September  5,  2007

Brandywine initiates
school-closing process

Mention closing schools and you're certain to draw a crowd. Brandywine superintendent Jim Scanlon has been talking about that for several weeks and, sure enough, about 85 district residents and staff members turned out for the first in a series of meetings planned to determine which ones will be targeted.

Scanlon told them that the school board will make a final decision in February or March of 2008, but actual closure will not happen until September, 2009, a year later than previously discussed. Time is needed for orderly planning and closing in 2008 would be "unfair," he said.

More to the point, he narrowed the field of likely closure candidates by declaring that no building that has been renovated since 2000 should be on the list. Carrcroft, Darley Road and Maple Lane Elementary and Brandywine and Mount Pleasant High were renovated in the 1990s. Brandywood and Lancashire Elementary and  Hanby and Springer Middle have not yet taken their turn in the third and final phase of the district renovation program, but architectural and engineering contracts have been let for the Lancashire and Springer projects.

Scanlon also set a goal of reducing excess districtwide capacity "by at least 50%" and said changing the district's four-tier grade configuration is an option. But, he added, maintaining "economic diversity" -- defined as no fewer than 20% nor more than 50% of the students in any school receiving free or reduced-price lunches -- is a requirement when drawing new attendance zones.

The meeting on Sept. 4 was called to form a volunteer committee of  people who have expressed interest in helping to formulate the closure plan. It was referred to both as the School Consolidation Committee and the Space Consolidation Committee.

Scanlon said preliminary work will be done by two subcommittees -- one to address "educational best practices" and the other facilities and sites. He said they would have eight and 12 members, respectively, but later said he had no problem with accepting a suggestion by a couple of attenders that they have at least 16 to provide broader community representation. He said they will not be "top-heavy" with district employees.

Those at the meeting interested in serving on either of the subcommittees were asked to list their names. The district administration will appoint the members. Their meetings will be announced and open to the public as will those of the full assemblage, Scanlon said. "We want this to be an open process."

"We're about to begin a really crucial journey for this community and its children," he added.

Board president Joseph Brumskill echoed the superintendent, calling arriving at the closure decision "one of the most important undertakings this district has ever taken." He added that it is not just a matter for the school board to decide but requires extensive "community input."

Scanlon said that on the meeting date the district had 10,368 students on its rolls, down from an official count of 10,406 last year but considerably higher than the 10,095 projected when the board recently approved the preliminary fiscal 2008 budget.

Districtwide capacity is rated by the district at 13,084 while the Delaware Department of Education formula puts it at slightly more than 14,000. The district figure is based on the number of students who can be reasonably accommodated in its instructional programs. The DelDOE figure, Scanlon said, unrealistically assumes "we use every classroom every period."

A University of Delaware projection foresees a continued decline in enrollment -- to 9,700 in 2014, Scanlon said. An aging population in the Brandywine district's geographical area and a shift southward in the county and the state of younger families with school-age children are responsible, he explained.

On the other hand, relatively low taxes and other factors make northern New Castle County "attractive to senior citizens not likely to vote increases in taxes to [finance] schools," Scanlon said. "It is cost effective and educationally sound to close schools."

In response to questions from and points raised by attenders, Scanlon said:

Class sizes are not likely to grow as a result of having fewer schools. Existing programs also will be maintained "although they may be [provided] in a different place.

The number of teaching jobs will not be affected as they are based on overall enrollment; normal attrition is expected to take care of secretarial, custodial and other staff positions eliminated by closing buildings.

Enrollment projections take into account the coming of full-day tuition-free kindergarten and assume a continuation of the two-to-one ratio of students choicing into and out of Brandywine.

Closure of Bush Early Learning Center and the central office building in Radnor Green are already givens for the plan to be adopted and the Burnett high-rise building in north Wilmington "will not be a school building anymore" after it no longer is required as a 'holding school' for schools being renovated.

Constructing a new building to replace the Lancashire building -- and possibly one to replace Brandywood -- is economically justifiable as one-time expenses while school closure addresses continuing operating costs.

School closure will have no bearing on restructuring plans being prepared for Brandywine High, Talley Middle and P.S. du Pont Intermediate in response to their federal No Child Left Behind Act ratings.

Use or disposal of the sites of closed schools will be determined by state law and regulations within which the school district has little discretion.

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