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September 2009

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Some 150 public officials, civic activists and Claymont residents gathered at the historic Robinson House and bade farewell to Daniel Harkins, a friend who spearheaded a variety of projects to further public appreciation of the community.

"We're all going to be busy completing the projects he gave us," County Councilman John Cartier, who represents the area, told attenders at the memorial service on Sept. 25. "He could see things in Claymont's past that allowed him to see things in Claymont's future," added County Executive Christopher Coons. The event was short on mourning and long on appreciation as a parade of speakers recounted numerous incidence when Harkins touched their lives. Terry Wright, retired former senatorial aide to now Vice President Biden, said Harkins, who died of cancer on Aug, 31 at age 62, did not want a funeral, but "probably had a lot to do with" arranging bright early-autumn weather for the outdoor event.

"He wove his life though much of what has happened here and in the state," insurance commissioner Karen Weldin Stewart, a classmate at Claymont High, recounted. As an active member of the Claymont Historical Society and Delaware Heritage Commission, Harkins promoted awareness of events from the voluntary and peaceful racial integration of Claymont High in the 1950s to the currently evolving Claymont Renaissance movement. Cartier pointed out that Harkins did so with emphasis on the human element. It was he who insisted plans to redevelop the former Brookview Apartments complex include providing for relocating some 400 residents who lived there, the councilman said.

Dan Harkins in the Revolutionary War costume he wore when hosting events at the Robinson House.

Frances West, president of Naamans Heritage Association, announced that the organization intends to establish a library dedicated to Harkins's memory in the Robinson House as a depository for historical material and to display "other Claymont stuff."

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COMMERCIAL BREAKS COMING?: Before calling for a vote on a pending ordinance, County Council president Paul Clark declares a pause in the proceedings: "But first -- a word from the sponsor of this evening's session." It could happen. When Council next meets, on Oct. 13, it will take up a measure, sponsored by Clark, that would permit the county executive to sell advertising space "on county assets (including, but not limited, to real property)." Prologue to the proposed ordinance says that's "common practice in many jurisdictions around the county" and would be "a good source" of revenue for budget-challenged county government. The advertising would be governed by rules and regulations adopted by the county ethics commission.

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'SUNSET' POSTPONED: County Council delayed for one month the deadline for selling bonds to be financed by a special tax on homeowners in Darley Green and received a proposed ordinance that would set Apr. 1, 2010, as the new deadline. Prologue of the latter measure, sponsored by Councilman John Cartier,  says the extension is necessary because "the financial and economic crisis which has occurred in the American economy has made it impossible for the county to issue the bonds." Why that is so is not further explained. The original legislation, enacted in September, 2008, was set to expire on Sept. 23, a year after passage. The special financing is intended to raise money to help the developer finance infrastructure in the community. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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SUPERINTENDENT APPOINTED: Although its agenda simply included a "superintendent update" among several reports, the Brandywine school board, as expected, formally appointed Mark Holodick to the superintendency. He will assume office on Oct. 12. The unanimous vote at the board meeting on Sept. 21 was taken without discussion. Salary and other details of his contract were not disclosed. The board also unanimously approved a revised preliminary budget for the current fiscal year. Chief financial officer David Blowman said the only significant difference from the $145.8 million plan approved in June was listing $5.1 million of federal stabilization money, passed through by the state, as federal revenue. Of the total, 54.5% can be spent at the district's discretion.

Acting superintendent Andy Brandenberger told the meeting that the transition to the district's new grade configuration "went remarkably well." He said the realignment required moving 20,000 cartons and 2,000 pieces of furniture. Although there were 569 staff members relocated, the district was fully staffed on Aug. 31. Nine buildings required "significant alterations" to accommodate their different grades. Some 2,350 school-choice requests were granted and 366 bus routes established. Although the final count is not in, Blowman said the realignment "cost significantly less than the [$1 million] contingency budget." He said there "are still some outstanding needs in some buildings, but nothing earth-shaking." (Click the respective links to read previous Delaforum articles: Holodick -- budget -- transition)

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REVENUE ESTIMATE SLIDES: Even after factoring in tax increases and other 'revenue enhancements' enacted by the General Assembly in late June, Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council expects the state coffers this fiscal year to take in  $46.9 million less than it had projected earlier in June. The downward revision was made at its meeting on Sept. 21 despite being told that Global Insights, its economy forecasting consultant, agrees with the emerging consensus that the national economy has bottomed out and is about to improve. The council's revenue committee blamed continuing softness in personal income tax collections for $24.7 million of the downward revision and $10.5 million on federal court having limited the scope of professional football betting. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Residents of Chalfonte were told they're going have a model school in their midst, but several objected to the prospect of losing what has long since become a community recreation area as a result.

Barbara Meredith, Brandywine's director of support services, told a civic association meeting that the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control has given the school district $950,000 to design the new Brandywood Elementary to achieve 'Leed' certification. That is an acronym for 'Leadership in energy and environmental design', a rating system devised by the U.S. Green Building Council, a private nonprofit organization. Project director John Read said it is intended that the new building, which will replace the soon-to-be-demolished Hanby Middle, will be the first Delaware school to qualify for certification. "It's going to be a demonstration project for the state," he said.

