January 25, 2005

Brandywine School District has begun the process of gathering support for an as-yet-undetermined bond proposal to be put before voters at referendum in May. A very rough preliminary estimate is that the school board will seek approval to borrow or tax-finance in a range of $55 million to $60 million.

Board president Nancy Doorey confirmed that the board has "tentatively looked at a May date" for conducting the referendum, which had been expected to follow approval in November of a plan for the third and final phase of the district's long-term modernization and building renovation project. The district last held a capital referendum in May, 2001, which authorized $38.4 million of debt financing for the second phase.

The board at its monthly business session on Jan. 24, agreed that it would set the date for voting at its March meeting after receiving a referendum plan and holding a public 'workshop'-style meeting to review it.

Meanwhile, the district has established a 'referendum steering committee'. The usual function of such committees it to devise and manage a campaign to obtain voter approval of the question at referendum.

In addition to seeking approval to sell bonds to finance the local share of a record $126.5 million renovation plan, she said the board also will consider including up "a major upgrade to our athletic fields" and "perhaps a technology piece." Board member Craig Gilbert said there also is a need to finance an "across-the-board security upgrade."

The current tax rate is $1.2805 for each $100 of assessed property value. Of that 12.8 covers debt service. By approving the sale of bonds, voters agree to the district's annually setting the rate at whatever level is necessary to finance principle and interest on outstanding bonds in the fiscal year.

Chief financial officer David Blowman told Delaforum that the state Department of Education has said it will approve replacing the Lancashire and Brandywood Elementary buildings with new ones, but what percentage of that cost will be paid with state money is still being negotiated. The usual financing ratio for school construction is 60% state and 40% local.

A 'certificate of necessity', which is required to qualify for state capital financing and is subject to voter approval to finance the local share of the project cost, is presently "in draft form [but] it looks encouraging," Blowman said.

The board bogged down on approving 'procedures' for accommodating religious observances and sent proposed ones back to the district staff for further work after Gilbert argued strenuously that some of them would be unfair to Jewish students.

"After having grown up with this type of discrimination, I feel uncomfortable," he said.

The sticking point was a provision that would gave school administrators and teachers leeway in determining whether to schedule such things as plays, concerts and athletic events on major holydays 'recognized' by the school board. At present, the board 'recognizes' only the Jewish new year, Yom Kippur and the first day of Passover. That was done several years ago at the request of the Jewish community.

The proposed 'procedures' -- which district officials have defined as something other than a policy -- would permit other groups to apply for similar recognition. Doorey noted that the major Christian holydays, Christmas and Good Friday, are state holidays and therefore not in need of special consideration.

The proposed 'procedures' would grant excused absences to students to observe the Jewish holydays with automatic permission to make up missed academic work without any direct or indirect penalty and without jeopardizing such things as a perfect-attendance record.

Doorey said that she would not favor a blanket prohibition against conflicting events. Students, she said, can make a choice between the activity and a religious observance, just as the can decide in the event of other conflicts.Practice in the district is to include participation in religious as well as other family events as a valid justification for an excused absence to be granted on an individual basis.

Gilbert said permitting schools to schedule conflicting events puts Jewish students in an unfair position of having to decide between them and subjecting themselves to peer pressure. He rejected the argument that a prohibition discriminated against a majority of students likely to participate. "If just two Jewish students have to stand up and say okay, what are they going to do? It puts them in a very bad position," he said.

That is what brought the issue forward. The district administration last September forced the Mount Pleasant High band to cancel a planned trip to a band competition in Pennsylvania. In previous years, the prohibition against such activities was, at best, sporadically enforced.

Assistant superintendent Tammy Davis, who represented the administration in the absence of superintendent Bruce Harter, sidestepped a question of whether the district was wrong in the Mount Pleasant situation. But staff attorney Ellen Cooper indicated at another point in the conversation that the previous approach to accommodating holydays was, at the least, risky.

She said the district has to beware of a fine line between accommodation and "an establishment of religion" which is outlawed by the U.S. Constitution. The school district is a state agency. She said the determination lies not with permitting or encouraging a religious observance but with what effect the resultant absence of a significant number of students would have on the academic program.

"You can't recognize a religious practice unless it affects a large number of students districtwide. ... You have to treat all groups that request 'recognition' alike," she said.

Davis said she was unable to define the term "a large number of students", which is used in the draft 'procedures'.

She said she would revise the proposed 'procedures' in consultation with Gilbert and bring another version back to the board at a future meeting.

The board also ratified a a labor contract with the United Auto Workers, which represents Brandywine school bus drivers. As Delaforum previously reported, based on information gathered from union sources, the contract calls for 4% raises in the district's share of the drivers' pay this academic year and next. Other details have not been public.

During the public comment section of the meeting, Donald Carter, a retired bus driver, questioned why the contract did not include retired or former drivers. That, he said, was promised when drivers approved the United Auto Workers as their bargaining agent. Cooper said that no one raised that point during contract negotiations.

There was no discussion of the contract during the portion of the board meeting open to the public and the motion to ratify was simply to approve what had been discussed in closed-door executive session. The published agenda said only that "information will be provided [sic] in the Friday memo." That presumably refers incorrectly to it having been provided in a previous memo since it would seem more likely to provide information before, rather than after, a board vote. Board members receive a packet of information from the district administration each week and such information is not made public.

Cooper said Delaforum can see the contract only in response to a formal request filed under terms of the state Freedom of Information Act. Such a request has been submitted.

Personnel director Debbie Bullock told the board that the district plans "an aggressive effort to recruit quality teachers" this year. Recruiting, she said, will be done at employment events as far afield as Chicago and Houston. The idea is to have prospective applicants sign 'letters of intent' well in advance of the usual summertime hiring season.

Doorey said DelDOE does the Brandywine district a disservice by publishing hiring statistics based on the date of signing a contract rather than an agreement to do so. "We're doing [early hiring] more aggressively than any other district," she said. If data is based on contract signings close to the reopening of schools "that gets published in the newspaper and makes it look like we're doing a horrific job." It is assumed that, by August, the field has been picked over and the more highly qualified education graduates have long since been landed.

Blowman told the board that none of the money earmarked for teacher recruitment in recent past budgets was spent. He explained that that money was intended to provide for paying the salaries of teachers above the number the state authorizes based on enrollment in the event more are recruited and hired than are needed to meet the authorized total. Four such situations would have occurred this academic year had the district not received additional federal and state money for special programs, he said.

Bullock reported that the district this year hired 92 new teachers, of whom 74 were women and 82 were white. This year, she said, it expects to hire about 100. There were 30 retirements and 27 resignations which created vacancies for this year. There are 54 eligible for retirement this year, of whom 18 have said they will do so. Brandywine pays a bonus to those who make known their retirement plans early in the year.

The board also approved hiring Robert Ziegler from the state Department of Labor to be public information officer, effective Jan. 31. His salary was not disclosed. He will succeed Wendy Lapham who resigned to take a similar job in the Christina district.

2005. All rights reserved.

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