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June 26, 2006

 

Principals in the Brandywine School District will probably have less money for discretionary spending in the coming academic year as the district tightens its belt to avert a financial crisis.

Rolling back the 5% increase in school budgets that was given in this fiscal year was the most difficult decision that had to be made while crafting the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2007, chief financial officer David Blowman told the school board. "It was the last thing to come out and will be the first to go back in if [the financial situation] is better in December than projected," he said.

Principals, he said, normally do not exceed their discretionary budgets and are permitted to carry over unspent money into the next fiscal year. The allotments are based on the number of students in a school.

The board approved a tentative $132.8 million budget, up 3.5% from a year ago. Projected spending of $131.1 million, a 4.6% increase, would leave a carryover balance of $1.7 million on June 30, 2007. That would be down from just over $3 million expected this year and the lowest since fiscal 2002 when the district found itself with $908,800 at the end of the year. The carryover is used to meet expenses during the summer months, pending receipt of state funds after the academic year begins.

The board set a tax rate of $1.4925 for each $100 of assessed property value for the coming year, a 3.8% increase over the current year. The increases are in the debt-service and tuition-tax rates, which are not subject to referendum, and safety, security and energy spending approved by voters in 2005, partly offset by a decrease in the temporary rate for athletic fields improvements. Brandywine has been at the ceiling for the voter-approved operating tax rate since fiscal 2005.

The tax bill for a typical residential property assessed at $75,000 will be $1,120. Assessment is based on 1984 market value and is considerably lower than what the property would fetch now. School taxes are due on Sept. 30.

At its meeting on June 26, the board hired Andrew Brandenberger, who retired in July, 2005, after six years as superintendent of the Cape Henlopen School District, to be interim superintendent until a national search finds a successor for Bruce Harter, who is leaving to be superintendent of the Richmond, Calif., school district. Brandenberger, who lives in Milton, was director of facilities in Brandywine before going to the eastern Sussex County district.

Each member of the board paid public tribute to Harter at the meeting. Board president Craig Gilbert credited Harter's leadership style with "involving hundreds and hundreds of people ... [which] resulted in the overwhelming community support we have" while improving academic achievement of Brandywine students.

Blowman told the board that the coming 12 months will be "a very, very lean year" if the district is going to "make sure not to get to the point next summer where we have trouble [meeting] payroll."

In addition to trimming the principals' budgets, he said the district is going to "look very closely" at positions which become vacant through attrition to decide which ones should be filled. As of now, the budget anticipates cutting the number of positions financed entirely from local funds to 32 from 37, with the possible result that will increase the average size of classes, he said.

He added that the district will evaluate the cost-benefit relation of having an outside service provide substitutes for absent teachers, as has been done for the past 18 months. Among possible moves in that area would be to require principals to use their discretionary funds to pay the cost of replacing teachers absent beyond 10 days. Absences are for a variety of reasons in addition to illness and allowed personal time, such as professional development.

In general, he said, "we have to decide what expenditures can be delayed for one year."

On the other hand, Blowman reported, the district will not take as big a hit on its energy bill as had been expected. Participating in the state consortium to buy electricity at negotiated rates, is expected to 'save' about $700,000. The state also is providing an increase in the amount it provides to school districts to meet energy costs. On balance, he said, while energy is significantly more expensive "it could have been a whole lot worse."

An apparently significant unfavorable trend, he said, is a drastic slowing in the rate at which properties are coming onto the tax rolls in Brandywine Hundred and north Wilmington. Total assessed value this year is up just one-tenth of 1%, compared to an historic average of between 1% and 1% a year, he said. That is illustrative, he added, of "the major underlying demographics we face."

Despite its relative austerity, the preliminary budget provides for carrying forward all elements of the district's strategic plan and what it promised voters at the time of the 2002 tax referendum. It also keeps the promise made then not to go back for an increase in the tax ceiling for five years, he said.

Blowman clearly indicated that the fiscal 2007 budget  is premised on the likelihood that an increase in the ceiling will be approved at the next referendum, which probably will be held  in the spring of 2007. "We simply have to pass [sic] that referendum," he said.

He emphasized, however, that cost cutting in the preliminary budget and the final version the board will be asked to approve in December are not intended to influence support for a tax increase.

"We're not doing this just for a referendum; we're doing it now because [the situation] is real," he said. "We know where we are, we know where we're headed, and we have time."

During the tributes to Harter, board member Joseph Brumskill credited the outgoing superintendent for changing "the racial attitudes in the district." Blumskill, who is black, said he approached Harter early-on about race relations and, after that initial conversation, "I knew I had a friend I could work with." Harter, he said, encouraged him to seek election to the board.

In his final superintendent's report to the board, Harter noted that "students of color" were among those honored for academic achievements at this year's high school graduations. "That hadn't happened in Brandywine before," Harter said.

Nancy Doorey, the only current member who was on the board when Harter was hired five years ago, choked with emotion as she delivered a tribute which said "the right to learn [is] at the core of what you stand for."

Debra Heffernan said Harter's response to the needs of special-education students impressed her tremendously "You were the first paid member of the Special Needs P.T.A.," she said. That is an advocacy group formed to improve the district's services to those children.

Olivia Johnson-Harris said Harter's vision has been responsible for "such a tremendous change in the Brandywine School District [and] the direction that you put is in."

"I've called you many times and you always called back. We never had a bad word between us," Sandra Skelley said. Mark Huxsoll referred to Harter as "somebody I like to be connected with."

In another matter at the meeting, the board was told in the quarterly report on the strategic plan  that the district has reduced the early-attrition rate among newly hired teachers to 22% in the 2004-05 academic year, the latest for which complete data is available, from 47$ in 2001-02.

Debbie Bullock, director of human services, reported that Brandywine ranks 22nd among 32 districts in the region that were surveyed in starting salaries for teachers, 15th for those in mid-career and 20th for those at the top of the scale. In that regard, it ranks higher than the other New Castle County districts, including the vocational district, except for Christina which stands higher in the mid- and upper levels.

2006. All rights reserved.

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