Brandywine’s Referenda: Take 2

Filed in Education by on May 16, 2016

As you know, Brandywine School District is out for Referenda Take 2 tomorrow, May 17th (check the link for polling places). They’re going for operating and capital at the same time. Operating and capital referenda are NOT the same thing, they’re not the same tax rates, they’re not managed the same way. Operating is for people, capital is for buildings.

The easiest thing to do is to spout information without fact checking it, researching it, or asking someone if it’s actually true. Just like in Christina (and every other district that goes out for referendum) a preponderance of misinformation has spread through willful ignorance, malicious intent, or for the sheer sensationalist value. The District and its Referendum Committee did a darn good job of taking apart much of it piece by piece in this document found here. Some of it lacks context necessary to properly evaluate the District and its need for referenda but nothing is ever 100% accurate and contextual at the same time. Compared to the misinformed tirades, it’s WAY more informative and accurate.

More money doesn’t necessarily mean better schools however less money and fewer resources sure as hell doesn’t mean better schools.

Let’s discuss some of what I’ve been hearing about Brandywine School District and it’s second shot at operating and capital referenda

The district is not being forthright with us about what will happen if the referendum fails. Districts become eligible for certain state funding to maintain salaries if the district fails two referendums in a row. It cushions the blow and helps tide districts over until the next referendum. This wording has been in every budget for years. Why does the district never disclose this funding in its doomsday threats?

This is a reference to Academic Excellence Units; which are not conditional if a District fails two referenda in a row. AEUs are used every single year for districts to pay for positions ABOVE what they earn using state formulae. If a district fails twice, they can use the local portion of AEUs to cover existing teacher salaries in order scale back the cuts to core teaching units. There’s no additional magic funding that appears when a District fails twice.

There is legislation pending to allow districts to use the State portions earned teacher funding to pay for positions in the event a District fails twice and cannot front the local portion of earned teaching unit costs, but that’s dead in the water.$file/legis.pdf?open (see section 309, page 209)

Delaware spends nearly $16k per student while the national average is less than $12,500.

Delaware average expense per pupil: $13,089, National average per pupil expense: $11,841

Brandywine spends more per student than any other district.

Keep in mind “per student cost” is a bogus statistic that doesn’t actually show, well, anything other than total budget/total # students (assuming you do the math correctly). Even so,

School District Per Student
Brandywine School District $14,961
Cape Henlopen $15,254
Early College HS @ DSU* $15,074
East Side Charter* $15,480
Polytech $15,629
NCC VoTech $16,559
Gateway Lab School* $19,962
Moyer Academy* $20,024
Positive Outcomes* $22,815
MOT Charter* $23,640
* denotes public charter school DDOE School Profiles

More and more families are fleeing to private schools — 1 in every 5 kids now. Their families are paying twice — they pay the public school taxes, then they pay the private school tuition. And they find it worth it. And now the district wants these strapped families to pay even more for the services they’re not using!

People use public school services whether they have kids or not or send their kids to a public school. Everyone you interact with daily (police, doctor, cashier, bank teller, etc) did not attend private school.

Parents who decide to send their children to private school pay their taxes and private school tuition, a decision you voluntarily make as parent. The public school system is provided for everyone to use. If you choose to use alternative education services; that does not excuse you from contributing to the public school system. Much like if you chose to use a limo to take you to the hospital over using an ambulance. You are not excused from the county taxes that help support EMS.

The administration uses threats of massive teacher layoffs, elimination of sports and activities, and spontaneous 8 million dollar deficits magically appearing to get the teachers, the students, and the community to support the referendum. Some cuts may happen. But most don’t have to.

Heard this one over and over in Christina. Deficits don’t magically appear. The available carry-forward each year declines as costs increase with a flat revenue stream. Eventually there is not enough carry forward to pay anticipated costs, the deficit has been growing over the last few years, which is why Brandywine is going for an operating referendum. 

