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December 19, 2006

School board gets plan for a bright

future, but is told present is cloudy

Residents of the Brandywine School District will have opportunities in January to comment on a proposed five-year strategic plan and to provide the money to finance it at a tax referendum in the spring.

The ambitious plan, which lists eight goals and 17 strategies to attain them, was presented to the school board in draft form at a meeting on Dec. 18 at which the board also was told the district will come down to the wire on honoring its 2002 pledge to not hold another operating-tax referendum for five years with barely enough in its coffers to carry it though until new revenue becomes available in early autumn.

The board approved a final version of a $119.7 million operating budget for the current fiscal year, ending June 30, and set Feb. 12 as the date for approving the final version of the plan.

Chief financial officer David Blowman told the board that there is a possibility the district will not  end the fiscal year with sufficient carryover to meet its final payroll in September. However, he added, "I think we'll be able to squeak through."

He said the budget anticipates spending $2.1 million more in the second half of the fiscal year than in the like portion of fiscal 2007 but that will result in a carryover of $1.3 million about the same as last year. The state Department of Education requires that school districts end the fiscal year with sufficient carryover to meet their needs for the first quarter of the next year. School taxes are not due until Sept. 30 and state appropriations, in general, do not become available until an enrollment count is made, also at the end of September.

Blowman added that, while the district's present financial situation "is not a crisis," it points up the "critical importance of success [at] the next referendum." The board has not yet set a date nor determined what it will seek in the way of a higher ceiling on the operating tax. The rate is now at the ceiling, 51.4 for each $100 of assessed property value, in addition to a county-wide rate of 46.8, left over from the years when there was a single county district.

Presenting an executive summary of the strategic plan, Michelle Kutch, science content specialist and co-chair of the strategic plan committee, said it is intended to "make Brandywine School District among the best in the region by 2012."

The key provision in the plan is that the district commit to preparing all its students for either higher education or beginning a career.

Superintendent James Scanlon told the meeting that he and other administrators have already begun drafting 'action plans' and determining the costs that will be required to implement them. That will be at least partly ready for presentation at public meetings on Jan. 8 -- at Brandywine High School -- and Jan. 16 -- at P.S. du Pont Intermediate School. Both sessions are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

Board vice president Nancy Doorey said the plan will have to be accompanied by as many specifics as possible "when we go to the community with a referendum proposal ... seeking community consensus and asking the community to help make it a reality."

The goals and assigned strategies are:

"Establish a district-wide culture of high academic expectations, collective responsibility, individual accountability and contagious enthusiasm in support of leaning for all students, staff and parents.

"Use the school improvement planning process to improve student and staff performance and to drive continuous improvement in student learning, inclusive practices, equity and the leaning community environment.

"Ensure that all students are college- and career-ready and are prepared to meet the requirements of the ever-changing global economy."

"Ensure that the required curriculum, programs and services are used to help each student acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to actively participate and succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world.

"Provide strong educational leaders, highly qualified teachers and professional development aligned with expectations for staff in a standards-based school district.

"Recruit, support and retain high quality administrators and teachers.

"Ensure a clear, comprehensive professional development plan to provide all principals and teachers with the skills necessary to enable all students to reach high academic standards.

"Ensure that regularly scheduled grade-level team collaborative time is available to plan for student instruction based on student data.

"Ensure effective and efficient use of teachers, support personnel and resources to meet the learning needs of all students.

"Provide a comprehensive staff development plan to meet the needs of non-certified and non-administrative staff in a standards-based school district.

"Ensure that all students are given every opportunity to master the curriculum by utilizing all available techniques, such as the use of time, instructional resources and materials, student supports and technology.

"Ensure support for student learning and social growth in each academic and non-academic transition.

"Ensure that each student achieving below Brandywine and state standards is provided additional instructional time.

"Ensure the effective and efficient use of instructional technology as a resource to help students learn.

"Ensure that all schools provide a safe environment that is conducive to leaning.

"Ensure the district benchmark and formative assessments are aligned to district curriculum; assess the range of curricular objectives; and [yield] reliable and timely information about student performance.

"Ensure that all teachers and principals directly monitor student performance data in order to close the achievement gap and improve leaning for all students.

"Ensure early, immediate and intense intervention at multiple levels for all students when acceleration of learning is recognized.

"Provide a system of recognition, intervention and adjustment to the instructional program for each student who falls below performance standards.

"Improve the partnership and collaboration [among] the community, district schools, students and parents in support of student learning.

"Increase the proportion of students engaging in co-curricular activities to deepen relationships between the school and community, increase academic achievement and develop talent and character.

"Maximize use of co-curricular activity to increase student achievement; develop positive relationships and character; and to establish better connections between the school and community.

"Develop opportunities for student growth in areas outside the core content subjects.

"Continuously improve the effectiveness and efficiency of district operations.

"Implement standards of best management practices and use community expertise to monitor results.

Scanlon said 89 people, drawn from the community as well as district staff, participated in a nine-month process to draft the plan. Complicating the already complex task was the fact that their work overlapped the tenures of himself and two other superintendents.

Blowman said he is preparing a "cost-containment package" to be submitted to the board at its January meeting. The district finance committee required that as a condition for its approving his presentation of the final version of the budget. The committee set the amount to be cut at $700,000.

"I do not believe [that] will result in draconian reductions, but it cannot be attained without pain." he said. "We have to be extremely conservative" in spending practices.

Doorey said the district "can't go much further [in cutting costs] without injuring kids and [staff] morale" and suggested that Blowman approach DelDOE seeking temporary financial assistance.

Blowman responded that he thinks he can design cuts "without any significant impact on students in the classroom."

 "I prefer that we find a way internally to get through ... rather than have terms imposed on us in a very political environment," he said.

Blowman said the present situation comes as no surprise. "We've known it was coming for the past two years and now it's here," he said.

He said failure of state appropriations to keep up with the rate of increase in such things as energy costs has been a major development that was unforeseen at the time the 2002 tax referendum was designed. "Every dollar we spend on energy is a dollar less that we have to spend on instruction," he said.

District enrollment, upon which most state support is based ,continues to decline. This academic year's official count, 10,406, is down by 239 students from last year.

 Brandywine, he said, continues to lose students to charter schools. Primarily as the result of new ones opening this year, the district will pay out an estimated $1.9 million, up significantly from $1.45 million last year. This year's charter payment more than offset $392,000 netted as the result of students transferring into Brandywine under the school-choice law.

Moreover, he said, property assessment in the district remains virtually static while general inflation continues. "Since there is no underlying growth in our revenue base, the only way we can get revenue in the long term is by going back to our community and asking them to raise the [tax] rate," he said.

2006. All rights reserved.