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May, 2007

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With an up-or-down vote on its second attempt to win approval for a tax increase looming, Brandywine School District is beset by 'misinformation', according to superintendent James Scanlon.

Speaking to media representatives and several supporters from the community on May 29 he again offered what he termed 'facts' intended to counter 'myths'. "There's a good product here," he said, adding that failure to obtain agreement from a majority of voters will slow down if not reverse an upward trend of accomplishments since the last operating-tax referendum five years ago. "We can't continue that if this referendum fails [to garner a favorable vote] on June 4," he said. Scanlon stoutly defended the size and cost of the district's administration. "Our administrators are a vital part of the district's success and our students' achievement," he said.

Regarding the likelihood of closing one or more schools regardless of the referendum's result, he said the district currently is using 74% of building capacity with only Brandywine High and Hanby Middle at acceptable levels of use. He said his personal standard is 90% in a high school, between 85% and 90% in a middle school, and between 90% and 95% in an elementary school. Scanlon also said that district officials, including himself, are committed to being responsive to parental and community concerns. "We can't fix [a] problem unless we know about it," he said. "The way to fix it is not to call a local radio station ... [but] to call the school." [CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article. Earlier articles can be accessed using links provided in every article where appropriate or CLICK HERE to access Delaforum archives.]

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I-95 WIDENING STARTS: Beginning June 5 and continuing for about 18 months, a fifth lane will be added in each direction to Interstate 95 between the Basin Road interchange and the Christiana Mall-State Route 1 interchange. R.E. Pierson Construction is contractor for the $50.9 million project. It holds the largest dollar value contract ever let for a single road project. Delaware Department of Transportation said there will be a series of closures of existing lanes, mostly during nighttime hours, throughout the duration of the project. Also planned as part of a multi-year  I-95 improvement project are a new Route 1 interchange and toll plaza south of Newark.

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DIFFERENT RULES ? : A man distributing flyers asking negative votes at the June 4 Brandywine School District referendum in the parking lot outside the district office to people arriving for a school board public meeting reportedly was required to stop doing so. Inside the building, board member Debra Heffernan attended the meeting on May 21 wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with a message promoting affirmative votes. District attorney Ellen Cooper, who reportedly was the person who asked the man to stop handing out the flyers, did not respond to a Delaforum e.mail requesting an explanation and comment on the incident.

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Brandywine superintendent James Scanlon zeroed in on the most oft-repeated objection to raising the school-tax rate  -- allegations of a 'bloated' district administrative staff.

If the entire cadre were eliminated and their salaries redirected, he said, teachers would receive less than a 2% pay raise and have to take on an administrative burden. "We have reports up to our butts [to do] ... We don't want our teachers doing it; we want our teachers to teach," he said. Again making a detailed presentation seeking voter approval of the district's proposed tax increase at the June 4 referendum, Scanlon also cited the need for professional development for the teaching staff. "You wouldn't go to a dentist who didn't keep abreast" of current techniques, he said. "Professional development helps student achievement."

Responding to complaints about administrators' nonresponsiveness voiced by attenders during the public comment portion of the school board meeting on May 21, Scanlon declared, "There's a new day here." A woman who said she had four children go through district schools over the course of 17 years claimed that "every time I've had to go to an administrator, nothing happened." Since taking the district's top executive position last October, Scanlon said, he has insisted that 'customer satisfaction' be a priority. He said that he personally takes such calls. "I can't always give them what they want, but I listen and will do what I can," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Revitalization of Claymont won't be complete until the community gets a new library like Hockessin's and Wilmington's, civic leaders contend.

County Councilman John Cartier described the present branch as "woefully inadequate" and pledged to support an effort by Friends of the Claymont Library to obtain county and state support to replace it. Although county government has imposed a moratorium on new capital projects, "there are a number of options that can be pursued," he told a meeting of the Design Review Advisory Committee on May 17. George Lossé, president of the Claymont Coalition, noted that the present library in leased quarters in the Claymont Community Center is 3,000 square feet while the standard for a neighborhood library is 8,000 square feet.

Keelin Fry, of the friends group, said the Woodlawn branch in west Wilmington provides a model for what that volunteer support organization envisions. "It's quite an eye-opener ... not just a place where you can check out books and videos and use a computer," he said.  The immediate effort, he said, is directed toward "getting us to the top of the list" to obtain a needs-assessment, the first step in the process for obtaining state government financing. "Eventually, we'll get a first-class library that equals [the] Brandywine Hundred [branch]," Brett Saddler, president of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., said.