There’s nothing new or different about spending money on buildings, which the district does every year without referendums.

In public school districts in Delaware there are 2 types of spending on building improvements: Minor Capital Improvements and Major Capital Improvements.

Major Capital improvements have costs in excess of $750,000 and need public referendum to approve. At which time, the District must front 40% of the anticipated total cost, and the state will contribute the remaining 60% in a bond agreement. Things like entire building renovations, demolitions, restorations are major capital projects. Brandywine’s Debt Service tax (which funds major capital improvements) will not change with passage of this referendum because there are existing bonds that will be paid off at the end of this fiscal year. That “freed up” revenue will pay for the major cap projects BSD wants to undertake.

Brandywine leads in spending per student (false, see above), administrators per student, and its residents pay the most in school taxes compared to any other Delaware school district.

School taxes are based on the assessed value of a home (which have not been updated since 1983 in New Castle County). Brandywine has a higher average property assessment at $73,600 than its neighboring districts. So, as a consequence of choosing to live in a school district with one of the highest average property assessments; your property taxes will be proportionally higher.

There’s a comparison floating out there between BSD and another downstate District with about the same number students and how many administrators they have, what they are paid in each district and their corresponding ‘results’ on state test scores. First, I still don’t understand the hate toward principals and how much money they earn. Second, here’s a thought exercise. If you had $350k to spend on a new home, what would $350k get you in Brandywine School District? What would it get you in central Sussex County? Cost of living (and cost of everything) is not the same in Selbyville and North Wilmington. Why would salaries be the same? Third, “administrators” is a generalized category which includes not only superintendents, asst. superintendents, principals and asst principals, but business managers, directors of education, curriculum specialists, IT staff, transportation supervisors, and others. Bashing a District on sheer numbers alone is pointless unless you can show where to make practical adjustments. “NUMBER TOO HIGH!!!” isn’t a practical adjustment.

I love this one:

District class sizes are above state required limits, as authorized by Brandywine Board of Education which saves money on fewer teachers.

First, state limits on class sizes are for grades K-3 only. Second, can I get some teachers in here to talk about how larger class sizes and fewer teachers “saves money”??

“The District is not producing viable, employable members of society consistently enough”.

This one wins the award for “Baseless Statement with the Most Arbitrary Qualifiers”

“Easy” cuts to make are not on the table, like the mass mailings of the “Brandywine Review” newspaper which no one reads.

How must it feel to be the staff in BSD who are in charge of contributing to and editing this paper having your work dumped on by uninformed people with a vendetta against your employer?

I’m sure if the paper ceased circulation we’d get (more of) an uproar of the District trying to pass a “Stealth Referendum” whatever that means.

The District says the referendum is new and different- they removed the  AstroTurf proposal that was so expensive and controversial last time but the tax increase they ask for is now exactly the same amount they asked for before! Anyone else hear alarm bells going off?! Why are we being asked to pay the same amount when we’re getting less?

My ears are alarm-bell free. Reading comprehension is your friend. Initially the Operating portion of the referendum was for an increase of $0.28 per $100 assessed value PLUS AN ADDITIONAL $0.05 per year for 3 years to pay for the turf (so the rate increase would be $0.33 for 3 years, then drop to $0.28 thereafter). The current Operating ask (sans turf) is…you guessed it: $0.28.

Revenue will not decrease by a single penny simply because taxes are not increased.

Costs will continue to rise. So there’s that. You know, the other piece to the revenue-cost equation. If the number of students enrolled in charters and choiced out of the district goes up, the District will see a revenue reduction because the payments to those schools.

The quality of schools will improve only when families and taxpayers send the message that we’re not going to reward mediocrity anymore.

Tell school districts “ JUST DO BETTER!” That’ll fix it.

And finally my personal favorite:

It’s true, BSD takes all comers. So do other districts. The Christina School District has an entire school for the deaf and another school for the autistic. Brandywine has relatively few students with special challenges like these.

