January  11,  2012

Brandywine likely to seek a 19%-23%
hike in its current-expense tax rate

Brandywine school board will consider -- and most likely adopt -- a referendum plan which will call for asking district residents to approve increasing the ceiling on the current-spending component of the property tax rate by somewhere in the range of 25 to 29 for each $100 of assessed value. The present rate is $1.289; the total tax rate is $1.8385.

Chief financial officer David Blowman told Delaforum that, if the increase is approved and fully applied, it would mean an annual increase somewhere between $175 and $203 in the levy on a 'typical' residential property in the district, which includes Brandywine Hundred and a large section of north Wilmington. The tax is levied on commercial and industrial as well as residential property, but only residents of the district, 18 and older, are eligible to vote at a school referendum.

Although civic activist Chuck Landry said district residents historically are supportive of public schools, "you're going to have the public asking how you justify what you're asking for in this economic climate." He indicated he felt that could be done.

Generally speaking, school districts increase their tax rate in annual increments up to the ceiling. The present ceiling has held for five years. There has been no public comment on how long a new one would be expected to last.

Landry is a member of the resource and planning committee which on Jan. 10 completed an unprecedented four-month  process during which six committees produced a list of initiatives that would be primarily financed by local funds raised by the tax increase. Blowman said 8 of the projected increase would be used to finance the incentives with the rest earmarked for continuing operations.

In consolidating the work of the other committees, the resource and planning committee accepted the priorities set by the other groups but spoke of several places where the previously reported $5 million annual pricetag for the initiatives could be significantly pared. An 8 tax rate would indicate they are now expected to cost around $2.7 million.

It was said, for instance, that Brandywine and other districts are looking to state government to wholly or at least partly finance several elements of an ambitious proposal to significantly expand use of computer technology. The original first-year cost estimates for five priorities submitted by the technology committee totaled just over $1 million.

Completely dropped in the review by district officials of the preliminary proposals submitted in December was a proposal to establish a foreign-language curriculum in all elementary school grades. "Spanish in elementary [schools] was going to be a bridge too far," Blowman said at the resource and planning committee meeting. "It was too much to try to accomplish in this referendum."

Assistant superintendent Judy Curtis said none of the remaining proposed initiatives would require hiring additional staff. Such proposals as providing more extracurricular activities, she explained, can be implemented by existing personal receiving extra pay for extra responsibility -- an existing practice known colloquially by the acronym 'eper money'.

With reference to financing extracurricular activities in elementary schools, Blowman said the pricetag can be further pared by relying on suburban parents to provide transportation home for their children and limiting district-provided bus transportation to the three schools -- Carrcroft, Hanby and Lombardy -- which have attendance zones in Wilmington. That, he explained, cuts the estimated annual cost from $261,000 to $84,000.

Comparable in scope to the technology initiative is one to implement a preventive maintenance plan covering all district buildings. The initial annual cost estimate for a rotating three-year schedule was $1,652,710. An alternate proposal, which includes a four-to-five-year schedule, was pegged at $1,085,000.

Calling the alternate proposal "the minimum acceptable" and the more intense one not "extravagant" Landry, who also served on the facilities initiative committee, said, "We spent $220 million [to renovate] our facilities over the last 10 years [sic]; we're going to spend a lot more over the next 10 years for repairs" if a maintenance plan is not financed in  current-operations budgets.

Curtis said the referendum plan will be put into final form, with realistic pricetags attached, in time to provide it to school board members prior the board's regular meeting on Jan. 23, at which it will be formally presented and, presumably, acted upon. The tax referendum will be held on Mar. 28.

She said that, after adoption by the board, the plan, along with "ample justification" for all of the proposed initiatives, will be posted on the district website. Board approval is considered virtually certain since all seven members were on at least one of the initiatives committees.

Although all of the committees' meetings were open to the public and the process intended to provide 'transparency', they attracted virtually no attenders other than committee members nor any media attention except Delaforum.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Brandywine Referendum panels propose several new programs

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