May 1, 2007

School closure, sooner or later,
looms in Brandywine's future

Regardless of the result of its second attempt to obtain approval to increase its operations tax rate, the Brandywine School District will soon have to come to grips with a significant problem of overcapacity, according to superintendent James Scanlon.

If the referendum vote on June 4 is unfavorable, a primary-level elementary school will be closed before the start of the 2007-08 academic year. If it is favorable, the matter will become a priority on the school board's agenda with a likelihood that it will be decided in time for the following year.

"Our problem is that we have too much space and not enough students. ... If we don't address this situation, we're looking at program cuts in [future] years," Scanlon told the board as he presented a contingency plan to cut more than $4 million, or about 10%, from locally financed district spending if voters again reject a tax increase.

This time around, they will be asked to authorize an increase of 27 on each $100 of assessed property value, of which 25 would be imposed in the coming fiscal year and an additional penny in each of the following two years. If applied to the current $1.4925 property tax rate, the increase when fully implemented would be 18%. It would boost the current-expense component of that overall rate  by 24.5%.

The increase would be about 35% less than the 38.2 the district sought but nearly 9,200 voters rejected by a relatively small but decisive 53%-to-47% margin at the referendum on Apr. 24.

This time the proposal will be presented as a single ballot question instead of two and will be accompanied by a board pledge not to hold another tax referendum for three years. The larger increase would have been locked in for five years.

"I think this will be supported. We'll know on June 4," Scanlon said after the school board voted unanimously on Apr. 30  to set the date for the referendum and approve the amount of the tax increase authorization to be sought.

After considerable discussion, the  board agreed, six-to-nil,  to a resolution accepting a recommendation on both points from Scanlon and chief financial officer David Blowman. Board member Sandra Skelly was present for the first half of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, but left before the vote was taken.

The board did not take formal action on the superintendent's contingency plan, but there appeared to be consensus agreement on it.

Closing a school would be reflected in several elements of the plan. Its key component would be an extensive reduction in force.

Instead of the across-the-board 5% reduction in force which, as Delaforum previously reported, he proposed tentatively at the board's previous workshop session, Scanlon said there will be a 10.7% reduction in administrators, 4.1% in certified teachers and 2.3% in support staff.

By eliminating the 10 assistants to the principal, three coordinators and the equivalent of four content specialists -- which are quasi-administrative roles filed by persons drawn from the district's state allotment of teachers -- the number of classroom-teacher slots to be cut would be held to about 17, Scanlon said. Anticipated retirements, resignations and terminations will account for 24 positions.

Three administrators in the district office and three in the schools, including a principal no longer needed because of the school closure, would be affected.

Total savings to be achieved by staff reductions was put at $2.3 million.

In all cases, Scanlon referred to positions, not individuals. Who will be let go will be determined by a seniority-based "complicated bumping process," he said. The district is required to notify those who will be laid off by May 15.

If voters approve the tax increase, "we'll be on the phone immediately to invite them back," he said.

Before both its public meeting on Apr. 30 and the workshop session on Apr. 27, the board went behind closed doors for an executive session which, according to the official posted notice was to deal with "personnel matters."

Although it is commonplace for the public to focus on administrators when school financing is at issue, board vice president Nancy Doorey said that 92 of every dollar that Brandywine spends goes to support operation of its schools. "I don't put any stock in accusations that we're overstaffed," she said.

Blowman said Brandywine has one administrator for every 20 employees, a ratio he said is not out of line with other school districts. While he acknowledged that Brandywine has added administrators in recent years, he said every new position came with a favorable cost-benefit analysis. He specified taking on an in-house lawyer in 2000 and an energy specialist in 2005 as moves that  "have saved the district thousands of dollars" beyond what it cost to do so.

Closing a school -- either immediately or in the near future  -- was acknowledged as most likely to produce a community outcry. That was confirmed when three of the nine attenders who addressed the board during the public comment portion of the Apr. 30 meeting pleaded for keeping  Darley Road Elementary -- evidently the subject of a current closure rumor -- open.

All but two elementary schools have been renovated during the district's building modernization program. Brandywood and Lancashire schools are slated to be replaced by new buildings during the just-begun final phase of that program.

Board president Craig Gilbert said that as recently as two years ago, "an overwhelming 73% of voters" at the district's capital referendum endorsed a board decision, largely forced by public reaction, not to close either Brandywood or Lancashire and either Hanby or Springer Middle School. "People said overwhelmingly to keep those schools open," Gilbert said.

Doorey noted that the board at that time did agree to close the Bush Early Learning Center and the building in Radnor Green which houses most of the district administrative offices.

"In 2005 we said we would close no building, but times have changed," board member Joseph Brumskill said.

"I know it's painful, but if we're going to maintain the integrity of the [instructional] program, we have to commit to addressing that issue," Scanlon said. The district has capacity to accommodate 14,000 students but enrollment is down to 10,400 and the trend for the future is downward.

"Small schools are wonderful for kids, but they're expensive," he said.

Although he did not come to Brandywine as superintendent until October, 2006, Scanlon was a resident of Brandywine Hundred while working in Pennsylvania in 2005 and aware of the closure controversy.

Gilbert said that determining which school or schools should be closed will have to be "an excruciatingly open" process involving extensive community participation.

In his contingency plan, Scanlon also backed off from his tentative proposal to  reduce sports and extracurricular activities by about a third. "I'm not going to hold kids hostage," he said, adding that there is educational value in student participation  in such activities.

"It keeps them out of trouble and focused on their school and is important to their learning," he said.

There will be some reductions in that area through 5% cuts in financing extra pay that coaches and club sponsors receive and in associated transportation costs.

He also changed his mind between the workshop and the meeting about not accepting rising seventh-graders into the middle school International Baccalaureate program. Instead, he is now proposing to delay extending the program to the intermediate-school level.

Scanlon said the parameters upon which his contingency plan is based call for the district to provide full-day tuition-free kindergarten beginning in the 2008-09 academic year, a year later than originally planned, and implementation over the next three years of $1 million worth of cost-containment measures.

Scanlon said that to come up with recommended reductions if voters reject the proposed tax increase he and his staff acted on a belief that the cuts should have "the least impact on students and program." Nevertheless, he added, there will be some adverse effects -- such as a somewhat  larger average class size and dropping elective high school courses which do not attract a minimum of 20 students.

He said the plan was not put together hastily following the first referendum but that its elements have been worked on for several weeks. They were not brought into public view prior to the first referendum lest they be construed as threats to garner voter support, he said.

If the tax increase is turned down, he is confident the plan "will get us through [the coming] fiscal year." but added that it is likely that "as we go through the year, we will be trimming [other costs] as we go along."

Blowman said that the proposed 27 tax increase is about the minimum necessary to enable the district to continue to operate at reasonable levels and to preserve its "financial integrity."

To reach that level, he said, it will be necessary to delay implementation of some elements of the strategic plan and significantly reduce the amount of additional building maintenance that the originally sought  38.2 increase was intended to finance. Also, he said the anticipated end-of-fiscal-year carryover to finance payroll and other expenses during the summers probably will be adequate but not especially comfortable.

After the rejection of the initial proposal, "we knew we'd have to ask for less," Blowman said. "But that will also buy less."

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: Brandywine will ask voters for a smaller tax increase

Read previous Delaforum article: Rejection of Brandywine tax likely to result in drastic cuts

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