October 19, 2004

There will be no plebiscite, but the Brandywine school board agreed to give residents one more opportunity to weigh in on which plan they prefer for the third and final phase of the district's school renovation program.

With six of the board's seven members participating in the discussion, it appeared almost certain that, barring an unforeseen shift in current thinking, the panel is headed toward opting for the so-called 'Scenario A'. That option would retain the current four-tier grade configuration and not close any conventional school but replace the Brandywood and Lancashire Elementary buildings with new ones.

The vote on handing up a proposal to the Delaware Department of Education for inclusion in the state capital fiscal 2006 spending plan to be enacted by the General Assembly was scheduled to be taken at a special meeting on Nov. 8.

In other matters before its monthly business session on Oct. 18, the school board:

Ratified a new labor contract which gives teachers a 3% increase in the district's share of their salaries this academic year and pay raises of 4% in each of the next two years.

● Approved giving families of children living within the geographic bounds of the district an extra month during which to apply to attend a district school other than the one serving their attendance area.

Repeating his previous contention that the nearly 500 comments voiced at four public hearings or sent by mail or e.mail were not necessarily an accurate representation of community sentiment, board member Craig Gilbert entered a motion to authorize a nonbinding plebiscite. It was defeated by a six-to-one vote.

"There are many in the community who don't feel comfortable speaking in a public forum," Gilbert said. "I don't see the downside" of allowing them to express their preference through an anonymous vote.

David Adkins said that giving an opinion "did not require standing up before a hostile audience" at the public hearings and, in fact, most of the ones received did not come in that way. "The community had ample opportunity to respond. Personally, I don't need any more information," he said, adding that he is "quite content to vote [for] 'Scenario A'."

Joseph Brumskill, vice president of the board, said no one who chose not to participate could complain that "power has been taken away from them."

After Mark Huxsoll declared "it's time to move on" and allow the district administration to "concentrate on educating," the board appeared ready to take an immediate vote. Thomas Lapinski, however, reined in his colleagues by noting that he did not "see anything on the [meeting] agenda about taking a vote."

The state's open-meeting law covering public agencies like school boards requires advance posting of an agenda, although that requirement can be bypassed in supposedly unusual circumstances and, in practice, that is often done. The Brandywine board, in fact, added two unrelated items to the agenda and acted upon them later in the meeting.

Board president Nancy Doorey, who previously indicated that she also favors 'Scenario A', noted that district residents in 1997and 2001 expressed a clear preference for keeping the kindergarten-through-third grade, fourth-through-sixth, seventh and eighth, and ninth-through-12th alignment. "It's (opinion is) breaking out with the same kind of percentages for the third time."

Although she said she thinks additional polling "would be superfluous," superintendent Bruce Harter said, after the board agreed on the Nov. 8 meeting date, that the administration will make a mailing to all 47,000 residential addresses requesting response "to make sure we left no stone unturned."

Board member Sandra Skelly did not participate in the facilities discussion.

Submission of a plan to DelDOE does not guarantee its acceptance and some observers have expressed doubt that state education officials and legislators will buy into a proposal which involves construction of new buildings when they district will be left with at least 12% overcapacity if demographic projections by the Population Consortium at the University of Delaware turn out to be accurate.

The board voted unanimously and without significant public discussion to ratify the teachers contract after being told that members of the Brandywine Education Association, the union, had done so earlier in the day.

The only detail concerning the pact that was publicly disclosed before the vote was that it will cost the district an additional $2,464,049 in local spending over the next three years.

The local-money share of the district's $105 million operating budget is about $45 million. Salaries, benefits and other employment costs make up by far the largest share of that spending. The state pays about 70% of the salaries for authorized teaching and other positions.

After the meeting, Harter told Delaforum that the new contract "keeps us in a position where we can by competitive" with other districts when it comes to attracting good teachers. That is one of the key objectives in the district's strategic plan, he said. He added that Brandywine "will never be able to pay [as much as] some Pennsylvania districts," but is a leader among Delaware districts and is "catching up with Pennsylvania and New Jersey."

He provided a copy of the just-approved contract and of a summary of changes from the previous one that had been published by the union for its members.

Those documents show what Harter described as "a slight ratcheting up of benefits" which he said "moves teachers' benefits up to the same level" as those of some other Brandywine employees. There are 2% increases in pay for taking on extra duties in each of the next two academic years. The deadline for a teacher to request a voluntary transfer is advanced to July 15 from Aug. 15, which Harter said will facilitate staffing prior to the start of the academic year.

There also is a provision limiting the authority to change student grades to the superintendent and the teacher. Previously that could be done by a principal. The bonus for notifying the administration of plans to retire was doubled to $1,000, but such notification will not be required before Jan. 1 instead of before Feb. 1. A new provision bars requiring a teacher to teach more than five class periods in consecutive years.

A new article insets into the contract a previous agreement concerning assignments to, transfers from and other working condition provisions applying to Maple Lane Elementary and any other school that laters adopt a year-around 'balanced calendar'.

The previous contract expired on Aug. 31. Negotiations on a new one began in March and agreement was not reached until Oct. 5. Harter said that was because there was what amounted to a complete revision this year and "scheduling issues got in the way." He said that, at one point, consideration was given to employing the services of a professional mediator, but that was not done and "there was never any breakdown in bargaining."

Margery Windolph, the union's lead negotiator, joined administrator Kim Doherty to formally present a recommendation to board to ratify the contract, but did not speak. Huxsoll congratulated them for "working together" to reach a settlement. Gilbert did likewise for the "very creative language [they] put into the contract."

In the past, details of the contract were not made available until several days after ratification and required submission of a request under the state's Freedom of Information Act to obtain. Delaforum in July filed a complaint with the attorney general seeking to have information about the new contract made public before the board voted to ratify it and to require consideration of doing so in public rather than in a closed-door executive session, as had been done in the past. The complaint was based on the significance of the contract relative to the district's spending of local tax money.

On Oct. 6, Delaforum was advised by the attorney general's office that a ruling would be made prior to the Oct. 18 meeting, but as far as can be determined, none was forthcoming.

A new procedure covering use of the state's public school choice law was adopted, providing for opening a second application period during the month of May. The law sets the second Wednesday in January as the deadline for applying except when that cannot be done for a "good cause."

Applications will be accepted in May only from district residents. The November-to-January period is open also to residents of other districts.

Administrator Tom Alderson said providing additional time is intended, at least partly, to offset Brandywine's strict interpretation of 'good cause'. "Other districts use [that provision] as carte blanch to do what they want to do" about extending availability of the 'choice' process.

Huxsoll expressed a concern because "small and inconsequential things or rumors can trigger a mass exodus" from a particular school. Alderson said that 'choice' would be available only if enrollment in the proposed receiving school has not reached 95% of capacity and that 'choice' placements for those applying before the January deadline would have already been made.

Doorey said the fact that the procedures have to be adopted annually has the effect of making it a one-year trial of this year's procedure, which was approved by a four-to-two vote. Huxsoll and Lapinski voted against approval and Skelly abstained from voting.

The off-agenda items were authorization of an executive director position for the educational foundation the district is establishing, and approval to give formal notice of an intention to withdraw from the consortium supporting the Data Service Center, effective on June 30, 2006. Harter told the board that the Christina district is withdrawing and that Brandywine use of the mainframe computer system "will be greatly diminished" when it begins using a new data-processing system.

2004. All rights reserved.

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