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Brandywine School District asks voters to go all in on referendum vote

In most Delaware school districts, when residents are asked to approve tax hikes for school operating expenses and new construction, it’s like a multiple-choice test.

They can vote yes or no on each proposal.

But that’s not how it’s going to work in the Brandywine School District on March 23, a “Super Wednesday” for Delaware schools, with three tax-hike referendums scheduled.

Brandywine voters will be asked to approve an increase in operating funds to continue existing programs, a renovation plan to upgrade three schools and demolish a long-vacant building, and to install two artificial turf athletic fields at each of the district’s three high schools – all with a single vote.

The tax increase would add 28 cents to the district’s rate of $2.1835 per $100 of assessed value, generating about $9.5 million in new revenue, plus another five cents per $100 for three years to pay for the turf fields.

By Delaware standards, posing the question this way is unconventional, but not to James Hanby, the resident chairman of the district’s Finance committee. “The whole district is a unit, it’s all connected,” he says.

“When you believe in the whole system,” adds Scott Kessel, the district’s chief financial officer, “everything is involved – the curriculum, athletics, the cafeterias.”

Or, looking at it another way, if the three questions were posed separately, Kessel admits, “if turf passes and operations fail, you’d be in a position where you’d be putting in turf fields while cutting programs in classrooms.”

“This referendum has no shiny bells and whistles. It’s about maintaining our status as a premier school district,” Hanby says. If it fails, the district may have to cut expenses by as much as $4.5 million, he adds.

Here’s a more detailed look at each piece of the proposal.

The capital improvements portion calls for work Carrcroft  and Claymont elementary schools and Brandywine High School, as well as relocating the district’s current facilities building and demolishing the former Burnett School, an eight-story building located behind P.S. du Pont Middle School in Wilmington that has been vacant for six years. Overall, the projects will cost an estimated $49.6 million, with the district paying $19.3 million and the state picking up the rest of the tab. Residents won’t see any change in the debt service portion of their property tax, now 24 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, because bonds from earlier construction projects will be paid off this year.

Carrcroft, Kessel says, is the only school in the district that has not been upgraded to meet the state’s current safety and security standards. The work there includes creating a secure entrance by relocating the school’s main office so it is adjacent to the front doors, adding three classrooms, building a new cafeteria and upgrading heating and cooling systems. Estimated cost is just under $4 million.

Claymont Elementary, originally a high school and later a middle school, would get a $26.5 million overhaul, including classroom and bathroom improvements, new seating and lighting in the auditorium, new roofing and insulation, replacements of the electrical, heating and cooling systems, and upgrades to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In addition, the district proposes spending $1.9 million to demolish its existing facilities building, adjacent to the Claymont school, to improve motorist and pedestrian safety there, and to move its facilities and maintenance operations to the now-vacant site of the former district office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Claymont.

At Brandywine High School, the $14.7 million plan includes window replacement, bathroom upgrades, roof repairs, upgrades to address ADA compliance and improvements to the parking lot and curbs.

Burnett School, built in the early 1970s by the former Wilmington Public Schools, was originally a middle school with an open classroom design. It lacked a standard cafeteria; meals were originally prepared in a downstairs kitchen and delivered to each classroom. It later became an elementary school and served as home to Brandywine’s program for gifted elementary students.

“It’s a concept that might have made sense in the ’70s, but it’s an eyesore now,” says Hanby. “It’s a crime magnet and the community wants it gone.”

Demolition and follow-up site work would cost about $2.6 million. Once the building is torn down, Kessel says the district hopes to use the space to create another athletic field for P.S. du Pont, whose student athletes must now travel to other district fields for practices and games.

The 28-cent tax increase for current operations would not add any new programs, but it would enable the district to continue programs originally established through special grants or authorized when district residents approved a tax increase in 2012.

These programs include the strings program for grades 4-12, the AVID program that provides additional support for students who would be the first in their families to attend college, the state’s only full-time program for gifted students and exposure to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities at all grade levels.

The turf-field proposal is a follow-up to voters’ approval in a 2001 referendum to improve the tracks at Brandywine, Concord and Mount Pleasant high schools. In recent years, the poor condition of the district’s athletic fields have come under increased scrutiny, with some district teams being forced to play home games in state tournaments at other sites because Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association officials deemed their home fields unplayable.

The plan calls for spending nearly $5 million, paid entirely from local funds, to install an artificial surface on the football field and one other field (soccer, field hockey or lacrosse) at each high school.

Some of the fields pose safety hazards, Kessel and Hanby say.

“If you have divots and ruts [on a field hockey field], the ball does funny things sometimes,” Hanby says.

If the referendum is approved, a district committee will contact officials at the University of Delaware and private schools where artificial turf has been installed to determine the safest and best quality surfaces to be used. “We’re going to get best practices. We’re not going to put in anything that isn’t safe,” Kessel says.

The district’s athletic fields are regularly used by youth sports organizations as well as school teams, and the artificial surface will be easier to maintain and will permit even more community use, he adds.

If the referendum is approved, Hanby and Kessel believe the district will be able to go three years, and perhaps four, before seeking another increase.

“If things go topsy-turvy with the state, and we suddenly have $1 million or $2 million less, that changes the metrics somewhat,” Hanby says.

One major concern for district officials is the potential for owners of industrial sites to seek reductions in their tax assessments. After AstraZeneca demolished buildings on its campus on Concord Pike, it successfully petitioned New Castle County for a reduced property assessment, costing the district about $1 million in tax revenue, Hanby says.

The DuPont Co. has spoken with the county about possible assessment reductions, and it’s possible that Chemours, which closed the former DuPont Edge Moor titanium dioxide plant, and the owners of the shuttered Evraz steel mill in Claymont could also seek reductions, Hanby says. 

For more information on the referendum, including a list of polling places, visit the referendum page on Brandywine’s website.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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