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April 7,  2009

Board stands firm behind its
Darley-school lease decision

After listening to nearly an hour of competing testimony from 15 people attending a public hearing who favored either Boys & Girls Clubs or Odyssey Charter School getting a lease to set up shop at the Darley Road school site, a majority of the school board made it clear that they are not about to reverse a previous decision favoring Boys & Girls Clubs.

Board member Ralph Ackerman, a resident of Claymont, led the way by declaring that he considers allowing Boys & Girls Clubs to expand its youth programs in the soon-to-be-vacated district building would better serve the area.  "Unless I'm required [otherwise] by law, I'm going to do the best for Claymont," he said.

Joseph Brumskill said, "The board has made it clear you (Odyssey) can be no part of the Brandywine School District. We will not change the position we have taken."

"I have an issue about bringing a charter school in[to] our district," his colleague Mark Huxoll said.

Cheryl Siskin said Boys & Girls Clubs "offer an opportunity to do more than what we can do" for youngsters in the community.

The four constitute a majority of the seven-member board, which superintendent Jim Scanlon said will make its "final determination" of the long discussed issue when it next meets on Apr. 27. At its March meeting, the board voted unanimously to go with Boys & Girls Clubs. Brumskill did not attend that meeting, at which the other six members each expressed strong preferences before voting on a resolution authorizing Scanlon to begin negotiating a lease with the nonprofit youth-services organization.

Scanlon told the public hearing on Apr. 6 that "there is no lease agreement yet."

It appeared at the hearing that financial considerations easily trumped a contention that state law requires that a charter school be given preference in the disposal of any surplus property.

Jen Ballas-Fink, a member of the Odyssey Charter board of directors, read provisions in the Delaware Code which appeared to support the latter position. "The state in its wisdom gave charter schools preference," she said, adding that Odyssey and 18 other charter schools had to specifically turn down the opportunity to lease the Darley Road site before the district could legally contract with a private organization. A charter school is a public school and thereby is considered to be a government agency.

While stating that he did not "favor one side over the other," state representative Thomas Kovach admonished the board to "make sure [it has] followed all the proper procedures."

District lawyer Ellen Cooper said that she and the district's outside counsel, whom she did not identify, had researched that issue and determined that "we are not obligated to make Darley school available to Odyssey."

Basis for that conclusion, she explained, was the fact that Odyssey's charter with Red Clay Consolidated School District would not apply to a location in the Brandywine district. The school would have to get another charter, and thereby be considered a new school, before it could claim preference under the law, she said. Since the Brandywine district has "no intention to grant any charter," the new charter would have to come from the state Board of Education and Brandywine has "no obligation to wait until they get their charter," Cooper said.

In any event, she added, receiving first preference would not be the same as being granted a lease. "If the board were to change its position, there would have to be arms-length negotiations" concerning price, maintenance arrangements and other matters and, in the end, the school board "would have to agree" to a lease agreement with Odyssey. She did not say so, but, presumably, the same would apply to a lease agreement with Boys & Girls Clubs.

David Blowman, chief financial officer for the district, told the board that leasing to Odyssey would 'cost' the district between $500,000 and $700,000, based on the assumption that a school at the Darley Road site would draw about a fifth of its students from families living in the Brandywine district. Even if it were to draw fewer students there would be "a hefty and significant financial impact to the district."

A suggestion by Barbara Harbin, treasurer of the Greentree Civic Association, that the board consider an arrangement by which both Odyssey and Boys & Girls Clubs could share use of the Darley Road facility, did not draw a response from the board members or district administration. She sad the fact that Odyssey operates during the school day and Boys & Girls Clubs has after-school and evening programs indicates they would not conflict with each other.

Harbin earlier in the hearing had testified that Greentree residents favor leasing the site, which abuts their community, to Odyssey.

Supporters of the Boys & Girls Clubs' bid testified that that organization serves many youngsters who lack motivation and support. "It's more than just a youth facility. It's a family," Larry Lambert testified.

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