Meanwhile, Saddler said, he has been advised that a replacement for the post office on Philadelphia Pike "is working its way through the postal bureaucracy."

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NEW DIGS: The county police force has quietly moved its headquarters into the new Cpl. Paul J. Sweeney public safety building, County Council's special services committee was told on May 15. The new building is located behind the former headquarters in Minquadale, a former elementary school building which the force has used since the late 1970s. It will be demolished. Other components of the public safety department will use the new building. The last to move will be the 9-1-1 emergency call center which will relocate, probably by July, when its new computer equipment is installed, tested and debugged to prevent any interruption in service.

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RULING OVERTURNED: County Council, in an unusual move, voted nine-to-two to overturn a denial by the Planning Board of an appeal of a Department of Land Use decision not to approve a subdivision plan for a new child-care facility at Boyds Corner in southern New Castle County. Subdivision approval was denied because a planned temporary septic system -- to be used until the new sanitary sewer network reaches the site -- did not meet area standards. Council's land use committee, which heard the appeal in a quasijudicial proceeding on May 15, determined that the system met state requirements and did not adversely affect the surrounding area.

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REQUESTED REZONING: "It's all right," Robert Weiner said sarcastically, "if you want another strip shopping center and supermarket." The county councilman referred recently to a bid to rezone 40.1 acres southwest of the Concord Pike-Naamans Road intersection for regional-scale commercial development. A preliminary filing by Woodlawn Trustees with the Department of Land Use gives only sketchy information about what is planned. It does say that three adjoining parcels would be combined to provide space for a 200,000 square foot shopping center. A recent publicity 'release' referred to a supermarket chain not presently doing business in the area.

The last remaining large parcel along Concord Pike, the site was considered for possible commercial development several years ago during the long rezoning battle over turning the former Brandywine Raceway property into what is now Brandywine Town Center. At that time, Woodlawn -- which has a long-held reputation for combining conservation with controlled development in the area between the highway and the Brandywine -- backed away from that proposal because road traffic it would generate would overtax the intersection. A department spokesman said major development now would require a new traffic survey.

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The long-running dispute over partial destruction of an historic stone wall at the Paladin Club condominium complex in early 2004 appears near resolution on a jurisdictional technicality.

Near the end of an hour-long hearing on May 9, Chief Justice Myron Steele pointedly asked William Manning, lawyer for Edgewood Village l.l.c., if the issue was part of a county subdivision review process and if the order by Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, to rebuild the wall was related to that. Manning replied in the affirmative to both questions. While the Delaware Supreme Court did not rule immediately, that exchange appeared to have narrowed the parameters of its decision, expected in a few weeks, to their basic elements.

Richard Abbott, lawyer for three Paladin residents and their ad hoc civic organization, had argued that Edgewood's appeal of the order was a subdivision issue, not a zoning issue, and therefore, under terms of the Unified Development Code, should have been made to the Planning Board. Instead, the firm, an affiliate of Pettinaro Construction, went to the Board of Adjustment which overruled the order. Superior Court upheld the board and Abbott appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. Manning argued that "regulation of land use is too complex" to determine where the zoning process ends and subdivision review begins. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Asked if Edgewood has complied with an order to preserve the stones, a  land use department spokesman said the department does not have a record of where they were stored.

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Councilman Timothy Sheldon thinks county government might be able to insure against a major natural disaster or other catastrophic emergency.

Although he said he knows of no other government which has gone that route, "it's a concept worth exploring," chief financial officer Michael Strine said.  It is possible that paying the premium on such a policy would be cheaper than setting aside a fifth of each annual operating budget as a 'rainy day' fund. No government in Delaware has ever had to use its set-aside, Strine said. Nevertheless, bond-rating agencies tend to favor such funds as a hedge against difficulty meeting their debt service obligations, he added. Sheldon noted that Lloyds of London, the international insurance brokerage, takes on such large and unusual risks.

That was one of several suggestions Sheldon made as ways to deal with the county's budget situation at a meeting of Council's finance committee on May 8. "None [of those] will solve the problem, but every little bit will help," he said. Included on his list were having libraries rent rather than lend entertainment videodiscs and advancing the due date for the property tax to Sept. 1. Another was the possibility of taking out life insurance policies on county employees with county government as the beneficiary as a way to offset some pension costs. That led to a facetious comment that Sheldon apparently is willing to die to help shore up county coffers.

