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December 20, 2005

 

Brandywine School District has told the state Department of Education that it has "the capacity and the intent" to implement full-day kindergarten, but board members found a couple of significant problems in doing so.

Nancy Doorey pointed out that dividing the number of children expected to be in the program by the number of classrooms available according to a district report  indicates that average class size would exceed the 22-student limit in four or five of the nine elementary schools and run as high as 27 in one of them.

She declared that to be unacceptable. "We've been trying to get those numbers down. It seems we're going for quantity rather than quality," she said.

Board president Craig Gilbert objected to the prospect of having to impose "a back-door tax increase" to pay the district's share of the cost of the additional teachers that would be needed. Chief financial officer David Blowman estimated that would be in the range of an additional 2 for each $100 of assessed property value which he said the General Assembly is likely to permit to be levied without having to put the increase before voters in a tax referendum.

Blowman, however, told the board at its meeting on Dec. 19 that the estimate is nothing more than an educated guess. "The [school financing] system is so convoluted it's hard to come to the bottom line," he said.

Although the meeting agenda said the district administration was recommending that full-day kindergarten be implemented in all of the elementary schools in the academic year beginning in September, 2006, superintendent Bruce Harter said he was not seeking immediate board approval.

He said the report was presented to obtain board reaction and initiate discussion. Referring to Doorey's objections to indicated class sizes, he acknowledged that "there is one glaring weakness" in the proposal.

"We'll come back in January. ... We're saying we're willing to do it; now we have to wait for the legislature to say it's a go," Harter said. The General Assembly is expected to enact legislation mandating that full-day kindergarten be offered throughout the state during its session beginning in January.

The report apparently resulted in what was literally a last-minute modification in the arrangement for leasing the sites of the former Channin and Old Mill Lane schools to county government for subleasing to youth athletic leagues.

Doorey insisted, and the rest of the board agreed, that approval of the lease agreements be conditioned on obtaining from state  legislators representing Brandywine Hundred written acknowledgement that the arrangement for providing the properties does not constitute a precedent for how to manage surplus district property in the future. Sites of the Bush Early Education building in Sharpley and the district administrative offices in Radnor Green are scheduled to fall into that status during the coming third phase of the district's building renovation and realignment program.

Legislation enacted two years ago waived state law requirements dealing with disposal of surplus public property in favor of the deal with the county and the youth leagues.

The final version of the leases extend their term to 20 years and three months from the district's initial desire to have them run for 10 years. The earliest the district can begin the process of reclaiming the properties is 15 years from now. And then it can only take them back if kindergarten-through-third-grade enrollment has grown by 30% or more over the present level. Those provisions are "the best we can do given all the circumstances," Barbara Meredith, director of support services, told the board.

She referred to "issues that were involved in the negotiations," but did not elaborate.

Concord Soccer Association and Talleyville Girls Softball League, to whom the county intends to sublease the sites,  sought the longer terms to make it easier to obtain financing for improvements that will make to provide playing fields. As Delaforum previously reported, the Concord organization already has filed a preliminary development plan with the county Department of Land Use.

Doorey said she understands the leagues' position and supports their activities, but said that capacity information in the report on full-day kindergarten and the prospect of public school districts later being obliged to provide pre-schools and more before- and after-school care indicate "we're maxing out on space."

She initially sought to delay approval of the leases, which has been pending for several months, to include safeguards against the district being caught in such a bind, but agreed to settle for imposing the added condition. Meredith said County Council is insisting on being able to give its assent by approving a resolution at its Dec. 20 meeting.

It was not clear how many or which legislators would have to provide the written acknowledgement, how they could be required to do so other than voluntarily, and how such agreements would bind future General Assemblies.

Judy Curtis, director of education services, said a survey of parents found 155 of those responding favoring full-day kindergarten against 12 preferring half-day sessions. But she acknowledged in response to board members' questions that information about class size and a possible tax increase was not included in the questionnaire.

The proposal in her report provides for offering half-day kindergartens as an option at Forwood and Lancashire Elementary. Curtis said children enrolled in those classes who live outside the respective attendance zones would be provided free bus transportation. They would be eligible to continue in those schools for first, second and third grades.

Brandywine currently offers one or two full-day kindergarten classes in each of its school. Tuition is charged with subsidies provided. The expanded program would not require payment.

She said the 35% local share of salaries and other employment costs for and additional seven regular teachers, four additional art, music and physical education teachers, and a nutrition worker would be about $237,000. There would be another $181,000 of additional estimated cost, but Blowman said that would probably be offset by increases in other kinds of state support.

According to calculations drawn from data on what is proposed for individual schools, class size would average nearly 27 at Carrcroft Elementary and range up to that at Lancashire, depending upon whether three or four additional classrooms can be provided there. It would top the 22-student limit at Darley Road and Lombardy.

The proposal suggests that two additional classrooms be constructed at Lombardy, which would reduce class size there, but it is not certain whether the district would have to bear the usual share of construction costs. Blowman told the board he is "pursuing some options with the state that would permit us to avoid that." He did not elaborate.

Board members questioned the accuracy of a projected districtwide  kindergarten enrollment of 712. Current enrollment is 673. No data on how many of them attend full days and how many half days was immediately available. Curtis said the projection includes children whose parents might opt for public school instead of non-public schools which offer full-day kindergarten. "That is not an easy thing to pin down," she said.

In other matters at the meeting:

The board approved converting Maple Lane from a kindergarten-through-third-grade school to a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade one by adding one grade in each of the three academic years. As Delaforum previously reported that represents a break in Brandywine's previous commitment to four-tiers of schools.

A final budget for the current fiscal year was adopted. It contains no substantive change from the preliminary budget. It shows a total depletion of a carryover balance by the end of fiscal 2008. Blowman said that the district is looking for a 46% increase in the cost of natural gas this year to be followed by a large increase in electricity cost in fiscal 2007. He said state support for those expenses is not keeping pace with their rise.

A policy requiring a year's suspension for elementary- and intermediate-age students who are found to have items which fit the legal definition of weapons but who have no apparent intention of using them to harm anyone be modified to allow less-severe discipline deemed appropriate for the circumstances of the individual situation.

2005. All rights reserved.

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Read previous Delaforuim article: Soccer league files plan for Channin site

Read previous Delaforuim article: Brandywine may yield on four-tier school alignment

Read previous Delaforuim article: School board approves $123.7 million preliminary budget

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