October 6, 2004

At the proverbial 'end of the day', the Brandywine school board is going to send the Delaware Department of Education a facilities and referendum plan which will involve relatively little deviation from the status quo, according to the co-chair of the taskforce charged with advising the board about what it should do.

"I know how it is going to end up. No way in hell they're going to change the grade configuration," Jeff Bullock declared after the taskforce voted unanimously to recommend a modified version of the $130.8 million plan the board approved on a preliminary basis in June with the tacit understanding that its submission was intended only to put Brandywine in line for state financing in the fiscal 2006 capital budget.

Testimony at three public hearings was strongly supportive of retaining the four-tier grade configuration with which Brandywine has been operating since the district was formed in the early 1980s. That scheme was devised in compliance with the federal court desegregation order to assure that children who live in the city of Wilmington attend school in the city for at least three years.

Keeping it would implicitly require that all existing schools retain their present function since closing any would result in larger-than-desirable enrollments at one or more of those that remain.

However, to fulfill its mandate to provide the board with at least two proposals, the taskforce by a 15-to-2 vote after considerably less discussion decided to also recommend a controversial plan that would close two schools and replace two with new ones.

Half of the 34-member taskforce attended the meeting on Oct. 5 at which the votes were taken. Bullock said that the meeting had been "called on short notice" and that several members, including co-chair Barbara Meredith, had conflicting obligations.

Both plans which now will go to the board call for closing Bush Early Education Center, demolishing its building in Talleyville and moving its program intact to another school building where it would be an independent entity. That provision was included although the taskforce was told that Brandywine is under state and federal orders to reduce the number of children with disabilities that it educates in 'restrictive settings'.

The second proposal, which had been presented to the public as 'Scenario D' and drew the most objections at a series of public hearings, bucks a choice between closing Hanby or Springer Middle School to the board while calling for replacing both Lancashire and Brandywood Elementary with new buildings. Brandywood was listed for closure in 'Scenario C'.

Edward Capodanno, who chaired the taskforce committee which evaluated the buildings in line for inclusion in the third and final phase of Brandywine's long-term renovation program, objected to straddling the issue. A repolling of the committee, he said, found that it remains unanimously in favor of closing Hanby. "Our committee stands by that recommendation, whether it is a popular one or not," he said.

No cost estimates are yet available to go with the options although it was said that moving the Bush program to an existing school building would require about $1 million worth of renovations, compared to $6 million that it would cost to replace Bush with a new building, as had been initially proposed.

The recommendations now go to the school board, which has scheduled a meeting preceded by a public hearing to consider them. That session will be on Oct. 14 at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, beginning at 7 p.m. It is uncertain whether the board will decide then which plan to send to DelDOE. The deadline for submitting a proposal for inclusion in the fiscal 2006 state budget is Oct. 29, although superintendent Bruce Harter has said a two-week extension is a possibility.

The taskforce's recommendations are advisory and there is an expectation that the Brandywine board will at least 'tweak' them. Beyond that, submitting a plan to DelDOE is by no means tantamount to approval by state officials. Constructing one or two new buildings, as the taskforce is recommending, is likely to come under close scrutiny since the district expects to end up with at least 12% more capacity than students when the work is finished in the 2008-2009 academic year. Renovations project manager John Read and Capodanno's committee have both said that new construction is justified as more cost-effective than renovation.

State approval also is conditioned upon residents authorizing the borrowing of the district's 40% share of the cost. The board has tentatively scheduled a referendum for the spring of 2005 to seek that approval.

As it now stands, the primary recommendation calls for closing Bush and relocating its program; replacing Brandywood and Lancashire; renovating Hanby, Springer and P.S. du Pont Intermediate; closing the district's administrative headquarters; and establishing a new bus depot by the time the lease on the present one runs out in 2011 and studying the feasibility of 'outsourcing' some student transportation. The district offices would be relocated to one or more schools with that choice dependent upon where it would be most logical to absorb excess capacity.

