March 18, 2007

Two questions will be on the
Brandywine referendum ballot

Brandywine School District residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on a couple of issues when they go to the polls at the Apr. 24 tax referendum.

While formally authorizing the referendum at a recent meeting, the school board decided to split the ballot and present two questions to the voters. They will be asked to decide separately on a request to pay for a significantly higher level of spending for building maintenance. Meeting other operating-cost increases, financing the new five-year strategic plan and "restoring the financial health of the district" will be lumped into the other tax-increase authorization being sought.

As previously reported, a favorable vote on both questions will result in an increase of 38.2 for each $100 of assessed property value in the ceiling on the local portion of the tax rate to finance general operating costs. The board agreed to impose 36.2 of the increase in the coming fiscal year and go to the full amount in each of the four subsequent fiscal years. According to the Department of Elections for New Castle County, the actual wording of the ballot questions, including how the rate-increase authorization would be apportioned, has not yet been determined.

Voter approval of the component of the overall increase earmarked for the strategic plan apparently will be considered as fulfilling the approval process required by state law to implement a tax-financed full-day kindergarten program. An item posted on the district's website said the program will begin at the start of the 2007-08 academic year "if the referendum is passed [sic]."

The local portion of Brandywine's operating tax rate currently is 51.4, the ceiling authorized at referendum in 2002. The total tax rate is $1.4925. The tax on a residential property assessed for $68,700 -- which the district said is the average assessment -- is now $1,025. A 38.2 rate increase would take that to $1,288.

That figure, however, is an approximation because the total rate contains several components. In Brandywine, a temporary tax to finance improvements to athletic fields and playgrounds is scheduled to be reduced in the coming year while the tax to finance debt service on bonds sold to finance school renovations will likely rise. The school board will set the actual rate when it approves a tentative fiscal 2008 budget in late June.

Senior citizens pay half of the first $1,000 of their tax bill under a state-financed arrangement. The board asked superintendent James Scanlon to look into the possibility of the district providing some additional tax relief for seniors with low incomes.

Scanlon told the board at its meeting on Mar. 12 that the two-cents lower tax rate for all property owners in the coming fiscal year will be possible because the number of proposed new locally-financed positions has been reduced from 12 to three. "Reallocating" present job slots will provide for academic deans in each of the three high schools and six "instructional support" people. Still needed, he said, will be three social workers to supplement the present two.

He also said that planned closure of the district headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Radnor Green will be advanced to the coming fiscal year, resulting in saving at least $77,000 a year in energy and other operating costs. He did not give any details about where the offices will be relocated. At the time of the capital referendum in 2005, it was said that most of the administrative offices would move to the Mount Pleasant Elementary School building near Bellefonte. The high-rise Burnett building in north Wilmington also was mentioned as a potential venue for some.

Chief financial officer David Blowman told the board that the referendum proposal he prepared, the district's financial advisory committee endorsed and the board essentially approved was based on several "balanced assumptions." The key ones were that there would be 4% annual growth in salaries, employee benefits and operating costs, including energy, during the next five years. The board has indicated it will not hold another tax referendum during that time.

He said restoration of the district's annual carryover balances "is absolutely essential," but added that, even if it is forthcoming, "we will have to continue to focus very hard on cost containment." Not going beyond raising sufficient revenue to meet needs is important, he said, because "there's a limit on what we can request of our community."

Board vice president Nancy Doorey drew upon the precedent set in 2005 by seeking and obtaining voter authorization of a temporary tax to finance the $1 million upgrade of athletic facilities and playgrounds in moving for separate consideration this time of the building-maintenance component of the strategic plan. She described that part of the overall tax increase as "protecting our investment" in the renovated school buildings.

Brandywine is currently spending the equivalent of 65 a square foot to maintain its buildings, Scanlon said. The strategic plan calls for Brandywine to up its spending to $1.85 per square foot.

 "That's pretty darn dramatic," Doorey said, adding that the district "owes it to our community" to seek separate approval for an increase of that magnitude. In addition, doing so "will raise public awareness about the issue."

She laid the problem squarely in the lap of state government, saying that matching funds for minor capital expenditures have lagged significantly. The state is now paying 42% of the cost, down from 58% five years ago. If Brandywine's strategic plan holds and the state formula remains unchanged, the subsidy will be 15%, she said.

Blowman said that the dollar amount of the state's support, with no adjustment for inflation, is 12% lower than what it was in 2001. "Maintenance costs certainly have not declined by 12%," he said.

Doorey's proposal drew strong opposition from board member Joseph Brumskill, who said breaking up a single proposal "is a sure way to open a can of worms." He said two ballot questions with different pricetags run the risk of being misinterpreted by average voters as a choice between alternatives. He said it also provides "the naysayers [with] an opportunity to say we're asking too much" with the overall proposal.

Although Brumskill said his "concern is that we get this [approved] as a package," he technically voted against holding a referendum when he ended up on the short side of a six-to-one vote approving an enabling resolution which provided for presenting separate questions.

On the other hand, board members seemed to agree that the district holds a trump card in presenting full-day kindergarten as a significant element of the referendum.

Brandywine has offered tuition-supported full-day sessions as an option since 2002. Currently, 62% of 635 kindergarten children are enrolled with every elementary school participating. Participation has increased from 39% in the 2004-05 academic year, according to district spokesman Robert Ziegler. The tuition is $3,600 a year, with partial or total assistance provided to low-income families.

According to the current issue of Brandywine Review, the district's periodical, there would be no tuition charged to participate in the state-supported program. A half-day option would be available in some schools.

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