Much of the discussion at the meeting on Sept. 16 focused, however, on what happens with the 17-acre site. Since the new building will serve children ages 3 to 11, Read said its track, softball diamond and tennis courts will be replaced by a playground and other "age-appropriate" amenities. The Bush Early Education Center will also occupy the building.  Design work is just beginning, but the overall project is about a year ahead of the original schedule with the new school now expected to be opened in the 2011-12 academic year. He said the structure will be about half the size of the Hanby building and likely will sit within its present 'footprint'. Demolition of Hanby is to begin in November and include 'recycling' of virtually all of the material that makes up the building, Read said. (CLICK HERE to access the building council's 'green schools' website.)

Meredith said it is intended to also demolish the Brandywood building after the school is relocated and to leave that site as open space. Name of the new school has not been determined at this point, she said. Chalfonte and Brandywood are adjacent subdivisions.

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STIMULUS FINANCING READY: The county development office is now accepting proposals for private projects seeking to tap into its $76.3 million allocation for 'recovery zone' financing. The bonds, provided for under the federal economic stimulus law, are intended to help finance job-creating economic development in designated areas. They are private-sector obligations backed by the developer's credit and income from the project, but their link to government will result in lower interest costs than conventional financing. Enabling legislation approved by County Council in July makes eligible projects in most areas of the county involving new construction, expansion or significant renovation. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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LARGE TURNOUT: Necessary steps have been taken to resolve problems involving crowding in some Brandywine district schools. Chief financial officer David Blowman said Brandywood and Lombardy Elementary and Springer Middle have larger enrollments than had been anticipated when the district planned reconfiguration of its grades to three, instead of four, tiers and revised attendance zones accordingly. "Everywhere else, we came close to our original projections," he said. He said some 'tightness' at Brandywood had been anticipated. "We could have closed schools to 'choice', but chose not to," he added. All elementary schools in the district are now kindergarten through fifth grade and middle schools are fifth through eighth.

Blowman said additional classrooms were added to some schools during the summer and that teacher assignments were worked out as part of the realignment. All such changes are now completed. Average class size, he said, will probably come in "slightly higher" than last year, but within tolerable limits. In some cases, paraprofessionals have been added to assist in large classes. One kindergarten class at Brandywood, he said, has 30 children, but is being 'co-taught' by two fully certified teachers. He said preliminary counts, which fluctuate daily, indicate the district will have 60 to 80 more students than last year, but hasn't "seen [the] massive flight from private schools" some people had expected because of the recession. The official state-mandated enrollment count will be taken on Sept. 30.

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What started out as a councilman's attempt to aid a constituent may end up as a comprehensive provision in the county property code to accommodate 'urban farming'.

When William Tansey introduced an ordinance to reduce the minimum residential lot size on which a limited number of chickens can be kept from an acre to a half-acre, he intended no more than to make it legal for Hockessin resident Kathy Hildebrand to keep her four hens. She had received a code-violation citation for having them on a lot that was too small. Hildebrand said the illegal poultry provided her with eggs much fresher than she can buy at a supermarket from chickens she knows are fed organically. Whether or not he realized it, Tansey's action revealed that New Castle County isn't well positioned to participate in what is said to be a growing movement to undertake small-scale agricultural activities in urban areas around the nation as large as Los Angeles.

All that came to the fore on Sept. 15 at a meeting of County Council's land-use committee. There appeared to be general agreement for allowing residents to cater in do-it-yourself fashion to some of their nutritional needs so long as that isn't a neighborhood nuisance. "Are we willing to tell a person who wants fresh milk they can have a cow?" Council president asked rhetorically. William Powers, who farms for a living, said chickens are far less intrusive than a pet dog -- both in noise and in the amount of animal waste generated. Brigid McCrea, a poultry specialist at Delaware State University, testified that 'urban farming' also can help preserve several breeds of chicken threatened with extinction. She said chickens are "happiest" when they're in a flock of five or six compatriots.

Land use general manager David Culver said the department will determine what provisions are necessary in the property code to allow for "responsible 'urban farming'." He said that probably will take several weeks. It remained uncertain whether Tansey will keep his proposed ordinance tabled until then.

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PALADIN EXPANSION: When it next meets on Sept. 22, County Council will likely approve a plan to construct 168 apartment units in 28 new buildings on the site of the former Edgemoor Elementary School. The school was closed after desegregation in 1978 and several plans for the site, within the Paladin Club complex, have been floated since then. Richard Forsten, lawyer for the Petinaro Enterprises subsidiary which owns the property, told a Council committee on Sept. 15 that the units eventually will be condominiums. He said there is no construction timetable. The plan is separate from one to build townhouses in the complex. Council has to approve the plan if it complies with the Unified Development Code, which Forsten and land use general manager David Culver said it does.

