June  24,  2008

School board accepts attendance
plan and approves a 5% tax hike

Apparently putting the divisive controversy over where children will go after it closes two of its schools, the Brandywine district administration and board of education turned attention to the next hurdle -- what to do with the properties where the buildings to be closed now sit.

The board, as expected, voted to accept the most recent version of attendance zones for the nine elementary and three middle schools that will operate, beginning in August, 2009, after conversion from a four-tier to a three-tier grade alignment. The vote was unanimous. High school attendance zones will not change.

At its meeting on June 23, the board also voted unanimously, without any discussion, for a 5% increase in the district's property tax rate for the coming fiscal year. That vote was conditioned on the state General Assembly not including anything in the general fund or capital budgets that would affect Brandywine beyond what is now anticipated. The legislature will enact the budgets just before it wraps up its current session at the end of the month.

Superintendent Jim Scanlon told the board that he has received inquiries from several public and nonprofit organizations interested in the Darley Road Elementary, Hanby Middle and the district office  properties, opposite Ashbourne Hills, in Chalfonte and in Radnor Green, respectively.

One, he said, came from a developer, but he added that "we are trying to avoid" having any of the properties residentially or commercially developed.

The preference for the 17-acre Hanby site, he said, is to obtain state authorization of raze the existing building and construct a new Brandywood Elementary instead of replacing it at its current location a quarter mile away in Brandywood. Scanlon said the administration is talking with state legislators in an effort to bring that about. If so, it would like the Brandywood site to become a public park.

Interest in the Darley Road site, he said, has come from several groups, including the Delaware National Guard, the Boys and Girls Club, Odyssey Charter School and Wilmington University. That property carries a deed restriction which requires it to be used for educational purposes or be offered at what is now a ridiculously low price to Colorado Fuel & Iron, the company which sold it to the former Claymont district.

The three properties are "technically owned by the state [government]," he said, and it is not certain exactly what say the Brandywine district would have if any or all are declared surplus to its needs. "There's a lot of talk in Dover ... about use of the buildings," he said.

On the other hand, the board evidently has the authority to lease them. The bottom line, Scanlon said is that the district will do all it can "so we do not have any buildings sitting empty."

The superintendent said he has an almost-certain answer to what he termed "the second most frequently asked question" posed by interested members of the public. "Unless something drastic happens between now and [June 30], we will definitely have full-day kindergarten" in the coming academic year, he said. State money to support that apparently has survived budget cuts brought about by state government's fiscal problem.

The unanimous vote on the attendance zones was almost anticlimactic. Board member Mark Huxsoll hesitated several seconds before casting a 'yes' voice vote and added "but reluctantly."

Sandra Skelly did not attend the meeting.

During conversation before the vote was taken, Huxsoll said, with reference to Harlan Elementary and P.S. du Pont Middle, which are located in Wilmington, that he was concerned that the district is "really going to make sure they're attractive schools for everybody." Those schools are expected to have the highest proportion of students eligible to receive government-subsidized lunches but, with the latest revision of attendance zones, that falls short of the 50% threshold defining 'high-poverty' schools.

When she offered the resolution accepting the superintendent's attendance-zone recommendation, board vice president Debra Heffernan added a last-minute proviso that there be "a comprehensive review" of schools' performance after the 2010-11 academic year, the second under the new arrangement. Her intent, she said, was "to make sure we have success and achievement in all [district] schools."

With an apparent intent to make the city schools attractive to suburban parents, the plan for locating special programs calls for a fourth  International Baccalaureate program to be offered at  P.S. and for the program for academically 'gifted' students, which now runs through sixth grade, to be extended to P.S.'s seventh and eighth grades.

Scanlon said that a task related to space consolidation is adapting the district's school-choice arrangement to the new alignment. That, he said, has to be accomplished during the coming autumn. State law requires 'choice' applications to be filed by January.

Patricia Hearn again questioned the need to have present third-graders change schools in three consecutive years. They are slated to go to fourth grade in an intermediate school during the coming year, back to fifth grade in an elementary school the year the new arrangement begins and then on to a middle school the following year.

Scanlon pointed out that postponing the changes would only shift that requirement to present second-graders. But, he said, the administration is looking into the possibility of having P.S. and Claymont, both of which have room, housing fifth grades during the first year after they converted from intermediate to middle schools.

Board president Joseph Brumskill, who was outspoken during public discussions leading up to the vote in calling for much 'economic diversity' throughout the district as possible, indicated that he accepted the latest revision. "There may have to be changes as we go down the road, but that comes with life," he said.

However, he added, "contrary to the beliefs of some people in the district ... together we -- the community, the administration and the staff -- can make it work."

Althea Ramseur, who, like Skelly, is completing her term on the board this month, said she intends to be active in an effort to increase parental support of their children's education. "People choose to live in this area because of the strength of this district. ... I tell them [to] have faith in the district that you chose [and] and give it (the new arrangement) a chance to work," she said.

Scanlon called determining the attendance zones "a very difficult task" that could not have been accomplished without many people devoting literally "thousands of hours" to the effort.

"We've been balancing conflicting priorities -- getting kids close to home and [maintaining] economic balance," he said. "All the decisions have been sound. ... The kids will be all right with it -- and so will their parents."

The tax rate for the coming year was set at  $1.7785 for each $100 of assessed property value, up from the present $1.6925. County government collects the school tax on behalf of the school districts along with its property tax. The taxes are due Sept. 30.

Chief financial officer David Blowman said the new rate reflects a 5 increase in the tuition tax, which finances services for children with severe special needs and 4 more for debt service, partly offset by four-tenth of a cent reduction in the local operating rate as the result of completing renovation of athletic facilities.

At 22.2, the tuition rate, he said, will be the lowest of any district in New Castle County. The next lowest is 31. Tuition tax is not subject to referendum. This is the next to last year that the cost of servicing the bond debt incurred to finance school renovations will increase. Beyond that, it will gradually go down as the bonds are retired.

Under the new rate, the tax on a typical house, assessed as $70,000, will be $1,245, up from $1,185 this year.

As a precaution against the Assembly doing anything that would require change, the board has formally scheduled a special 'if needed' meeting for June 30.

In another matter at the June 23 meeting, the board approved an across-the-board 2.5% pay raise for secretaries and a 2% increase in the district's share of salaries for administrators and specialists.

It also approved amendments to the student code of conduct which include a provision for 'peer courts' in each of the three high schools. As Delaforum previously, reported that will enable students who commit and admit first offenses which might land them in court to avoid that by agreeing to accept punishments determined by other students based on circumstances of the incident.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Brandywine appears to have worked out attendance zones

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