December  18,  2008

Disposing of Darley Road
site is not an easy choice

Brandywine School District faces a serious dilemma.

Ever since Delaware agreed by state law 13 years ago to participate in the charter school movement, successive district administrations and their concurrent school boards have staunchly resisted granting a charter or otherwise aiding what they have considered to be significant competition.

Now, Odyssey Charter, a young but apparently successful school, has come knocking -- not necessarily for a charter but to lease the district's soon-to-be-vacated Darley Road Elementary School property. Odyssey Charter is one of two applicants for the property. The other is the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware.

A deed restriction entered into when the former Claymont district acquired the property gives Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp. the right of first refusal to buy back the property, for what is now a ridiculously low amount, if it no longer is to be used for educational purposes. Colorado Fuel used to own what is now the Claymont Steel factory. Since Claymont Steel was acquired by a Russian-related firm last year, the two specialty steel companies have the same corporate parent.

Brandywine's space-consolidation plan calls for retaining ownership of the Darley Road site while leasing it to a non-profit organization which is engaged in education-related activity.

Boys & Girls Clubs proposes moving from the Claymont Community Center, where it conducts various programs including an after-school-hours one in which youngsters are "engaged in 'fun' but academically beneficial activities." Brandywine's lawyer has ruled that qualifies it as serving an education-related function.

Odyssey Charter, however, wants to use the building and property for a full-fledged school.

It now operates a kindergarten-through-third-grade school, chartered by the Red Clay Consolidated School District, in Barley Mill Plaza. In addition to expanding through fifth grade, it wants to add a middle school -- extending through eighth grade -- and recently had its charter changed to permit a larger enrollment and purchased the former St. Thomas parochial school building in West Wilmington.

Its bid for the Darley Road property proposes operating either a second elementary school with an eventual enrollment of 480 to 500 students or a middle school with 360 to 400.

Odyssey Charter offers a dual-language program. The curriculum integrates the learning of modern Greek as a second language and uses both to instruct in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. It is supported by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, which seeks to promote Greek culture. It also has support from the Ministry of Education in Greece, the Longwood Foundation and other donors.

Odyssey Charter has told Brandywine that it is willing to seek a charter from the state Board of Education if the Brandywine board does not wish to grant one. There is currently a state moratorium on granting new charters but Odyssey has said it is hopeful that any revision of the law would continue to authorize state charters.

That is more of a symbolic than a practical concession. There also is money at stake.

Presumably the lease would be a token dollar-a-year agreement, which is what Brandywine charges the Claymont Community Center and the Old Stone School organization.

But the law also provides that public school districts each year pay charter schools an amount equal to their average spending per student for each student that the charter school educates who lives within the geographic limits of the district. That amount for Brandywine is $3,894 this academic year. It varies each year depending on the size of the district budget and its total enrollment. It has risen annually in Brandywine since the 2001-02 fiscal year.

As part of its continuing evaluation of the competing bids, Brandywine's chief financial officer David Blowman was asked to compute the likely amount of additional payments to Odyssey Charter if it locates on Brandywine turf and attracts students living in the district, whether they attend Brandywine schools or go to a non-public school..

Blowman told the board at its Dec. 15 meeting that, based on the current rate, the full 'cost' would range upward from $625,000 if "only" 144 Brandywine youngsters are enrolled. That was the figure Odyssey Charter gave the district as the lower end of its likely local enrollment. That could increase to slightly over $1 million if the same percentage of local enrollments is applied to the top end of Odyssey Charter's projected total enrollment, he said.

Darley Road Elementary has a rated capacity of 500 students. Its current enrollment is 262.

There are currently 60 students living in the Brandywine district attending Odyssey Charter. They were not included in Blowman's figures.

Brandywine's total charter school payment is just over $2.2 million to 11 schools.

That prompted board member Ralph Ackerman to inquire whether the district has made a special effort to attempt to persuade parents of charter school students to "come back to us."

Superintendent Jim Scanlon replied that expansion of the 'gifted student' program through eighth grade and offering the International Baccalaureate program at all levels should be attractive to some. "We've done things with programs, but haven't gone house to house," he said.

Its charter schools payments are partly offset this year by nearly $610,000 Brandywine is netting from a favorable balance in the number of students making use of the state public-school-choice law and attending schools in other districts. In all, 149 Brandywine students have opted out of the district while 377 have elected to come to Brandywine.

It is too early to tell if that ratio will be significantly altered during the next school year when closure of Darley Road Elementary and Hanby Middle reduces Brandywine's total capacity. Scanlon has said that, even with two fewer schools and a rush if intradistrict transfer requests, Brandywine will still have room for choice transfers from outside the district.

The public comment section of recent Brandywine board meetings have included several speakers who have endorsed Odyssey Charter's program and its bid to locate in the district. Boys & Girls Clubs has not had a similar expression.

As it happens there also is another vacant school building within the Brandywine District. Holy Rosary parochial school closed last June and the building in Claymont is listed with a real estate agency for lease. That property would not seem to be as attractive as the larger Darley Road property, which is surrounded by a campus in a glade set back from the road.

Disposal of the Darley Road property is scheduled to come before the board at a 'workshop' session in January and be ready for a decision later that month or in February.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Darley Road School bidders down to two

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