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October 2007

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Aligning classes in three, rather than four, tiers moved a step closer in the Brandywine School district when one of the groups working to reduce excess capacity decided to recommend it.

The 'educational best practices' subcommittee reached a consensus decision to present that to the parallel 'facilities site' subcommittee as, by far, its first choice among four options. The break between elementary and middle school would occur after fifth grade. The other group is charged to determine if the options can be cost-effectively accommodated while cutting overcapacity at least in half by closing one or more schools. The second-choice option would be a two-tier system splitting after eighth grade. Runners-up would be keeping the present alignment, and dividing elementary and middle schools after sixth grade.

At a meeting on Oct. 30 the 'best practices' subcommittee also established as overall priorities when making any changes: retaining 'socioeconomic diversity' among students; keeping the three four-year high schools intact; aligning attendance zones in a way which permits all groups of students to move together from kindergarten through high school; and 'optimizing' the number of students in each grade level with a minimum of three classes per grade in elementary schools and an unspecified smaller number of students per grade in middle schools. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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STILL A WAYS OFF: Rehabilitation of the final segment of the major sewer line along Governor Printz Boulevard will be put out for bids in August, 2008, with completion of the project about two years after that, Jon Husband, a Department of Special Services manager, told a public meeting on the status of the  overhaul of the sanitary-sewer network in Brandywine Hundred. That means it will be at least 2010 before sewer capacity will be available for any major new development project in northernmost New Castle County. Existing capacity, however, will allow the phased development of Renaissance Village to proceed, he said.

Assistant county engineer David Hofer told the sparsely-attended meeting on Oct. 29 that between 20% and 25% of the network upgrade is either completed, being worked on or designed, but he said he was unable to be specific about how much of the work is actually finished. Biggest problem, he said, is catching up with about 4,000 of the approximately 24,000 houses in the hundred that have connections which put stormwater into sanitary sewers. He said a belief common in some quarters that existing ones have been 'grandfathered' is untrue. Such hook-ups "have never been legal" in the county, he said.

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LOTS OF READING GOING ON: There are nearly 287,000 active card-carrying patrons of the county library system who made 2.8 million visits to the libraries and borrowed more than 6 million books and other material in the fiscal year ended June 30. That, according to Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, is well on the high side of proportionate participation in any public library system in the nation. There are just over 500,000 county residents, but cards are also issued, for a fee, to non-residents. The total does not include cards issued by the Wilmington Institute library.

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Renaissance Village could take as long as 10 years to construct, but the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture hopes to cut that to somewhere between five and seven years.

Timing "depends on the market," Robert Ruggio, executive vice president of the Commonwealth Group, told the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee. In his first public report since County Council gave final approval in June to the plan to put 1,226 residential units and 41,704 square feet of commercial space on the 68-acre site of the former Brookview apartments complex, he said the project is proceeding on a to-be-expected pace. Environmental remediation has reached a stage where initial demolition could occur in mid-November, he said. Actual building of the first townhouses is now projected to begin in August, 2008.

Ruggio provided a five-phase 'build-out' plan at the committee meeting on Oct. 24. The first phase will be

The 'build-out' plan for Renaissance Village

 

the stormwater management area along Darley Road which also includes a set of 'sample' townhouses. He said the fate of the empty water tank towering over the project has not been determined.. It now holds four communications relay units. Promising to keep the community informed through representatives invited to bi-weekly project meetings, he emphasized that all work will continue to be done without impairing the health and welfare of children at Claymont Intermediate School and nearby residents. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

"This is a considerably large, complicated project that is going to go on for a considerable length of time," County Councilman John Cartier said.

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AIRPORT SUIT: County Council agreed to look into possible involvement in a suit to block implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to redesign approaches to Philadelphia International Airport, but stopped well short of what the three Arden municipalities requested. A substitute version of a resolution sponsored by Councilman John Cartier was passed by a 12-to-1 vote on Oct. 23 after reference to possibly making a $50,000 contribution to help finance the suit was dropped. It simply requested the county law department to "explore the necessary legalities, policies and procedures" associated with involvement.

Cartier pointed declined to seek testimony from county attorney Gregg Wilson after Amy Pollock, of Ardencroft, said county intervention would have to be determined before a Nov. 5 filing deadline. During an afternoon finance committee meeting Wilson participated in discussion of Cartier's resolution, but only after the committee voted to conduct that conversation in executive session behind closed doors. Before the floor vote Cartier said the large number of flights adversely affected quality of life and Robert Weiner said they contribute to the county's air-quality problem. Jea Street cast the negative vote on the resolution. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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ANSWERS AWAITED: County Councilman William Bell told Delaforum that he and council president Paul Clark have questioned Coons administration officials about police force manpower and expect a response soon in order to "decide what we're going to do." Specifically, he said, it is still hoped that a police academy class can begin training before its scheduled March start. In an apparently unrelated development, Ernest Frazier announced his resignation as director of public safety after 15 months in that position. He said he plans to offer consulting services on 'homeland security' to private and public-agency clients. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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TEACHER HONORED:  Courtney Fox, who teaches first grade in the 'gifted and talented' program at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, has been selected as the state 'teacher-of-the-year'. This is the fifth time in the past 11 years that a Brandywine School District teacher has received the honor. Brandywine has had more winners than any other district since the award was inaugurated in 1965, according to the state Department of Education. Fox has spent her entire career since graduating from the University of Delaware in 1998 employed by the district.