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HE'LL STAY AROUND: Mark Holodick, whom the Brandywine school board has designated as the sole candidate to be the district's next superintendent, promised to remain in the job for a long time. "I'm very much dedicated to the district. ... There is no reason for me to go anywhere [else]," he told a sparsely-attended get-acquainted gathering on Sept. 8. A Delaware native, he has spent his entire teaching and administrative career in the Brandywine, Colonial and Delmar districts. Although some Brandywine residents have been dismayed over the short tenures of recent superintendents, Holdick said the national length-of-service average is about three years. "I anticipate I'll be around for 14," he quipped, indicating an intention to remain until retirement.

Regarding a more immediate matter, he said he was favorably impressed by President Obama's back-to-school talk to the nation's school children. "I watched the speech in a history class and I was impressed by it," he said. The social studies department at Concord High, where Holodick is principal, arranged for the speech to be shown "after an activity that had prepared [students] for it." He said that way was preferable to "having a cafeteria full of kids eating" watch it during their lunch period.  "I believe the message came through today at Concord High School and I believe at other schools," he said. Additional public meetings with Holodick are scheduled at Talley Middle on Sept. 9 and Springer Middle on Sept. 14 before the school board votes on his appointment on Sept. 21. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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POSITION MODIFIED: The Brandywine School District has modified somewhat its position on providing an opportunity for students to hear the webcast of President Obama's back-to-school message on Sept. 8. In an e-mailed statement, acting superintendent Andy Brandenberger said it still will not be presented as "a district-wide event." But, he added, "After learning the content of the speech, we would like it to be used as a teaching tool." Whether to do so will still be a matter for individual teachers to decide. However, at the district level, "We believe that we have a responsibility to facilitate the Presidentís message in a guided, organized learning activity," he said. Brandenberger said parents will be allowed "to opt their children out of any lessons connected to the Presidentís speech." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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IT'S UP TO THE TEACHER: The Brandywine School District is leaving it up to individual teachers to decide if their classes will tune in to President Obama's back-to-school talk on Sept. 8. "One should not use a video or broadcast event without knowing either content or knowing the broadcast standards," acting superintendent Andy Brandenberger told Delaforum. He suggested that "it is best if parents find a way to record the presentation and sit with their child and watch it and put it context of their own family value system." Robert Krebs, spokesman for the Catholic diocese, said that the decision whether to tune in will be made at "the individual school level" in the Catholic school system. The talk will be streamed live on the White House website. (CLICK HERE to read the New York Timesarticle about the planned speech and the controversy it has sparked.)

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In a surprise move, effective immediately, County Executive Christopher Coons appointed police chief Rick Gregory to be chief administrative officer, the second-ranking position in county government

Gregory, who has been police chief for three years, succeeds Tracey Surles, whom Coons said asked to step down in order to better balance career and family responsibilities. She will be a senior manager overseeing the engineering, environmental compliance and administrative sections of Department of Special Services, the county's equivalent of a public works department. Michael McGowan, executive officer of the police force, was promoted to be police chief in an acting capacity. Coons said it has not yet been determined if the county will undertake the expense of an expanded search to fill that position on a permanent basis. Gregory will continue, at least for the time being, as acting director of public safety.

According to data supplied by county spokesman C.R. McLeod, both Gregory and Surles will take pay cuts. The established salary for chief administrative officer, a position mandated by state law, is $128,772 after the 5% salary rollback all senior county officials took. He made $143,000 as chief. Surles will be paid $105,500 in her new position, which she held prior to being appointed general manager of the department. Gregory, who is registered as a Democrat, said he has never held elective office, but added that would not rule out doing so in the future. For some, the chief administrative officer position has been a political stepping stone. His being hired from Florida to be police chief was controversial in 2006, but he has since become highly regarded both within and outside the police department.

McGowan's appointment is subject to County Council approval. Gregory's is not. The chief administrative officer serves at the pleasure of the county executive.

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COST-CUTTING CURB URGED: Members of County Council, in effect, told the administration to think twice before eliminating what appear to be expendable public services. "There are some things this government is going to have to pay for," said Penrose Hollins. "I'm opposed to downsizing or getting rid of many of the services of this county," Bill Bell said. Council president Paul Clark said cutting back is "not only a fiscal decision, it's [also] a policy decision." Those remarks came during a discussion of the fate of some public programs that have been offered at Carousel Park at a Council committee meeting on Sept. 1. Mike Svaby, general manager of the Department of Special Services, indicated willingness to re-evaluate such things as the planned elimination of hay rides this autumn.

At Council's behest, Svaby provided a detailed accounting of the 'true cost' of some peripheral activities affected by county government's decision to forego those which were considered hard-to-justify expenses in a budget-pinched county. The hay rides, the data showed, 'cost' $4,413 in the sense that is the difference between expenses to run them and income they bring in. On the other hand, pony rides netted $1,221 and pony parties $3,647. Clark said that absorbing minor 'losses' along the way in order to maintain popular activities is not necessarily a bad thing. "The more people use our parks, the more willing they're going to be to pay their taxes," he said. "We ought to be looking at ways to save programs, not cut programs," Hollins added.

Last updated on September 26, 2009

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