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August 1, 2006

Thwarting of the plot to blow up airliners en route from Britain to the United States reopened the question of whether it is possible to prevent mass terrorism within the bounds of constitutional protection of basic rights. British police and intelligence services have targeted that nation's Muslim population for enhanced surveillance. Arguably that has helped ferret out leads which otherwise might not come to light.

It will never be known to what extent such racial-ethnic-religious profiling in this instance saved hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of innocent lives and spared the civilized world another World Trade Center, London Underground or Madrid train disaster. If those who have harmed you in the past share certain characteristics, it seems illogical to not acknowledge that the same characteristics are apt to show up in those who seek to harm you in the future.

To be sure, the vast majority of the millions who profess Islam and those who live in or come from Middle-East nations are decent, law-abiding people. They are, in a real sense, victims of a radical fringe. It is they who should be anxious not only to disavow those who have cast suspicion on them all but also to assist in every way possible in their elimination.

In light of what has happened this week -- more accurately, what fortunately did not happen -- there will most certainly will be considerably more stringent security measures at airports and other potentially vulnerable sites. As much as we would wish it were not so, the simple reality nowadays is that inconvenience and possible embarrassment when the inevitable mistakes are made are a pittance in exchange for the relative safety such measures provide.

No one can hope to draw the correct line between what is reasonable and necessary to protect the public and what is excess. As difficult as that is, it will be even more so to the extent that some will seek to use the effort to their political and personal advantage.

A blue-ribbon panel is about to begin the process of framing recommendations for restructuring New Castle County's revenue and tax structure. As it does so, two long-standing taboos should be subject to their deliberations.

County government currently 'loses' some $17 million in property-tax revenue -- or nearly a fifth of the potential take -- from exemptions. Three-fourths of that is attributed to the complete exemption that non-profit organizations enjoy. The discount that senior citizens who qualify by a rather liberal household-income standard enjoy accounts for another 18%.

Non-profits' exemption is a long-standing acknowledgement that the services they provide the community are worth considerably more than the value of the exemption. Moreover, it is true that, if the organizations did not exist, government at some level would have to provide at least some of the services. On the other hand, it also is true that several of the organizations enjoying the exemption are the equivalent of major corporate entities which charge for their services on a comparable basis.

While it would be neither reasonable nor equitable to eliminate property-tax exemptions altogether, the fact that the financial taskforce is charged with coming up with a recommended basic restructuring of the revenue system for the long term justifies its taking a serious look at possible modifications.

The other area for consideration would be a graduated 'luxury' tax. Delaware's traditional abhorrence of a sales tax renders it impossible to obtain anything like the necessary support of going that far. However, there is precedent for selective excise taxes -- for instance, on motor vehicles.

If those suggestions seem like an invitation for the taskforce to go where mere mortals have feared to tread, so be it. But if the outlook for a potential financial crisis is real, then it seems reasonable to suggest that ideas out of the proverbial box at least be open for consideration. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

August 1, 2006

It appears at first glance that the Brandywine school board has come up with an able successor to superintendent Bruce Harter. James Scanlon's accomplishments as head of the Quakertown (Pa.) Community School District since 1999 are impressive. According to a 'press release' issued by Brandywine following announcement that the board chose him as the only "finalist candidate", he turned around a poor-performing district. "[Its] achievement levels now rival the wealthiest districts," the handout said.

In an almost ritualistic presentation at the special school board meeting on July 24 at which Scanlon's identity was revealed, board members gave glowing testimony to the way he came across during interviews they held with him. (CLICK HERE to read the Delaforum article.) The 'release' -- prepared before they spoke in public -- summed up their views: "Scanlon's many accomplishments, deep commitment to high expectations for all students and warm personal style brought him to the top of the applicant pool." (CLICK HERE to read the entire 'press release'.)

He made a favorable first impression during a brief telephone conversation with Delaforum. The interested public will have opportunities to gain an in-person impression at open meetings on Aug. 7 and 16. The board has said it will use "feedback" from those and other sessions on those dates to decide whether it will offer Scanlon an employment contract at its regular monthly business meeting on Aug. 21.

Despite the rather elaborate arrangement to make it appear as if it is not yet a done deal, it's neigh impossible to believe that the board's collective mind isn't already made up. Absent some gargantuan glitch or totally surprising turn of events, it's a gilt-edged bet that the Brandywine Board of Education will vote unanimously on Aug. 21 to hire James Scanlon to become, on or about Nov. 1, the district's chief executive officer.

We have no quarrel with that.

We have sufficient confidence in the seven persons who comprise the board to feel certain that they have made a conscientious decision to do what they sincerely believe is in the best interests of the children, parents and other residents of Brandywine Hundred and north Wilmington. There also is no doubt that James Scanlon is the best among the applicants a nationally recognized search firm specializing in placements in the education field brought before them.

