April  27,  2010

Brandywine district seeks new
leases with community centers

Brandywine School District's move to replace dollar-a-year leases with Claymont and Edgemoor Community Centers with contracts requiring significantly higher rentals came under fire before the school board. 

County Councilman John Cartier told the board that the centers are hard pressed as it is to meet increase demands for services given the current economy and reduced amounts of support from governments and the public.

After the meeting he disclosed that the district administration has presented community center officials with proposed contracts requiring payment of $1,000-a-month rent. The Claymont center occupies the building that once housed the former Claymont High School and Junior High School. The Edgemoor center uses the eastern portion of the Mount Pleasant Elementary School building near Bellefonte.

Schools superintendent Mark Holodick later told Delaforum  that the proposal is for the money to go directly into revolving capital contingency funds which eventually would be capped at $100,000. Whenever that much was in the funds, rents would revert to the present level, he said.

He said the funds would be "in their names," but any use of the money would be "a collaborative decision."

"There is no desire for the district to make any profit whatsoever in these arrangements," he said.

In another matter before the board at its meeting on Apr. 26, chief financial officer David Blowman reported that transfers of bond authorizations among projects in the current third and last phase of the district's long-term renovations program is being done in full accord with language in last year's and the currently pending state capital budget legislation and "special permissions" granted granted by state authorities in return for the district's having run well under the total amount of bond authorization approved by district voters at Brandywine's 2005 capital referendum.

Cartier called on the board to cut the community centers a break "in light of the long-term relationship" between the centers and the school district. He implied, but did not specifically state, that he would like to see the token rental rate continued.

He pointed out that the agreements with the community centers call for them to maintain the space they occupy which relieves the district of having to pay that cost. Moreover, he added, much of the services provided by the community centers augment what the district does and, together, the partnership "effects positive benefits to the community."

Responding to Cartier at the meeting, Holodick said, "We want the collaborative relationship with the centers to continue." What's more, he added, the district looks for ways in which it will "be able to grow that collaboration."

Until now there has been no public disclosure of the district's intent to seek new arrangements and it was not clear at the meeting whether board members were aware of it. Ralph Ackerman was the only member to speak to the topic and he referred critically to the practice of the Claymont center of charging civic associations $25 to use rooms in its facility to hold meetings.

In any event, Holodick said that "we are nowhere near a stalemate in these negotiations."

Chuck Landry, a civic activist who was co-chairman of the referendum steering committee in 2005 and has been involved in several other supportive roles in the district, endorsed Cartier's position outside the meeting and took issue with referring to discussions with the community centers as negotiations.

"It's not negotiation when you present something and say 'this is what we're going to do'," he said. "I hope the district is not sliding into a position where the community is an afterthought."

Holodick later said that the arrangements offered to the community centers are the same terms agreed upon in the district's lease of the former Darley Road school building to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Claymont. That agency, he said, is in the process of modifying the interior of the building prior to moving in.

The capital contingency funds, he explained, would be "beneficial to both [the centers] and the district" in that they would provide ready resources to deal with unforeseen capital expenses.

He said that coming up with new leases is not directly related to plans by the district to move its administrative offices from Radnor Green to space in the Mount Pleasant building. That required the Edgemoor center to vacate  a portion of the area in the building which it formerly occupied and also will affect the parking lot. "They were more than willing to give up that space," he said.

Having the district offices in the same building will have the benefit of fostering a closer relationship between the staffs of both organizations, he said.

In a separate context he announced at the board meeting that the move will take place during the coming autumn.

In his presentation to the board, Blowman said that, despite what amounted to a total restructuring of the district affecting the respective roles of several of the buildings involved in the renovations project, there actually have been proportionately fewer transfers of capital spending authorizations than in previous phases of the project. Transfers during the second phase amounted to $1.9 million, or 2% of the total cost of the project; this time around, 1.5% of a larger total cost is presently slated to be transferred, he said.

"The General Assembly has always recognized the need to transfer funds across projects during major renovation projects," he said. Built into the bonding authorization is blanket authority to move up to 10% of an individual project's cost.  That is the natural result of the long gap between the time original construction estimates are made and the work is actually done. "In that period of time, situations can change," he said

He said there wasn't any inflation of original cost estimates. "The cost estimates made were accurate based on what we knew at the time," he said. Since the 2005 referendum, however, a later Brandywine administration reversed previous policies and closed two school buildings and reconfigured the grades structure from four to three tiers, which required refitting several buildings to accommodate children of different ages from those previously served.

Even with that, the total cost of the third phase is now expected to be $117.5 million, or 15.7% less than the $139.4 million originally estimated, Blowman later told Delaforum. As a result, annual debt service costs -- and the resultant capital-spending portion of the district's tax rate -- have been reduced significantly. The current capital-spending rate is 22.8 for each $100 of assessed value, instead of the 31 projected for fiscal 2010 at the time of the referendum. That translates, he said, to a 'savings' of $56.20 against the average residential tax bill.

"Most of this savings is attributable to lower than projected interest rates on the bonds sold, but about 25% of the savings are directly attributable to not renovating Hanby," he said.

In return for 'saving' the state $13.1 million by closing instead of renovating the Hanby building, Brandywine was granted additional flexibility to apply $2.7 million previously earmarked for planning the Hanby project to the cost of demolishing that building and converting any affected buildings for their new mission. The major changes were adding kindergarten through third grade to Claymont and Harlan, which previously were intermediate schools serving grades four, five and six, and converting P.S. du Pont from an intermediate to a middle school.

The district also was granted "very, very, very unique [sic] flexibility" to use $1.3 million of the Hanby 'savings' to construct new classrooms this summer to provide for a much larger than expected number of students at Lombardy Elementary, Blowman said.

Being able, through a change in its ownership, to purchase the property it formerly leased for its busyard instead of having to find and develop a different property provided $1.8 million which is now proposed to be transferred to support additional work at P.S., Harlan and Claymont as well as pay $300,000 for a new playground at recently opened Lancashire Elementary. The playground was not included with in the original scope of constructing that new building.

In transferring money among the projects, Blowman said, Brandywine has acted well within its legal right to do so. "State [officials have] been aware of everything that has been going on with this budget almost from day one. They have signed off on every request," he said.

Also, he added, every move has "been discussed publicly prior to approval" and has been endorsed by the community Renovations Oversight Committee.

Both Ackerman and board member Joseph Brumskill, who had requested it, said they were satisfied with  Blowman's report and explanations.

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