March 1, 2005

In addition to being asked to approve bond financing for the final phase of its renovations program, residents of the Brandywine School District will likely also be asked to authorize short-term increases in the operating tax rate to pay for enhanced security, athletic field improvements and, possibly, to make up for years of shoddy building maintenance and recent cutbacks in state and federal spending on public school education.

A tentative plan for a referendum to be held this spring -- probably in May -- which was unveiled at a sparsely attended meeting of the school board on Feb. 28 is of record proportions, according the the state Department of Education.

Board president Nancy Doorey said it was necessary to proceed with the regular monthly business meeting despite falling snow because "we have some really important things to talk about." All seven board members attended.

The board is working on a rather tight schedule. It plans to discuss the scope of the referendum with an advisory committee on Mar. 7, hold a workshop-style meeting to receive 'input' from the public on Mar. 14, and on Mar. 24 formally approve the questions to be put to be put before the voters.

Heart of the plan is implementation of the previously approved $139.4 million renovations project. It calls for 'modernizing' P.S. du Pont Intermediate and Hanby and Springer Middle schools, replacing Brandywine and Lancashire Elementary with new buildings, providing new facilities for its bus fleet, and relocating administrative offices. The present Bush school building in Talleyville and the administration building in Radnor Green would be closed.

If voters approve a bond issue to finance the local share of its cost, the program would get underway with planning before the end of this year and be completed by the summer of 2012.

"We've been at this (developing that part of the plan) for more than a year, so there is very little in there that will be a surprise," superintendent Bruce Harter told the board.

However, he did reveal that, as of now, the district will have to finance 46% of the cost while the state puts up 54%. The normal split is 40%-60%. Delaforum previously reported that applying the traditional formula was in question, apparently because the program involves replacing school buildings while ending up with more capacity than the distict needs.

Harter did not go into detail, but did say that negotiations are still going on. "It's not quite 60-40 yet, but we're working with the state on that." is how he put it.

Going with the split that is presently on the table, he said, would result in district taxpayers having to pay an average of 11 for each $100 of assessed property value annually over what is expected to be a 25-year lifespan of the bonds. The actual rate would vary from year to year, peaking around fiscal year 2010 and declining each year after that. Previous school construction bond issues have been 20-year bonds. The farther out the final maturity, annual debt service cost is less but the total cost is more.

In a tangentially related matter at the meeting, the board formally approved selling $6.3 million worth of 20-year bonds to finance the final installment on the second phase of the renovations program. The bonds are actually sold to the state treasury, which pays for them with capital funds advanced to the district. These bonds carry a 3.83% interest rate. Final project in the second phase is renovation during the coming academic year of Talley Middle.

P.S. renovation is the largest component of the Phase 3 project, nearly $44.5 million. Springer renovation would cost $26 million and Hanby $24.6 million. Lancashire is expected to come in at about $14 million and Brandywood at $18.4 million. The new Brandywood building would have an extra wing to house the relocated Bush Early Education program. Cost of the bus yard and maintenance facility, which would require acquiring a property with eight to 10 acres of usable space, would be about $7 million.

As anticipated, there would also be a second proposal on the referendum ballot to improve athletic fields at P.S., Talley and Brandywine and Concord Highs. The estimated $3.7 million cost would be spread over four years and financed by an 'add-on' to the district's operating tax during the four years. A similar one-year 'add-on' after the last capital referendum five years ago financed improvements to the running track at Brandywine High.

Improving the athletic fields is "all about safety," Harter said.

The tentative plan he presented also contained a second local-funds 'add-on' -- that one for three years -- to pay for $3.5 million worth of safety and security measures at all district schools. They would include security cameras, intrusion devices and provision for controlling access through use of key-cards.

Harter said there is also a need to establish a safety and security office with at least one full-time administrator and necessary equipment. That and expansion of its alternative placement program for disruptive students would also be included in the safety and security component.

Reacting to an analysis by David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, the board requested that Harter work up an additional referendum component to make up for approximately $3 million in annual financial support from the state and federal governments that has been 'lost' since the last operating tax referendum.

Without "making up unanticipated funding reductions," Doorey said, "I can't see how we could possibly deliver on everything we promised in our strategic plan."  She suggested that voters be, in effect, asked in the spring referendum whether they want to make up the 'lost' revenue with an increase in the operating tax rate and proceed with the strategic plan as it is presently constituted.

The referendum proposal which finally emerges "will be very much based on what the community wants us to do," Doorey said.

At the time of the last tax rate referendum four years ago, the board 'promised' that it would not return to the voters for another increase in the rate ceiling for five years. Financing a strategic plan to improve teacher quality and classroom instruction and safety was part of that referendum proposal.

Blowman said in a memo to board members that the district's locally financed energy costs have risen by $550,000 since fiscal 2001, but that Governor Ruth Ann Minner's proposed state budget for the coming fiscal year will provide only an additional $25,000. Blowman said most of the increase in energy costs involves increases in the cost of fuel, not an increase in the amount of fuel consumed.

"The state has not been keeping up," Doorey said. The additional half million "is what it takes so our kids are warm enough in their classrooms."

She also expressed resentment over the continued requirement that school districts 'return' a portion of their state financing. In Brandywine's case, that amounts to $700,000 a year. When the 'give-back' was first 'requested' as a way to make up for recession-related declines in state revenue, "the school districts all played along because we thought it was going to be for just one year," she said.

The stated purpose of the 'give-back' is to allow school districts to determine what parts of state financing they can forego instead of that being decided for them in the state budget.

At the same time, Blowman's memo noted that the proposed increase in the state-mandated pension rate would cost Brandywine  $310,000. Since fiscal 2001, the rate has almost doubled -- from 7.44% to a proposed 14.75% in fiscal 2006 -- at a total cost to Brandywine of $1.5 million. That, he said, is equivalent to about 5 in the tax rate.

"These increases, year after year, are significantly reducing the district's ability to make discretionary decisions around budgeting and priorities," Blowman wrote in the memo.

Doorey also noted that President George Bush's proposed federal budget would significantly reduce spending on public education. In particular, she said, elimination of money to help finance teacher training and retention will be felt in Brandywne. Overall, pending reductions in federal support could result in the loss of 16 classroom teachers unless it is decided to finance them with local money, she said.

"The community needs to know what it takes to keep the things they want," board member Mark Huxoll said. "We don't want to wait until it runs up to being a crisis."

Yet another possible referendum question would be an increase in the tax rate to finance better building maintenance. Frank Walton, chairman of the volunteer maintenance advisory committee, told the board that the generally accepted industry standard of spending would cost the district an additional $1.5 million to $8 million annually.

"You have over $400 million worth of facilities and you're spending just $1 million [for maintenance] a year," he said. Generally accepted industry standards call for spending between 2% and 4% of a building's replacement value annually.

He said that building renovation as practiced by Brandywine results in "buildings that look spectacular" during the first five years after it is completed but which then start to decline over the remainder of the work's 20-year lifespan. "As it gets toward the end of the cycle, you have a shabby building," he said.

He recommended that the district, and other districts which are in the same boat, "work with the state legislature and state Department of Education" to have the formulas for financing minor capital improvements and custodial maintenance made more liberal.

Board member Craig Gilbert said financing an increased level of locally supported building maintenance would be a logical addendum to the spring referendum. Otherwise, "we're putting all those funds into buildings and we're not taking care of them," he said.

2005. All rights reserved.

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