January  27,  2012

Superintendent: A new tax-rate
ceiling would hold for four years

If voters approve the requested  increase in its authorized property tax rate at the March referendum, Brandywine School District will not seek another hike for at least four years, according to Superintendent Mark Holodick.

He told a group of district employees and community residents beginning an effort to secure a favorable vote at the March 28 referendum that the school board has made a firm commitment to abide by a new rate ceiling "for four or five years and, hopefully, longer."

He denied that referendum strategy calls for holding a second referendum if voters reject the increase, but stopped short of saying that will not happen. "The board is undecided what it will do," he said. It will make that decision, if necessary, after analyzing initial results.

Right now, however, "we talk about when we pass the referendum [sic], not if we pass it," he said. "We're positive but yet realistic."

The published agenda of a closed-door executive session of the school board before its January business meeting referred to "potential staffing cuts as it relates to the upcoming spring operating revenue." District spokeswoman Alexis Andrianopoulos told Delaforum that that discussion included specific positions and qualifications of persons who hold them and therefore qualified for exemption from the state's open-meeting law. She did not say what, if any, decisions were made. The Brandywine agenda was amended after the attorney general ruled that public agencies have to be more specific than they usually have been in the past about items to be covered in meetings from which the public is excluded.

Holodick referred generally to "cutting personnel and programs we would not be able to continue to support."

He said the increase of 27 for each $100 of assessed property value being sought "is what we really need to be the kind of district the community expects." There was no thought of floating a higher amount in order to make the amount really needed more palatable and more likely to be approved the second time around, he said. State law allows districts to hold no more than two tax referendums in any 12-month period.

Holodick said that after some 60 people came up with recommendations for initiatives to be financed by the tax increase "we worked to bring the [amount to be sought] down as far as we could." If all the proposals were accepted, the increase would be in the high 30 range, he said.

Chief financial officer David Blowman told the meeting of the advocacy group on Jan. 25 that the district is "asking for no more than what we absolutely need."

He explained that the 19 of the proposed increase that would be earmarked for continuing current programs and rebuilding the financial reserve is necessary because, contrary to expectation, the district's student population is growing significantly while its tax base is growing at an average of an anemic three-tenths of one percent.

He said that the financial reserve "isn't really a reserve in the usual sense [of that term]" but a carryover at the end of a fiscal year on June 30 to meet payroll and other expenses until tax revenue is received three to four months later. He has proposed increasing the $3.5 million expected to be on hand at the end of this year to $8.5 million at the end of fiscal 2015.

New Castle County government is required to bill school tax when it bills the county tax. After the money comes in it's turned in to the state treasury which, in turn, passes it through to the school districts. The county is not paid an administrative fee but is partly compensated by interest earned while accumulating the money.

Brandywine presently has the highest tax rate in New Castle County -- $1.8385. The others: Christina, $1.777; Red Clay, $1.662; Appoquinimink, $1.4527; Colonial, $1.366; 'Vo-Tech', $0.1111.

Brandywine "is very open about what we're doing financially," Blowman said. "The community expects us to spend the resources it gives us on educating the kids."

Holodick told the 27 attenders at the advocacy group meeting that they face a challenge which they "must meet head-on."

"Times are tough, especially for those on fixed incomes or out of work," he said, adding that the new contract with the teachers' union now being negotiated and possibly heading for mediation and voter apathy are also factors.

On the other hand, he said, "there is a lot of trust [of the district] in the community [and] interest in surging ahead." All the initiatives planned to be financed by the higher tax "are directly connected to our success plan," he added.

The advocacy group, which will function as 'Friends of Brandywine Referendum', is being divided into committees dealing with such things as providing literature and lawn signs, connecting with the media and community associations, and funds raising.

Cyndi Lehm, its treasurer, reported that it is beginning with a $1,570 kitty, which consists mostly of money left over from the district's last tax referendum five years ago. Its effort is expected to cost between $15,000 and $20,000 but a budget has not yet been determined. It is intended, however, that the campaign will be financed by outside donations, not with district money. Already underway is solicitation of vendors and area businesses.

Committee membership is open to anyone wishing to volunteer.

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Read previous Delaforum article: Referendum request set at 27 by Brandywine board

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