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February  26,  2008

Brandywine Board okays
two-schools closure plan

With an anticlimactic unanimous vote, the Brandywine Board of Education approved the first significant restructuring of the district since it was established 27 years ago by the General Assembly and state Board of Education. 

The vote, conducted in near-routine fashion, came as no surprise two hours into the board's regular monthly business meeting on Feb. 25 when vice president Debra Heffernan offered and Patricia Hearn seconded a motion to accept the superintendent's recommendation that ...

Darley Road Elementary and Hanby Middle Schools be declared "no longer needed for district purposes as of July 1, 2009."

The superintendent determine whether the Hanby site, in Chalfonte, can be used as the location at which to build a new Brandywood Elementary or, if not, start the process to return the site to the state government "with a recommendation for [its] use as open space, athletic fields or parkland."

The superintendent begin a process seeking to lease the Darley Road site, opposite Ashbourne Hills, "for educational purposes with some benefit for students of the district" or, if that cannot be done, comply with a deed restriction that it be sold back to Denver-based Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp. The company, which then owned what is now the Claymont Steel plant, sold it to the former Claymont district in 1957 while retaining a first option to buy it back for $1,400 an acre.

The superintendent do what is necessary to convert the grade configuration of the remaining nine elementary schools to kindergarten through fifth grade and of the three middle schools to sixth through eighth grade. Except for Maple Lane Elementary, which added a fifth grade this academic year and will add a sixth grade next year, Brandywine's elementary schools run through third grade and there are three intermediate schools with fourth, fifth and sixth grades. As part of the accepted closure plan, P.S. du Pont, now one of the intermediate schools, will replace Hanby as a middle school; Claymont and Harlan Intermediate will become elementary schools. Maple Lane will revert to kindergarten-through-fifth grade under the new alignment.

Superintendent Jim Scanlon told the board that the projected $1.6 million in annual operating costs to be saved by closing Darley Road and Hanby, plus $500,000 as the result of the previous decision to close the buildings housing the Bush Early Learning Center and the district's administrative offices, will be more than offset during the first year by an estimated $1 million in moving costs and $1.6 million to retrofit some buildings. He emphasized, however, that those are one-time expenses while the savings will continue each subsequent year.

Scanlon also said he expects between 70% and 80% of the staff to end up with changed assignments "to make all this happen." Planning and transition is to occur over the course of the next 16 to 18 months.

While closing schools has been the dominant element attracting public attention as a space consolidation plan to reduce excess student capacity in the district has been taking shape during the past five months, changing to a three-tier grade configuration from four tiers represents a basic change in how the district operates.

Darley Road Elementary

  Hanby Middle

The four-tier configuration was imposed by federal court in 1978 to achieve racial desegregation in public schools in northern Delaware. It provided that at least three years of a child's education would take place in Wilmington. When court control was lifted and the General Assembly enacted the state Neighborhood Schools Act, Brandywine alone among the four northern districts, opted to retain the status quo. That decision was strongly advocated by the district's previous administration and the school board, and received overwhelming support when put before the community in a formal, albeit non-binding, plebiscite.

An alternative school closure plan, which would also have included Carrcroft Elementary, was not put before the board.

During a brief discussion before their voice vote, three of the six board members present for the meeting raised related points. Aletha Ramseur did not attend the meeting.

Board president Joseph Brumskill, who read from a prepared statement, offered the most pointed comments. Paraphrasing U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, he said Jan. 7 was "a day of infamy for the Brandywine School District." That was the evening that the volunteer space-consolidation committee submitted its recommendations to the board.

Brumskill said the recommendations "raised the ugly hand of racism, elitism, economic class, misinformation and misunderstanding." That reference evidently was to some comments raised publicly and privately concerning attendance zones for the remaining schools.

But Brumskill also said that "the community [has] accepted the need to close schools at this time." He said that was the result of "the loss of student population and growth of the senior population" since the board in 2004 rejected a plan that would have closed Hanby and Brandywood.

Heffernan said she would like to see attendance zones drawn in a way that will more evenly distribute students from low-income households eligible to receive government-subsidized lunches among the schools. That is now the accepted standard for measuring 'economic diversity'.

The board was not asked to decide on the zones -- also referred to as 'feeder patterns' -- at this time. Scanlon said final refinements will be made to proposed zones and parents will be notified individually in March to which schools their children would be assigned in order "to get input" before a final determination of the zones is made and put before the board.

Sandra Skelley said she was concerned that Dwyer Field, a seven-diamond youth baseball facility on the Darley Road property maintained and used by Claymont Little League, remain available. Scanlon told her that it will "as long as we own that property."

Jennie Moore, a parent and active volunteer at Darley Road, was the only member of the public to speak at the meeting. She praised the staff at that school and said the decision to close it reflected the district's "lack of concern for Claymont." Scanlon disputed that, saying that "we are very concerned about all our children."

"Voting to close schools by no means means we don't value children, schools staffs and parents," Hearn said.

Other attenders who availed themselves of the public comment session raised objections to the plan to institute 'block scheduling' -- use of 90-minute class periods instead of 45-minute periods -- at Brandywine High. That is one of the provisions being offered to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law requirement that Brandywine revamp its program to improve the academic performance of some student groups to come out from under sanctions.

Judy Curtis, director of elementary education and administrative services, presented a general summary of steps proposed not only for Brandywine High but also P.S. and Talley Middle. Final recommendations are  to go to the board for approval at its March meeting. Heffernan questioned whether that allowed sufficient time for the board to give due consideration to the plans and still meet an Apr. 1 deadline for their submission to the state Department of Education. Curtis said it did.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: Fate of school sites to be an open process

Read the school district's statement on the schools closure decision

Access the Brandywine School District's space consolidation website

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