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UNFROZEN: County Council agreed to remove non-union employees in the so-called row offices from the pay-raise freeze County Executive Christopher Coons imposed. They will receive cost-of-living increases that other county employees got on Apr. 1, retroactive to that date. By unanimous vote with no discussion Council at its meeting on May 8 established new separate pay plans for the offices of the sheriff, clerk of the peace, recorder of deeds and register of wills. The preamble to the ordinance said the move was at the request of those elected officials. Only Coons's political appointees remain subject to the freeze. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION: Patricia Hearn won the soon-to-be-vacated seat on the Brandywine school board, handily defeating Barbara Muhammad by a 58.6%-to-41.4% margin. A third candidate, Donald Soles, dropped out of the race shortly before the election on May 8. The contest drew only 1,123 voters, which was just a little more than a tenth the number who turned out for the tax referendum in April. Hearn will begin her five-year term on the seven-member board in July, succeeding board president Craig Gilbert, who did not seek re-election. School board members serve without pay. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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JOB CUTS: The Brandywine school board formally authorized elimination of 42 teacher and 13 paraprofessional positions with the understanding the cuts will be rescinded if voters approve a tax increase at the June 4 referendum. The board at a special meeting on May 7 approved superintendent James Scanlon's recommendation by a five-to-nil vote. Mark Huxsoll and Debra Heffernan did not attend the meeting. Scanlon explained that the move was necessary in order to comply with a provision in the teachers' union contract that affected persons be notified by May 15. The board took action without disclosing who they are.

As required by the contract, those with the least amount of service in the district top the lists of employees to be let go grouped by area of certification. More senior employees, including those currently not classroom teachers, can 'bump' those less senior and fill remaining positions. Responding to Joan Kelley, a parent, who urged that the autism program at Darley Road Elementary be preserved, Scanlon said the district will "protect the integrity of that [and other special] program[s]" if it has to close an elementary school, as anticipated if the tax increase is not approved. He added that it has not yet been decided which school would be closed. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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County government workers who do not belong to a union but are in the civil service merit system will get smaller but more frequent raises under legislation to be introduced into County Council.

Council president Paul Clark said he will sponsor a proposed ordinance, drafted in collaboration with the administration, to rationalize what he is calling "pay plans de jour" -- a series of proposals put forth since County Executive Christopher Coons froze pay raises for his 50 or so political appointees in an effort to reduce spending to ease the current budget crunch. If enacted, the ordinance would affect about 230 workers by reducing automatic annual raises based on length of service from 5% to 2˝% while extending the period they are granted to 20 years from 10.

In theory, someone hired by county government who performs his or her job satisfactorily moves by steps along a scale applied to the position. In practice, however, most people are hired at a point above the lowest step. The ordinance also would freeze so-called cost-of-living increases pending results of labor negotiations with the several unions now underway and scheduled for early in 2008. Non-union workers usually receive the same pay and benefits provided for in the union contracts. County workers received such a raise -- not actually pegged to the consumer price index -- on Apr. 1 and are not due to get another one until next April. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES: Barbara Muhammad, one of three candidates vying for the seat on the Brandywine school board that will be vacated by Craig Gilbert at the end of June, believes that teachers are underpaid for the work they do daily; Donald Soles advocates "some kind of voucher system" to assist parents in choosing the sort of education they believe best for their children; and Patricia Hearn wants to overhaul the "archaic way" in which public education is financed in Delaware. The trio discussed their views on a wide range of topics on May 2 at their only joint appearance before the election on May 8.

School board candidate Barbara Muhammad (right) makes a point during a joint appearance as the others seeking the position, Patricia Hearn (left) and Donald Soles (left center) wait their turn. Panel moderator Fran Freedman is seated between Soles and Muhammad.

Both Hearn and Soles are new to active involvement with the district while Muhammad served on the taskforce which developed its long-range strategic plan. Soles said he was inspired to seek the board seat after school and district officials allegedly were not sufficiently responsive to a bullying situation involving his son. Hearn said she wants to apply her experience working for the state Department of Children, Youth and Their Families. All three agreed that next to developing public support for an increased tax rate to finance district operations the most significant issue in Brandywine is implementation of tuition-free full-day kindergarten.

Last updated on May 30, 2007

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