May 3, 2005

Residents of the Brandywine School District on May 10 will elect two persons to serve five-year terms on the seven-member school board. Board members' terms are staggered so there is never a complete turnover. They are not paid for their services.

The school election law, which dates back to the racial desegregation order and the formation of four consolidated districts in the early 1980s, provides for board membership based on geography, but not geographic representation. Candidates are 'nominated' -- actually, they nominate themselves by filing their intention to run with the elections department -- from the five districts into which Brandywine and the three other northern New Castle County districts were divided. They are elected at-large, however, and are expected to provide a districtwide perspective when functioning as board members.

Carrying that seeming anomaly a step further, eligible voters may vote at any of several polling places irrespective of where they live. It is also possible to vote by absentee ballot and such ballots received by the elections department by 9 p.m. on election day -- an hour after the polls close -- will be counted. The department offices are on the fourth floor of the Carvel state office building at 9th and French Sts. in downtown Wilmington.

This year, there are five candidates competing in contests for two board seats which become vacant with the expiration of David Adkins's and Thomas Lapinski's terms on June 30. The new members will be

sworn into office at the first meeting of the board after July 1.

The choices are between:

● James Garrity, Olivia Johnson-Harris and Michael Procak;

● Jeanne Best and Debra Heffernan.

Voters can choose one of the candidates from each of the sets.

About 50 people turned out at a recent meeting to hear the candidates give their views on a variety of topics. They indicated that they are generally supportive of the present course being followed by the board, but differed on some specifics.

Election details

District residents who are American citizens age 18 and older are eligible to vote.

Polls will be open between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Votes may be cast at any of these locations: Brandywine and Mount Pleasant High, Carrcroft, Claymont, Concord, Lombardy and Maple Lane, and Church of Our Savior.

Here is a summary of some of the views they expressed:

Garrity said the primary reason he is running is that he believes "we have too many dollars that are in administrative areas" and, as a result, he is "not so sure we are doing enough for our students." He said 60% of the teaching 'units' which the state allocates to the district are used for classroom assignments with the other 40% going to support administrative positions.

Johnson-Harris said that, as a pre-school teacher and a parent whose children went through district school, she "likes the way the district is going." She said she is ready to continue that trend. "We are shaping these children and helping them feel confident," she said.

Procak said that, as the father of three children, he has a "vested interest" in furthering the quality of education in the district. He said he favors publicly supported full-day kindergarten and seeks "improved fiscal responsibility." If elected, he said he will "make sure we are spending our dollars properly."

Best said that "good schools are necessary to keep our community vibrant." She said she wants to reduce the size of classes in order to provide a "positive learning environment." Among the goals she will seek if elected to the board is a narrowing of the disparity in performance between Caucasian and Asian-American students and African-Americans and Hispanics. "The achievement gap must and will be closed," she said.

Heffernan described herself as "an independent candidate [who will] seek out diverse opinions, evaluate issues and make informed decisions." She said that she favors "lobbying the state legislature for more flexibility in the way we use the money they give us." Among other things, she said, she would like to see "all teachers adequately equipped with resources and support." That is particularly important, she added, in the area of special education. She advocated equitably apportioning resources among special-needs, academically 'gifted' and 'typical' students.

Most of the evening was given to responses to questions fro the audience. Among the topics raised were:

● Class size -- Garrity said "class size is everything to the quality of education." Johnson-Harris pointed out, however, that without sufficient state money to finance additional teachers, Brandywine and other districts are finding it impossible to comply with size mandates. Procak cautioned against taking teacher allotments from secondary schools in order to reduce class size in elementary schools. "Just to shift money from point A to point B isn't going to do the job," he said.

Best said she favors "making class size as small as we can." But. she added, "You can't ignore the upper grades. Class size is a K-to-12 (kindergarten to 12th grade) issue." Heffernan advocated raising additional local revenue to finance smaller classes. "Let's put a line item in the 2007 operating referendum [for] additional money to reduce class size," she said.

● Full-day kindergarten -- Best said that is a state-level issue, but suggested that the controversy among Governor Ruth Ann Minner and some members of the General Assembly could be resolved by following the Brandywine model. "I feel we have a good mix now and would not like to see the state come in and change that," he said. Brandywine provides full-day kindergarten for 'at-risk' students with financial support for households with limited income; parents of other students are given the option to attend full-day session, which requires paying $320-a-month tuition. Heffernan said the full-day subsidized option should be provided now to special-education students and advocated complete state financing if full-day kindergarten is mandated for all districts.

Garrity said there is educational research to support the belief that full-day kindergarten has benefits for all children but that so-called 'at risk' students benefit to a greater extent. "For at-risk children, it's a wonderful program [but] for many regular-education children it becomes day-care," he said. If it is mandated for all, "we're going to spend a ton of money [and parents] are still going to have to pay for [after-school] day-care," he added. Johnson-Harris said she prefers letting "parents make the choice of what's best for their children." Procak said he is "not against offering a half-day program," but said that a half-day schedule does not allow enough time for a complete instructional program.

● Discipline -- Best said she favors a strong alternative-education program for "some of the 'frequent-flyers' to the principal's office." It provides a means to work more closely with children "who don't have the classroom skills to be successful." Heffernan said alternative education should not "become a dumping ground for children who have family problems" which lead them to being disruptive and called for "greater involvement by our counselors" in the early grades "where behavior problems start."

Garrity said he favors a strong alternative-education program "for students who don't follow the rules" but should not be the only approach to dealing with student problems. Johnson-Harris said "each child comes to school every day with a different set of problems" and that there should be "better coordination between teachers, administrators and counselors" to deal with those problems. Procak said, "There is a need for alternative schools to take those students who disrupt classes out of the mainstream."

2005. All rights reserved.

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