That said, we have a serious quarrel with the process by which they arrived at their decision.

From the beginning, the tax-paying public has been afforded only limited glimpses into what was happening.

Harter spent the better part of the past academic year looking for a new job. Before landing one in California, he is known to have been a finalist for openings in Arkansas, Colorado and Tennessee as well as the neighboring Christina district. It is not known where else he applied. While interviewing at Christina, he publicly stated that he desired to remain in Delaware.

Why not in Brandywine?

The best explanation the Brandywine public has gotten from its board were statements to the effect that it desired that Harter continue to serve, but understood that job-hunting is a normal part of being a school superintendent. As Delaforum discovered by applying provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, Harter did not receive a performance bonus for 2004-05. He said he declined one in deference to public sentiment about school administrators' pay. Whether or not the board held private reservations to its public acclaim for Harter is, and may remain, an unanswered question.

The board early on authorized negotiation of a tentative arrangement with Hazzard, Young & Attea Associates to conduct a national search for a successor when and if the time came. The time came in April but, as far as Delaforum has been able to determine, never was an authorization given in public view -- as the law seems to require -- to actually proceed with and pay for the search.

When the board held closed-door executive sessions early in May while explaining only that they were to discuss "personnel matters," Delaforum filed a Freedom of Information Act complaint with the attorney general's office alleging violations of that law. As previously reported, deputy attorney general Michael Tupman found the complaint was justified on two of three points. In an opinion issued on the day the Brandywine board announced Scanlon's identity and received the next day, he held, however, that one violation was only "technical" and the other was subsequently remedied and therefore neither was worth pursuing even so far as to admonish the board. (CLICK HERE to read the Delaforum article.)

At the July 24 meeting, board president Craig Gilbert explained that the board deemed it wise, on the advice of Hazzard, Young & Attea Associates, to conduct a "very confidential" search. He stopped short of apologizing for that, but 'thanked the community' for having the confidence to be agreeable with that. That was based, he said, on the response of a majority of those who responded to a survey on the district website about qualities desired in  a new superintendent.

The reason for confidentiality, it was explained, is that more candidates would be willing to enter into the process if they knew their identities would be shielded from officials of the districts that employed them. Evidently, the understanding which the Brandywine board had for Harter's search is not universal.

Be that as it may, school boards -- including Brandywine's in the past and Christina's more recently -- do present their interested publics a selection of more than one candidate with the idea of gathering that proverbial 'feedback' before making a decision. Identity disclosure would seem valid as an appropriate trade-off for someone who makes a short list of candidates for a high-level, high-paying public position. Even so, with candidates drawn from elsewhere in the country, it would seem possible to conduct a public session at which specific names and other identifying information is withheld to further limit the slim possibility the person from afar would be recognized.

Gilbert has denied an appeal by Delaforum of a decision to bar news media and the general public from attending three sessions with Scanlon on Aug. 16. One will be with "business leaders, elected officials and leaders of local religious, community and civic groups"; another with "parent leaders"; and the third with any Brandywine district students who wish to attend. Attenders at those meetings are more likely to raise significant points than those who will go to the general sessions.

"The district has decided that to maintain an open and honest discussion between staff and  community groups and the candidate, the presence of press may cause some consternation among individuals in the group or may even push them to the decision not to attend," Gilbert replied.

District officials -- including Harter -- and school board members have made a point of seeking public confidence and trust. While there is absolutely no indication that anything is amiss, it remains much easier to extend confidence and trust through open doors than through closed ones.

In an attempt to make its 'Community Voices' section a more viable discussion forum by eliminating personal, frivolous and juvenile postings, Delaforum two months ago decided to require posters to register. Even so, their comments would, if desired, still be attributed only to anonymous screen names.

We were badly mistaken. The move accomplished part of what it sought to do -- eliminate what had been undesirable. But it also strangled virtually all other postings.

So we've again changed. Postings will henceforth be accepted without the poster having to register.

Rather than 'censor' the undesirable after it automatically appears on the site, the process now will evaluate submissions before they are posted. Only those that deal with matters of legitimate public interest and comply with stated ground rules will appear on the site -- usually within 24 hours of submission. Pre-screening is a generally accepted practice with seriously-intended blogs. (CLICK HERE to read the ground rules.)

Delaforum will continue to accept registrations. That will allow posters to use a validation code to authenticate submissions. Registered posters will have exclusive use of their selected screen name -- on a first come, first served basis. That will prevent anyone from posting under a false identity and wrongly attributing views to someone else.

Agreement or disagreement with views expressed either in this commentary feature or elsewhere on the Delaforum site is not among the criteria for posting or not posting a submission.

Hopefully, 'Community Voices' is back on track.

2006. All rights reserved.

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