News

November 8, 2004

 

Although the Brandywine school board, as expected, approved a record $126.5 million building renovation plan, the proposal is still a ways from being a done deal. State officials and district voters must weigh in before it is.

"This isn't the end; this is just the beginning of the journey," Craig Gilbert told fellow board members before they voted five-to-one, with an abstention, to send the plan to the Delaware Department of Education. "The easy part of the work has been done," he added.

Financial officer David Blowman predicted that "at some point, it (the plan) will come back before you after negotiations with the state." He explained that DelDOE staff could either accept the plan as it stands or agree to put up something less than the $75.9 million that would be the state's 60% share of the cost if it did so The latter course would leave it up to the district board to decide whether to ask voters to approve financing a higher-than-usual local share.

Referring to a possible third option, Blowman said, "If the state said we need to reduce capacity, then it's a whole new ball game."

After the board adjourned the public portion of the meeting on Nov. 8 to go into a closed-door executive session -- the purpose of which was not stated -- Blowman, who worked for DelDOE before being hired by Brandywine, declined to comment on the odds for any of the three possibilities.

Key components of the plan are to construct a new building for Brandywood Elementary, which would include a separate wing to house the Bush Early Education Center, which would move out of its present building in Talleyville and to build a new Lancashire Elementary. The respective proposed costs of those buildings are $15.9 million and $12.8 million.

The most costly component, at $42 million, is total renovation of P.S. du Pont Intermediate. Also to be renovated are Hanby and Springer Middle. The district office is to be moved from its present building in Radnor Green, possibly to the Mount Pleasant Elementary building, and a replacement at a so-far-undetermined location provided for the leased bus depot in northeast Wilmington.

Board member Thomas Lapinski cast the negative vote. He did not state a reason at the meeting, but told Delaforum afterwards that he did so because the less expensive plan favored by the volunteer facilities taskforce -- which included closing Brandywood and Hanby -- would be "in the best interests of the district, long term." He added that the decision about which way to go "isn't an educational issue; it's a financial issue."

Sandra Skelly said she abstained in support of the taskforce's position that its favored option was the better of the two plans under final consideration. Abstaining rather than voting 'no' was "a matter of personal choice," she said.

Board president Nancy Doorey said she was influenced to favor the plan the board adopted largely by apparently overwhelming community support for it. She noted that this is the third time that sampling public opinion turned up support for continuing with the four-tier grade configuration initially imposed in the late 1970s in response to the federal court mandate in the since ended racial desegregation case.

The only new element to emerge during the discussion before the board voted was a comment by superintendent Bruce Harter that he is exploring possibilities for "enhancing our partnerships with other educational or community organizations" through what he indicated would be a sharing of facilities made possible as a result of their having some excess capacity. He said he is not yet prepared to bring forth a recommendation in that regard.

"We have a phenomenal opportunity in front of us if we have excess capacity. ... We will have space to be better able to do things to help our children and their families," Doorey later said. She was not specific about what those things might be.

While formally recommending the plan the board adopted, Harter acknowledged that enrollment projections by University of Delaware demographers are "uncertain." Whether or not the anticipated decline will occur was a point of dispute during testimony at public hearings on the taskforce's recommendation.

In advocating budgeting to develop "a full-scale marketing plan" to attract students to Brandywine schools, Gilbert said, "We [will] have a lot of capacity; let's fill these schools up."

Gilbert's motion to accept Harter's recommendation and approve the plan carried a proviso that the board continue to use volunteer experts in construction and related fields to oversee renovations during the life of what is to be the third and final phase of a long-range program begun in the mid-1990s. The timetable presented with the plan calls for renovating P.S. during the 2007-08 academic year after a year to plan that work. It would end with completion of the new Brandywood by the start of the 2012-13 year.

Gilbert also proposed a fall-back plan substituting renovating Brandywood and Lancashire in the event that DelDOE rejects the idea of replacing them. He dropped it, however, after Blowman explained the procedure that will be followed.

The board's vote actually was to authorize the district to seek a 'certificate of necessity' from DelDOE for the overall project. If it is recommended by the department staff and approved by the state Board of Education, the proposal goes to the state budget office for inclusion in the capital-spending plan -- the so-called 'bond bill' -- that will be up for General Assembly approval in June.

Financing would be obtained by the sale of 20-year state bonds. For that to happen, voters in the Brandywine district will have to approve issuance, through the state, of bonds to finance the local share of the cost.

The board has tentatively set the spring of 2005 as the time to hold the referendum. Actual terms of that vote will not be determined until after the DelDOE and budget office decisions are made.

Harter mentioned in his recommendation the possibility of including a separate capital financing proposal. He later explained that would go for such things as a new vehicle approach to Brandywine High. Also left undecided was how much money should be sought to finance improvements to playgrounds and athletic fields at the various schools.

2004. All rights reserved.

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Doorey indicates she leans toward keeping schools open

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