August  16,  2007

Schools budget provides
financial breathing room

The Brandywine school board will most likely approve a $130.3 million preliminary budget for this fiscal year, up 9% over what the district spent last year. The vote, expected at its monthly business meeting on Aug. 20, will complete restoration of a more comfortable financial footing after more than two years of coping with tight margins.

The budget projects ending the year next June 30 with a slightly more than $7 million carryover, which is substantially higher than the $2.1 million with which it began this year. The end-of-year carryover is intended to meet payroll and other obligations during the summer months.

The budget carries a $123.3 million spending plan, a 5% increase over $117.4 million spent in fiscal 2007.

Included in the $5.9 million increase will be $1.3 million earmarked to begin implementing the five-year strategic plan the board approved early this calendar year. "All of the initiatives from the recent referenda are included in the budget," its executive summary declares.

Major ones and their budgeted amounts are: technology upgrades, $500,000; expanding Brandywine Community School for disruptive students, $300,000; professional development for non-certified employees, $144,000; and extra-time instruction, $120,000.

There is a 1.8% proposed increase in salaries and other employment costs -- the largest single spending category -- to $98 million from $96.3 million.

The district currently is negotiating a new contract with its teachers' union. In keeping with past practice, there is a tight lid of secrecy on the talks. The first information the public will receive proably will come only after the agreement is signed and ratified in immutable form by both union members and the school board. The deal cut with teachers provides the basis for other employees' salaries and benefits. Administrators' compensation for this year, for instance, will be set, retroactively to July 1, after the teachers' contract becomes final.

Also included, the executive summary said, is the promised reduction of $600,000 in spending to be accomplished by elimination of 16 positions -- a supervisor, a specialist, a member of the technology staff and 13 teaching positions. That is being done through normal attrition without anyone having lost his or her job, according to chief financial officer David Blowman. Everyone laid off after voters rejected a proposed property-tax increase at the first of two referendums were recalled after a smaller increase was approved at the second one, he said.

The district has the option to choose from which programs to cut about $593,000 in state financing. Formerly referred to as a 'giveback', that line item is now being called 'mandated state budget cuts'.

Not included in the spending plan is $6.9 million of federal funds, which are mostly used to finance specific programs. "There is no growth nor significant reduction in federal money" provided to the district, Blowman said.

The previously approved $1.6925 property-tax rate applied to each $100 of assessed property value will yield an estimated $56.5 million. The preliminary budget document does not include a comparison with last year, but using the estimate in the final fiscal 2007 budget document indicates a 15.8% increase over $48.8 million.

The budget is to be preliminary because the exact amount of state support will not be known until after the official enrollment count at the end of September. State money accounts for more than half of the district's revenues.

Blowman revealed at a meeting of the district's financial advisory committee on Aug. 15 that the district administration is looking to enroll 311 fewer students this academic year than it did last year. That would bring total enrollment down to 10,095.

Blowman said several factors account for the continuing decline. They include the demographics -- smaller families and an aging population -- of Brandywine Hundred; additional grades in charter schools which opened last year; excluding Brandywine High and Hanby Middle Schools from being available to families using school-choice; and some confusion about what the district is offering in its kindergarten program.

The largest projected decline -- 112 children -- is in kindergarten registrations. Brandywine had planned to initiate tuition-free full-day kindergarten in September, but the start was pushed back until September, 2008, following defeat of the tax proposal at the first referendum. The district will continue this year to provide some full-day kindergarten classes for which it charges.

Among schools, P.S. du Pont Intermediate accounts for the largest expected enrollment decline, 151 students. That school will be housed this year in the high-rise Burnett building while its historic building in north Wilmington is renovated. Also, P.S. parents are entitled under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to transfer out because P.S. has been on 'academic watch' for five years. Hanby has the second-largest expected decline, 106 students.

The anticipated top gainer of students is Maple Lane Elementary, which is expected to pick up 75. That school operates on a year-around 'balanced calendar' with classes having restarted at the beginning of August. It also is adding a fifth grade this year. Talley Middle, which is returning to its renovated building after a year's stay at Burnett, is expected to have 60 more students this year than last.

On a year-to-year basis, the expected enrollment decline is second only to 365 students 'lost' in 2001-02. Brandywine has 'lost' 1,350 students since the 1998-99 school year. That trend underlies a commitment to close one or more schools before the start of the 2008-09 academic year. As Delaforum previously reported, the process of determining which ones will be closed is getting underway with the formation of an advisory panel.

If the 2007-08 district estimate proves to be correct, it will translate into 15 fewer state-authorized and -supported positions, bringing the total down to 638. Those include both teaching a support positions.

Enrollment also determines the amount of state support received for other things, such as energy costs. Blowman pointed out that the Colonial district, which has approximately the same number of students as Brandywine, receives about the same amount of energy allowance although it has four fewer buildings to heat and light.

The preliminary budget calls for the district to have a 1,441-person workforce with the equivalent of 53 financed by local money. Blowman said that not all of that is from tax revenue; fees and other sources provide some of it. He agreed to comply with a request by the committee to include a specific accounting of that financing in the final budget document.

After receiving a page-by-page review of a draft of the 77-page preliminary budget document by Blowman, the advisory committee unanimously approved its submission to the board with only a few minor clarifying additions and some editing changes.

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