project if money is available, would bring the cost to $13.2 million.

In a separate action at the meeting, the board authorized transfer of $250,000 from the budget for the Talley project to the nearly completed Concord High project. That will pay for additional asbestos removal and replacement of a deteriorated ceiling in the auditorium which were found to be necessary during construction.

Member Craig Gilbert, who is the board's liaison with the district's volunteer renovations oversight committee, assured his colleagues that, after reallocating that money, the Talley project will fulfill "all the commitments made at the time of the referendum" at which voters authorized its financing. The committee, he said, approved the switch.

He said he could not "absolutely guarantee" that the Talley construction budget will cover all possibilities which may arise during construction. But he noted that the budget has a built-in 15% contingency fund and said that should be sufficient to deal with overruns, barring a major surprise.

Most significant feature of the Lombardy plan is a 6,000-square-foot addition at the rear of the existing 43,500-square-foot building. It will replace two modular classroom units which have been used for the past several years.

The present building, according to architect Ronald Osborne, of J.A.E.D. Architects & Engineers, would not be large enough to accommodate the school's 400 student enrollment while permitting improvements to instructional areas to meet current standards.

Read said the plan does not include site work such as enlarging the driveway approach to the building, which sits will back off Foulk Road. "The task is to do the building. If money is available, we will look at the site," he said. Gilbert said the budget for that project "is extremely tight."

Estimated cost, including a 10% contingency fund, is $5.5 million. There also is a 'wish list', which includes landscaping and an entrance canopy, that totals $561,000.

The school board will be asked to approve final designs for the two schools in January and for the projects to be put out for bid in March.

Also at the meeting, the board confronted a contentious issue -- observance of religious holidays -- and decided to deal with it with a new 'procedure' in lieu of a formal 'policy'.

The issue arose after district officials ordered the Mount Pleasant High band not to participate in a regional competition that was held on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Parents and the school's band-boosters association complained that the order came at the last minute, was inconsistent with practices in past years and at other district schools, and deprived 40 student band members of an opportunity for recognition to accommodate three students desiring to observe the holy day. There has been no indication that neither the three students nor their parents asked for the cancellation.

Ellen Cooper, the district's lawyer, said the Brandywine has required that academic requirements and extracurricular events not conflict with Yom Kippur and the Jewish New Year since it was established in 1981 and that that was done in response to a request from a Jewish organization. She acknowledged that honoring the high holy days has not been consistent over the years and has varied among schools. For reasons that have not been publicly explained, schools were specifically reminded of the arrangement this year.

She said that, as far as she can tell, no other group has ever asked for such consideration. If any did, "we [would] attempt to be reasonable to accommodate [the request]," she said. She said two Christian feasts, Christmas and Good Friday, are observed by closing schools but said that is done because those have been designated as state holidays.

Board vice president Joseph Brumskill said that, since the original request was accepted, there has been a significant expansion of population diversity and suggested that it would likely be impractical or impractical to accommodate "all the religions and sects that now live among us." He wondered how many different ones are represented among Brandywine students.

"It goes without saying that we can't honor so many requests that we can't run the district as it should be," Cooper said.

Gilbert said that the matter could best be dealt with through the district's existing student code of conduct. That provides for excused absences for legitimate reasons, including religious observances, and guarantees students reasonable latitude in making up missed academic work, he noted. Board president Nancy Doorey said religion-related absences should be handled like "any other observances that are important to a family."

Assistant superintendent Tammy Davis presented a draft 'procedure' which avoids dealing with non-scheduling of events beyond noting that "important happenings" should not be scheduled on days when it can be expected that "a large number of students may be absent from school," irrespective of the reason. It also calls for teachers and administrators to "exercise sensitivity and flexibility in resolving" apparent conflicts with religious observances.

The board also referred to the state Department of Education a request that a student who lives just shy of the two-miles-away requirement to qualify for school bus transportation be considered to have an 'unique-hazards' situation and be permitted to ride. In that case, the 'direct route' by which the law said to measure traveling distance requires walking through two county parks in the early morning and late afternoon. The student's parents do not permit her to take that route and walking along major roads to reach Brandywine High is a considerably longer route.

2004. All rights reserved.

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