Harter suggested that the new Lancashire and Harlan Intermediate might swap roles with Lancashire serving the intermediate fourth, fifth and sixth grades and Harlan being reconfigured for kindergarten through third grade. The taskforce did not take up that idea on the grounds that it had not been offered prior to the public hearings.

The alternative option would provide for a three-tier grade configuration with Harlan Intermediate becoming an elementary school and a renovated P.S. and Claymont Intermediate becoming middle schools; closing Hanby or Springer and renovating the one that is not closed; closing the administrative headquarters; and establishing a new bus depot.

Read said that reverting to pre-desegration kindergarten-through-sixth grade elementary schools would not work because "we're a district with a lot of tiny buildings." Although they were designed to accommodate that configuration "education is different now" in terms of the number of specialists and ancillary functions that have to be housed in the buildings, he said. There also are fewer school buildings in the geographic area which the district now serves.

As part of both options, the taskforce is recommending that vacated buildings be town down but that the district keep the land upon which they stood for possible future use. What happened with Channin school was cited as an example of both what not to do and what to do. Since it was closed in the late 1970s, the all but totally neglected building has become a derelict. It is now planned to finally tear it down and lease the land to New Castle County government which, in turn, will make it available to a youth sports league.

Charles Landry, who represents the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred on the taskforce, said it would only be natural for residents to object to "leaving a hulk in [their] neighborhood." Nor is it likely, he added, that any community would support either commercial or residential development of the sites. In particular, he said, People who live in Sharpley, as he does, would strenuously oppose selling the Bush site although "any developer would pay top dollar to get that piece of land" on Concord Pike.

"We have to assure the community that, in the end, the [vacant] land is going to be protected, that it is not going to be developed," he said. "If any community objects to redevelopment of the property, we (the area civic association) are going to go in and help that community."

What happens with the vacated property will most likely be decided by the state legislature, Bullock said. That was the case with both the Channin property and the district's other derelict building, the former Old Mill Lane school.

Ann Hilkert, the district's director of special programs, told the taskforce that Bush's future clouds that issue about what to do with its program. She said federal education authorities have ordered Delaware to provide more 'inclusion' for children with special needs in regular schools and DelDOE, in turn, has ordered Brandywine and four other districts to do so. Brandywine, she said, already has a plan to move kindergarteners from Bush into regular schools, irrespective of what will emerge in the way of a facilities plan.

Although testimony regarding Bush at the public hearings strongly favored keeping the program intact wherever it is placed, Hilkert said, "We have parents you didn't hear from [who] don't want their children excluded [from regular schools]."

Harter said that 455 people attended the three public hearings, 243 asked questions and 203 expressed opinions, either orally or in writing. There are 47,000 residences in the district. That brought up the question of how representative testimony at the hearings should be considered vis--vis obtaining voter support at the referendum for the plan that emerges.

"Let's not be so focused on trying to pick a winner that we short-change the public," Landry said. "We knew that [Scenarios] 'C' and 'D' would not be popular," Capodanno added. Bullock said "no one [at the hearings] made a compelling argument that 'C' and 'D' [would not] work for educational reasons."

Bob Maffia, vice president of Tetra Tech Inc., said that the taskforce's obligation was to recommend the plan which best uses the district's resources. "If we're going to close a school, [the decision] should not be emotional; it should be practical," he said. Otherwise, he added, "it's like leaving the lights on and the water running all the time."

Rick Geisenberger, who is Delaware's assistant secretary of state, said that practicality works both ways. Getting voter support for a renovation plan at the referendum "is the important thing," he said. "If we come out with a scenario that supports closing Hanby, people are going to say we didn't listen to a thing they said."

Dick Struck, a retired school administrator in other districts, disputed the validity of projections of declining enrollment, which were advanced as the basis for possibly closing schools. He said that he is "seeing more young families with young children" moving into Brandywine Hundred as older people retire and move out. Enrollment in Trinity Lutheran Church's pre-school "is at an all-time high," he said.

Landry argued however, that the taskforce's consideration was guided by projections from a professional demographer. "That is the best kind of study that's available," he said. "We would be making a big mistake using anecdotal evidence when it comes to spending money."

2004. All rights reserved.

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