January 13,  2009

Financial considerations likely
to determine Darley decision

Replacing Darley Road Elementary with a charter school would be "an affront to the community," according to Debra Heffernan, president of the Brandywine school board.

"We went through a painful consolidation process to save a half million dollars by closing [the school]," she said. "Why are we closing that school when we're not making [that] cost saving?"

She noted that parents of its students and other supporters strongly objected to designating Darley Road as one of two schools to be closed at the end of this academic year. The other is Hanby Middle, which is to be replaced by a new building to house Brandywood Elementary.

Heffernan based her comments on an estimate by David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, that between $655,000 and $1 million would be 'lost' through a combination of payments to Odyssey Charter for children living in Brandywine district whose parents enroll them in the charter school and not receiving a portion of state financial support pegged to district enrollment. Public school districts are required by state law to pay charter schools, which are also public schools, the average cost of educating a child for each child they enroll.

Heffernan said money will be "an overwhelming part of the decision" of whether to lease the vacated property off Darley Road opposite Ashbourne Hills to Odyssey Charter or to the Boys & Girls Clubs, which wants more room to expand its before- and after-school programs and other activities than is available in the Claymont Community Center, its present location.

Although no vote will be taken until the board's scheduled February business meeting, it was apparent at a 'workshop' session on Jan. 12 that a majority, if not all, of the seven-person board shared Heffernan's sentiments.

Blowman appeared to punctuate that when, in response to a question about what it would 'cost' the district to accept the Boys & Girls Clubs' proposal, he gave a one-word answer: "Nothing." Earlier in the session he said leasing to Odyssey Charter would have "a significant financial impact on the district."

District lawyer Ellen Cooper told the board that the law requires it to hold a public hearing before disposing of property declared surplus. To comply with public-notice requirements, a hearing could be scheduled between the January and February meetings or as part of the February meeting, she said.

George Chambers, president of Odyssey Charter's board of directors, testified that the charter school would complement, rather than compete with, Brandywine's curriculum offerings. "If I believed Odyssey would compromise anything Brandywine does I would have a problem," he said.

He also said that his organization "would be happy to engage with the Boys & Girls Clubs" in cooperative ventures after the normal school day, but made it clear that Odyssey would fully occupy the Darley Road building and conduct a full-time school there.

"There is no better neighbor to a community than a thriving school," Chambers said.

Dennis Quill, vice president and chief financial officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware, said that, although the primary reason it wants to relocate to Darley Road is to expand its offerings for "a significantly larger number of teens," its Claymont operation would not fully occupy the Darley Road building for some time and that it would sublease unused space. He added that the organization would be willing to share a portion of the revenue from subleasing with Brandywine.

Chambers said Odyssey Charter would apply a 10% 'discount' to payments Brandywine has to make for its students who enroll in the charter school. There have been various estimates of how many that would likely be. At present, 60 children who live in the Brandywine district attend the dual-language elementary school Odyssey Charter operates at the Barley Mill office complex in the Red Clay school district.

Chambers said a middle school at the Darley Road location would likely be a 'feeder' for Brandywine's three high schools and that would include students from outside the district who would be revenue-bearing 'choice' students.

The school has "a growth plan" which envisions opening a second elementary school and, possibly, a middle school during the coming three to five years, he said. But, he added, Odyssey Charter does not presently have an alternate location in mind should its Darley Road proposal fail.

Mark Huxsoll said it did not make sense to "put a school at a location where a school is being closed because of declining population." He suggested that Odyssey Charter might do better to look for a location in the Appoquinimink school district where the population is growing and is expected to continue to grow.

"As a school board member I'm focused on the children we have. I do feel you are competition [and] I see you pulling some resources away from us," Patricia Hearn said.

Quill said that Boys & Girls Clubs draw students mostly from the immediate vicinities of its units. The Claymont operation, however, does attract patronage from the Marcus Hook, Pa., area. If it relocates to Darley Road, it probably will have to make some arrangements to provide transportation, he said.

Noting that whatever the actual number, opening a charter school in the district would further drain Brandywine's enrollment, Blowman said. "One of the reasons for closing schools is to get our physical capacity in line with our enrollment," he said.

"That half million [dollars] we are going to lose we could use to develop our own programs,"  Cheryl Siskin said.

Chambers said the Odyssey Charter proposal is not conditioned on its ability to obtain a charter. He said consultation with the Delaware Department of Education has determined that simply amending its present charter to provide for an additional location would suffice. Brandywine boards and administrations have consistently opposed granting charters.

While arguing Odyssey Charter's merits, Chambers came close to making a serious faux pas when he said, "Odyssey can provide a superior education opportunity to the community." Hearn bristled at what she considered an implication he was comparing the charter school with Brandywine schools.

He denied that he was making a comparison, adding, "You are doing something right for the community. ... I would not take away from what you have already accomplished."

Board members Ralph Ackerman and Joseph Brumskill insisted that any lease the district enters into should contain a provision that would enable it to recover the property should there be a turnaround in the trend toward declining enrollment.

When a member of the audience, who did not identify herself, sought to comment on that point, Heffernan ruled public comment was out of order at a 'workshop' session. She said there will be provision for comment at the board's business meeting. At that point, the woman pointedly walked out of the meeting.

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