October 15, 2004

School board president Nancy Doorey signaled strongly that she favors going to Brandywine district voters with a facilities plan which does not call for changing the current grade configuration nor closing any conventional school, at least for a few years.

Declaring that "any way I cut this ... I come down to the conclusion that the overwhelming majority wants the [current] configuration," she said. "Instead of spending time going out to a public vote, we should spend the time ... digging further into modified [scenario] 'A' [to] look for greater efficiencies."

Doorey was responding to a suggestion by board member Craig Gilbert that the two options the board received from its facilities taskforce be put out to a non-binding plebiscite before the board makes a decision which plan to submit to the Delaware Department of Education for inclusion in the state's fiscal 2006 capital spending legislation.

Although members of the board were well aware of the taskforce's recommendations and the controversy surrounding them, the workshop-style meeting on Oct. 14 was convened for the official presentation of the taskforce report. The meeting was preceded by a public hearing at which previously voiced objections to scenario 'D' were repeated.

Scenario 'A', which was handed up slightly modified from what originally had been proposed, calls for building new schools to replace Brandywood and Lancashire Elementary, and renovating P.S. du Pont Intermediate and Springer and Hanby Middle while keeping the present four-tier grade configuration. The taskforce report put pricetags of $124.4 million and $126.4 million on that option with the difference depending upon to where the Bush Early Education Center program is relocated.

Scenario 'D' calls for going to a three-tier arrangement, closing either Hanby or Springer and renovating the other, and replacing Brandywood and Lancashire. That was pegged to cost between $103.9 million and $107.4 million. The difference there involves Bush and which middle school option is chosen.

Both scenarios also would relocate the Bush program for pre-school children to a 'wing' of the new Brandywood or one of the other elementary schools, closing the district's administration building and relocating the administrative staff to one or more schools, beginning the process of obtaining a new bus depot and maintenance base, and upgrading athletic facilities and playgrounds throughout the district. Both options contain caveats that closed buildings would be demolished and the land on which they stand kept by the district to meet future needs should they arise, being used in the meantime for a benign community purpose such as a county park.

Although discussion and votes at its most recent meeting appeared at the time to demonstrate a clear preference for Scenario 'A', the report handed up to the board contained an unequivocal recommendation for 'D'. It states: "The taskforce believes that Scenario 'D' clearly has little support from those who attended the public hearings or provided feedback to the taskforce. But in terms of educational viability and financial soundness, the taskforce believes that 'D' is a better plan."

The report, which was dated Oct. 11, had been posted to the district Web site. Delaforum was unable to determine who wrote it.

Jeff Bullock, who co-chaired the taskforce, denied that the report reflects any change in position. He told Delaforum that the impression that 'A' was favored was the result of the preponderance of discussion at the previous meeting having been focused on it. "We had [previously] focused the same way on 'D'," he said.

While presenting the report, Bullock said the taskforce recognized "the controversy inherent in [its] decision." but added that 'D' "is by far the preference of the taskforce."

The closest any board member came close to agreeing with the 'D' recommendation was Gilbert's statement that he is "willing to buck the public support [for 'A'] if there is an educational advantage." He also questioned whether the nearly 500 comments received, either in person or in writing, from the public is "a fair representation" of public sentiment. Based upon distribution of the Brandywine Review, the district puts the number of residences within its jurisdiction at 47,000.

Superintendent Bruce Harter repeated a previous observation that all the options before the taskforce were "educationally neutral." Joseph Brumskill, vice president of the board, decried what he called a disappointing public response. "We gave the total community the opportunity to speak out. If they did not do that, they're going to have to live with what we decide," he said.

Board member David Adkins said public response is critical. "The community made it clear they're in favor of 'A'. When you go to referendum, they're putting money on the table ... [and] will make [their choice] clear in unequivocal terms," he said.

Doorey said her analysis of responses found about three-quarters of the public responders and two-thirds of the staff members who responded favor retention of something close to the status quo. "It takes more than 50% support to go through a major change. I'm not seeing any level of support [for doing so] that even comes close to that," she said.

Indicating that she does not feel a plebecite would turn up any significantly different support level, she said the time it would take to organize and conduct one would be better spent looking for further modifications to 'A'. She did not suggest what they might be.

With the idea of closing any schools predicated on a projected downward trend in student enrollment, she said actual counts during the next few years would enable the district to determine if the projections by University of Delaware demographer Edward Ratledge are valid. Several speakers at the four public hearings said that the turnover of Brandywine Hundred properties from older occupants to young families belies the forecasts.

"We can always go back [to the community] if it turns out he's right. We could end up closing [buildings] ... on [the basis of] what looks like it might be premature data," Doorey said.

At the public hearing portion of the session, state representative Wayne Smith told the board that objection to closing "some of the finest schools in the state ... is almost as unanimous as public sentiment can get on an issue." Representative Greg Lavelle and Assembly candidates Steve Tanzer and Stacy Griggs also voiced opposition to any school closures." Lavelle also urged that nothing be done to significantly change the Bush program.

Resident Doris McKenna voiced objection to vacating "valuable property" to potential development. Taskforce member Charles Landry replied that the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred "will never allow properties to be sold for development that the community doesn't support."

Resident Joe Pasquarella said that district taxpayers will be willing to pay higher taxes to keep all the present schools open. "There's not a difference between [capital] spending of $100 million and $120 million. We live in an area where we can afford it," he said.

A capital referendum is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2005 at which voters would have to approve selling 20-year bonds to borrow the money necessary to finance the 40% local share of the cost of what is to be the third and final phase of Brandywine's long-term renovation program.

Harter told the board that DelDOE has approved an extension from Oct. 29 to Nov. 12 of the deadline for Brandywine to submit a building plan. Doorey said the board will decide at its regular meeting on Oct. 18 how to proceed to reach to reach a decision on which proposal to submit.

2004. All rights reserved.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Status quo emerges as the more likely schools plan
Go to the taskforce section of the Brandywine district Web site

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