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The Brandywine school board unanimously approved proposed 'restructuring strategies' in the event that three schools do not come out from under federal sanctions this academic year.

Judy Curtis, director of elementary education and administrative services, told the board that "there is a different level of commitment" as the staffs at P.S. du Pont Intermediate, Talley Middle and Brandywine High work to improve test performance of groups of students who failed to make 'adequate yearly progress' under the No Child Left Behind law. Included in the effort, she said, are providing tutoring and extra instruction time. "What we're doing ... is what we should be doing anyway" even if mandated restructuring were not looming at the start of the 2008-09 academic year, she said at the board meeting on Oct. 22.

The approved option, identical for all three schools, provides for "restructuring of the school's governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms ... to improve student academic achievement in the school and that [have] substantial promise of enabling the school to make adequate yearly progress." The plans to be submitted to the state Department of Education include three more-specific options which the board was not asked to approve: conversion to a public charter school, replacing all or most of the 'relevant' school staff, and contracting with an outside "entity" to operate the school. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Also approved by the board were 'corrective action' proposals for Hanby Middle and Mount Pleasant High, which are under less-severe sanctions.

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REDESIGN POSSIBLE: Grade configurations in the Brandywine School District will not have to conform to present use of its buildings nor do they have to be uniform across the district, Superintendent Jim Scanlon told the subcommittee charged with recommending them. The primary guiding principle, he said at a meeting on Oct. 17, will be which combinations would be deemed best educationally. Cost-benefit analyses would determine whether the necessary retrofitting could be justified, he said. For example, "if the best scenario is K-6 (kindergarten through sixth grade), we could put on an addition," he said.

Committee member Scott Van Bramen advocated exploring the possibility of grouping kindergarten through eighth grade in one of the larger buildings. Michael Stetteer suggested that the once-common system of  elementary and secondary schools divided at the sixth- or seventh-grade level might work well given that the P.S. du Pont, Mount Pleasant and Claymont originally housed junior-senior high schools. Also under study by the subcommittee are retaining the present four-tier configuration or going to three tiers with the split between elementary and middle schools coming after either the fourth, fifth or sixth grade. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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PLANES SUIT DOWNPLAYED: Under the best-case scenario, the federal appeals court in Philadelphia could order the Federal Aviation Agency back to the drawing boards to come up with a new plan for redesigning New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia air space, according to county attorney Gregg Wilson. "It's not a case where a judge is going to move airplanes from one place to another," he said. While stopping short of recommending against joining in a suit aimed at blocking the present plan, he said county government will have "ample opportunity" to get involved if the court does not simply approve the present plan.

Councilman John Cartier said he intends to introduce a resolution requesting that the law department "explore" the ramifications of helping to finance a suit by the three Arden municipalities. Stephen Donato, a resident of Brandywine Hundred who has been active in the long-running campaign to reduce Philadelphia International Airport traffic over the area, asked for $50,000 of county money at a meeting of Council's land use committee on Oct. 16. Councilman Joseph Reda said the problem in Brandywine Hundred is no worse than what is caused by Air National Guard and business aviation flights at the county airport.

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County Council, with minimal discussion, enacted the controversial ordinance reducing the residential property tax exclusion for seniors and disabled persons by an eight-to-five vote.

"This does not go anywhere near where I think we have to go" to deal with what county officials have said is a pending fiscal crisis, Councilman George Smiley, who sponsored the measure, said at a finance committee meeting. But, he added, "there are no multi-million dollar ways to reduce our deficit or increase our budget." At Council's plenary session later in the day Council president Paul Clark said by far the larger property-tax burden affecting seniors is "the overwhelming cost of supporting schools." Although county government bills for school tax, it is levied by the school boards. County Council has no control over the rate.

Voting with Smiley and Clark on Oct. 9 in support of the measure were John Cartier, Penrose Hollins, Stephanie McClellan,  Joseph Reda, Jea Street and William Tansey. Casting opposing votes were William Bell, William Powers, Timothy Sheldon, David Tackett and Robert Weiner. In a separate action, Council unanimously approved an ordinance sponsored by Hollins which makes an otherwise qualified homeowner who is in arrears on tax and sewer fee payments but is paying off the debts in installments under an agreement with the county eligible for an exemption. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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HOMETOWN STATUS GRANTED: County Council unanimously approved measures conferring hometown zoning on an area along Kennett Pike in Centreville. James Smith, of the Department of Land Use, said owners of every affected property in the 59-acre 'overlay' area were invited to participate in an extensive planning process under the auspices of the Centreville Civic Association. Before Council voted, a provision in the accompanying 'village plan' to 'encourage' preservation of the interior designs of historic structures was deleted on the grounds it might be a deterrent to preservation of the structure itself.

