February  12,  2008

Board will only decide
which schools to close

Which schools to close will be the only thing decided by the Brandywine school board when it votes to approve a space-consolidation plan for the district. Details of how the plan will be implemented -- especially defining attendance zones, relocating programs and arranging staffing -- will be left for the superintendent and his administration to determine.

"We're strictly voting on what schools to close. ... That is all we're doing," board president Joseph Brumskill said at the second of two public hearings on the proposed plan.

At this point it is all but certain that the board will accept superintendent Jim Scanlon's recommendation that Darley Road Elementary and Hanby Middle Schools be taken off line after the 2008-09 academic year. An alternate proposal would also close Carrcroft Elementary, but it appears clear that that idea is dead in the water.

State representative Gregory Lavelle urged the board to agree to the two-school option. His was the first public comment by a major official concerning the matter. In devising that plan, "you've done what you're supposed to do," he said.

The board is scheduled to vote at its monthly business meeting on Feb. 25.

Scanlon told attenders at the hearing on Feb. 11 that the "basic feeders are pretty much done," but will be open to "one last shot" after the board makes its decision. He said his intention is to announce the alignment in a general mailing to district residents in March, allow a month for the public to submit comments -- "in case we've missed anything" in the way of anticipating the effects on specific neighborhoods -- and issue the final version in May.

It is also planned that the district website will be able to be used to determine by specific address to which schools a child will be assigned. Maps defining the proposed zones are posted on the website.

During formulation of the plan and discussion about it, the terms 'feeder' and 'feeder pattern' have been used interchangeably when referring both to the progression of students from the elementary through the middle to the high school level and to attendance zones.

Objections arising from the apparent effect of changes from the present zones -- which have been in effect since the district was established in the early 1980s -- on specific neighborhoods were the most frequently voiced comments at the hearings. Alapocas and the Weldin Road area in southwestern Brandywine Hundred and the Stockdale and Governor Printz Boulevard area of Claymont were among adversely affected locales cited.

The only major change to maps of the zones previously presented at the hearings and information meetings and posted on the district website is the likelihood of retaining the present high school zones. Scanlon said that is not a problem because the three high schools will remain open. Brumskill previously had objected because redrawn attendance zones would have limited students residing in Wilmington to Brandywine and Mount Pleasant High. Scanlon said that the present arrangement has more Wilmington students going to Concord High than to either of the other two.

Defining attendance zones more than a year in advance, he said, is intended, among other things, to facilitate use of the state's public school choice law if attending a different school is desired.

Also, he said, choice was one of the key considerations which drove his recommendation to close just two schools. Although he said there would be sufficient physical space to accommodate assigned students if three schools were closed, that would eliminate seats available for 'choiced' students. At present, there are 1,700 students who live in the district and 315 who live in other districts taking that route. Those coming from outside the district generate about $500,000 for the revenue side of the Brandywine operating budget, he said.

"It is not just me doing this," Scanlon said. There were "dozens of people" who contributed to development of the consolidation plan, the process was fully open to public view at every step along the way, and board members were kept fully informed, he added.

Only four of the seven board members attended the second public haring. They were Brumskill, vice president Debra Heffernan, Mark Huxsoll and Olivia Johnson-Harris. Absent were Patricia Hearn, Aletha Ramseur and Sandra Skelly. All but Brumskill were present for the first hearing.

Ian Smith, president of the Ashbourne Hills Civic Association, lavishly complemented Scanlon and the committees that worked on the plan. While "we're still not happy" that Darley Road Elementary, which serves that community, will be closed, he said he recognized that considerable work and volunteer-service hours went into developing a "plan that is reasonable."

"It's not anything anybody at this table wants to do, but it's something that has to be done," Huxoll said. He said that he was unable to find any public school district in Pennsylvania or New Jersey with 10,000 students -- an enrollment comparable to Brandywine's -- which operates 19 schools, which Brandywine does if the P.S. du Pont kindergarten and Bush Early Education Center are included. The average, he said, is 12 or 13.

The board "voted with our hearts, not our heads" when it bowed to public pressure in 2004 and rejected a plan which would have closed Hanby and Brandywood Elementary, Huxoll, who was a member of the board then, said.

The board's expected decision this time "is being made based on what's best for the students," Scanlon said. It is intended "to make sure we have the dollars to continue running our programs."

The superintendent said that the expected increase in Brandywine Hundred's school-age population as a result of the Renaissance Village redevelopment project in Claymont will add about 600 students to district enrollment. That, he said, would only offset the decline in enrollment projected by the University of Delaware as a result of the general demographics of northern New Castle County during the six or seven years it is expected to take to build the new community. Capacity data underlying the consolidation plan is based on current enrollment.

He said the reported recommendation of the state government-established Wilmington Education Taskforce to divide the city between the Brandywine and Red Clay districts in place of the present four-district division will not impact Brandywine's decision to close schools.

"I don't think it's going to happen any too soon -- if at all," he said with reference to the recommendation. "If it does come to fruition, we will have to deal with it." He pointed out that if the east side of the city were added to Brandywine's jurisdiction, the schools located there would come too.

Scanlon and Brumskill are members of the taskforce. Both reportedly voted against the recommendation.

Scanlon said he probably will determine by next autumn who the principals of the remaining schools will be. Because the state authorizes teacher positions based on enrollment, the district will have the same number whether or not schools are closed. There will be some loss of clerical and custodial positions, but he said he anticipates that normal attrition will handle that.

Recognizing that closures could disrupt some students' reasonable progression, he said he will do what he can to 'grandfather' them in their present assignments. It appears, however, that nothing can be done for present third-graders who face the prospect of moving to an intermediate school next academic year, back to an elementary school the following year and then to a middle school.

Transition teams are being set up to ease the process of moving to the new arrangement.

A significant change which appears to have been almost unanimously accepted by the public  is substituting a three-tier grade alignment for the present four-tier alignment. Elementary school will run from kindergarten through fifth grade, middle school from sixth through eighth and high school will remain from ninth through 12th. The four-tier system was imposed under the desegregation plan ordered by federal court in the late 1970s. The other three affected districts have already changed their alignments.

He said he does not anticipate difficulty in assigning teachers to or recruiting new teachers for schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families. "We don't have any problems staffing them now," he said. Under the two-closure plan, Harlan Elementary would have the highest portion, 56%, and Claymont Middle would be second with 45%.

Scanlon said there necessarily has been a compromise in the proposed plan as a result of competing priorities to maintain economic diversity of students in every school while assigning as many as possible to schools closest to their homes. He said diversity based on the proportion of students receiving government-subsidized lunches is not the sole determinant of academic performance.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: School closings could delay tax referendum

Access Brandywine School Districts space-consolidation webpage

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