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May  6,  2008

Brandywine board asks for
greater student diversity

Claiming that attendance zones proposed for the reconfigured school district will not provide sufficient student diversity, the Brandywine school board directed superintendent Jim Scanlon to revise some of the alignments before presenting a final plan for board approval.

Objections ostensively focused on significantly higher-than-average proportions of students from low-income households eligible for government-subsidized lunches who would be assigned to Harlan Elementary and P.S. du Pont Middle in Wilmington.

Board president Joseph Brumskill, however, said the underlying issue is race. "Are we delving into the quality of [a school] or what is the color of children's skins?" he said.

In another matter before a combined business meeting and workshop session on May 5, Scanlon said the recent agreement by Governor Ruth Ann Minner and the General Assembly to limit the extent of state budget cuts to be borne by the Department of Education and public schools has eased the pressure on Brandywine.

The district now estimates that it will 'lose' about $1.3 million in state financing, compared to more than $6 million that would have resulted from having to go along with an 8% across-the-board reduction. But, he pointed out, that will require "still somewhat significant cuts."

After Scanlon summarized comments received as a result of having sent parents and guardians notices listing which schools their children would attend under the tentative plan put forth when the board approved changing to a three-tier alignment of classes and closing two schools, Brumskill sparked the diversity discussion by declaring that he was "terribly concerned that free and reduced [-price] lunch [eligibility] in every school is not in balance."

The zones as they now stand, he said, would "overburden" the two schools located in the city.

Aletha Ramseur said the district's announced priorities to maintain diversity and to assign students to the school closest to their homes were incompatible to the extent that many people tend to falsely equate low income with low student achievement. Nevertheless, she said, the 'acceptable range' of 20% to 50% of low-income students is too broad.

Debra Heffernan questioned whether the range had initially been set at 20% to 40% and said that would be more acceptable. Scanlon said the committees that produced the space-consolidation plan had used the broader range as a guide since they were established last summer.

Scanlon said he recognized that Harlan's anticipated 53% of low-income students exceeded the limit and that he intended to modify the plan to rectify that.

At that point in the discussion, Brumskill segued from economics to race as the issue.

He said approving attendance zones as they now stand would not prepare children to live and function in a world where there are a variety of races and ethnicities.

"We didn't do it in 1978 and we didn't do it in 1954. As long as I can help, I'm going to try to make it work," he said. The dates refer, respectively, to when federal court ordered racial desegregation of schools in northern Delaware and to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down state and local laws mandating segregated schools.

Brumskill, who is black, said earlier in the meeting that, in the public's reaction to which schools their children attend, "emotion overrides and, in some cases, beats out logic."

Olivia Johnson-Harris joined her colleagues on the board in directing Scanlon to produce a plan with a greater amount of diversity. Board members Patricia Hearn, Mark Huxsoll and Sandra Skelly did not attend the meeting.

Only a dozen members of the general public came to the meeting. Six of them commented on the plan as it affects specific schools.

"I don't know how we can do that without making significant changes," Scanlon said. "We already have [put] a considerable amount of work into this."

He did not, however, reject the direction. He did say that making major changes most likely would push back a timetable which calls for the board to approve the attendance zones at its June 22 meeting.

Brumskill suggested that drawing an attendance boundary along Marsh and Edgemoor Roads and "giving some city children to Carrcroft and Lombardy [Elementary]" could result in more equitable distributions.

Although the Brandywine board very seldom rejects an administration recommendation, Brumskill closed the meeting by remarking, "Tonight's conversation is something that had to happen."

Scanlon earlier told the meeting that the lesser budget cuts probably can be accomplished without having to lay off any classroom teachers. He explained that, with expected retirements, attrition will be sufficient. State government finances about 70% of teachers' salaries.

He also said it does not presently appear necessary to postpone initiation of a full-day kindergarten program for the coming academic year.

At the business meeting, the board approved a preliminary plan for a new Lancashire Elementary. It calls for a two-story brick building, with a one-story section hosing the gymnasium and cafeteria,  to be erected on what is now the soccer field on the school's Naamans Road property.

The existing building will be used to house Brandywine Elementary while its building is replaced and then will be torn down.

Renovations manager John Read said the Lancashire building will have a traditional appearance. To come in within the approved $14.9 million budget, he said, it was necessary to "cut some gingerbread" out of the deign and to remove acquisitton of new furniture and playground equipment from the plan.

Construction is to begin with site preparation in June, he said.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: Brandywine Board okays two-schools closure plan

Read previous Delaforum article: Reaction led to reducing school budget cuts

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