Smith said no existing property rights would be affected and basic zoning of the properties would be unchanged. John Theilacker, of the Brandywine Conservancy, said hometown status will enable Centreville to "maintain and enhance its village character." In a separate action on Oct. 9, Council approved, also unanimously, historic zoning of eight-tenths of an acre on Center Meeting Road abutting the southeastern corner of the hometown zone. Mario Gangemi told Council that a building on that site will be modified for 'adaptive reuse' as attorneys' offices. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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NATIONAL RECOGNITION: Lancashire Elementary was one of three schools in the state and 287 in the nation designated to receive the U.S. Department of Education's 2007 'No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon' award. McVey and Wilson Elementary in the Christina district were the other Delaware schools honored. One of the most prestigious education awards in the country, it recognizes public and nonpublic schools where students achieve at high levels in standardized testing while making significant progress in closing the 'achievement gap' for children from 'disadvantaged backgrounds'.

In a press statement issued by the Brandywine district, Lancashire principal Peter Barry said, "The teachers and staff here are totally committed to creating an atmosphere of warmth and love, while having high expectations for every student.” He said test scores were improved "through a combination of a positive school climate based on mutual respect for all, with highly effective instruction designed to meet each student’s needs." Lancashire was one of nine Brandywine schools rated 'superior' this year under the federal law's criteria and ranked in the top three Brandywine elementary schools in state assessment testing scores. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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A series of sure-to-be-controversial ordinances to implement some of the significant changes in county land-use policy envisioned by the recently enacted comprehensive plan are being prepared.

"There are going to be more proposals to change land-use laws in the next six months than ever before. ... We're going to try to move things as much as we can," chief administrative officer Jeffrey Bullock told a meeting of 'umbrella' civic association officers. Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, said the department is finishing work on a proposed 'inclusionary housing' ordinance which Councilman Penrose Hollins intends to introduce. It will "force or provide incentives for developers to provide a broader range of housing prices," Baker said at the meeting on Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan has formed a committee to look at various 'smart-growth' options. At a recent by-invitation meeting a consultant hired by the land use department presented a draft of a 50-page ordinance providing for establishing such things as 'villages' and 'hamlets'. Also meeting, under the auspices of Councilman William Powers, is a committee exploring how to provide for transfer of development rights. Less further along are measures providing for small-business growth and other economic development that will fall under the purview of Councilman Robert Weiner. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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ENROLLMENT DROPS:  Brandywine School District's 'official' enrollment is about 10,215, down 2% from 10,406 last year, but well above the 10,095 estimated when the school board adopted a preliminary fiscal 2008 budget. Superintendent Jim Scanlon said the count at the end of September, by which the teacher authorization and other state financing is determined, may change slightly as the status of a few students is determined. He added, however, that the count is in line with long-term University of Delaware projections being used as the rationale for closing schools to reduce districtwide overcapacity.

At a meeting of the Space Consolidation Committee on Oct. 2, Scanlon read, without commenting, a letter from a district resident recommending that the district follow the precedent set when districts were merged under the 1978 desegregation order and target Spring Middle and Lancashire Elementary as the most likely closure candidates. Their locations on major roads makes them susceptible to commercial use as taxable and job-generating properties, he wrote. Delaforum informally counted seven former schools in what is now the Brandywine district that were sold for commercial or residential development. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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GOING ON LINE: Contractors who'll be required to obtain county licenses to do business after Jan. 1 will be able to file an application, pay the fee by credit card and print out the license under a first-of-its-kind system being set up by the Department of Land Use. Charles Baker, general manager of the department, told a County Council committee on Oct. 2 that it is anticipated that computer contact will become the norm for permitting and other administrative functions. The department already has an extensive website where it publishes an array of information which previously required an office visit to obtain.

Baker said that the department is expanding its inspector force to enforce the new licensing law which applies to an estimated 23,000 firms and individuals  involved in any construction-related activity. The only work not within its purview, he said, will be that done by do-it-yourselfers of friends helping out without pay. While most of the enforcement will be complaint-driven, code enforcement officers will stop by jobs they observe to verify that contractors and subcontractors are all licensed, Baker said. The county-license requirement is in addition to the sate business-license requirement, he added. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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When the yard waste dumping ban goes into effect in January, anyone who trims overhang from an adjoining property may pile the stuff on the neighbor's property. County Councilman George Smiley said the attorney general has ruled that would be legally returning property to its original owner.

Last updated on October 31, 2007

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