I don’t even know what the point of that statement is but, Christina doesn’t have an ‘entire school for the deaf’. The State of Delaware has the Delaware School for the Deaf. We also don’t have “another school for the autistic”. The State of Delaware has the Delaware Autism Program. These are statewide programs as in, they accept students from all over. 

You know why Brandywine has relatively few students with needs like that? Because they go to Delaware School for the Deaf and the Delaware Autism Program.

So what’s all this mean? When a District goes out for an operating referendum they’re not going out because the Superintendent wants a raise or because they want gilded flatware in their cafeterias. They’re going out because they can’t keep paying for everything they have without more revenue -or- getting rid of existing staff and programs. The only way Districts get more operating revenue in Delaware is by asking residents to raise their own property taxes. Take a look at Christina this year and what changes we had to make because we failed twice to pass an operating referendum last year. Class sizes pushing 40, no librarians in our high schools, scaled back guidance services, no after-school transportation for extracurriculars, most extracurriculars cut. This will be a reality for BSD next year without passage tomorrow. Slashing $8 million out of an operating budget will pretty much decimate the same things.

Similarly, when a District goes out for a capital referendum it isn’t because the central office wants a new building for themselves. In BSD’s case, they want to complete renovations to multiple aging school buildings without piecemealing the work (and then hearing complaints of schools not up to standards, not competitive, etc from parents and residents) and demolish a disused building. Legit expenses here people.

I don’t live in Brandywine School District but if you do, I urge you to go out and vote YES tomorrow May 17th. And if you vote “yes” with reservations, consider getting involved with or at least paying attention to the District and its happenings. Speak up at board meetings or budget meetings. Talk with the Superintendent or principals. One thing you’ll never hear from public schools in Delaware is “We don’t need more help.” Can Brandywine do better? Sure. All districts can do better but they cannot cut their way to success.

I’ll end with this comment made on a Facebook post I shared today:

When I stood in line to vote for the Christiana referendum I overheard a conversation in front of me. One of the workers was from Brooklyn and so was the voter in front of me. They were discussing how it was strange that in Delaware they ask you if you want to raise taxes for the district and in New York they just do it. I never questioned it until then since I’ve always lived in this state, but I thought “what a novel idea”. We don’t really get asked to vote on how money is spent in other areas, but for whatever reason we have to decide this for our children and it’s unfortunate that people can say no, they don’t want to invest in children and the future of their own community.

The smart vote is YES for Brandywine School District.

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About the Author ()

A dad, husband, and public education supporter. Small tent progressive/liberal. Christina School District Citizen's Budget Oversight Committee member, who knows a bit about a lot when it comes to the convoluted mess that is education funding in the State of Delaware.

Comments (17)

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  1. Prop Joe (Hawkeye) says:

    Damn fine work here, Brian… Very much appreciate the thorough take-down of the “referendum swift-boating” (?) that occurs almost every time a district goes out… It’ll surely happen when Appoquinimink goes out for its referendum later this year.

    Quite honestly, I really think that the majority of people who vote “no” do so for no other reason than they want to have the ‘best’ of everything in life but without expensing any of their own effort or capital. It’s the people who talk about the lack of businesses in their area from one side of their mouth while spouting NIMBY bullshit from the other side.

  2. puck says:

    “Let’s discuss some of what I’ve been hearing …”

    Brian, where are you getting these quotes? Did I miss seeing the reference?

    • Brian says:

      Most of this can be sourced by taking the arguments made against Christina School District (or any Del. district) and substituting Brandywine School District as the name. There’s nothing novel or groundbreaking in most of these arguments. You can find them spattered across social media, Facebook, Twitter, DelawareOnline comments (if you read comments have your eye bleach ready). You may also find some of them in the tirades of a person currently engaged in a lawsuit against Brandywine SD for matters unrelated to the referenda. I’m not linking the posts or the name because it doesn’t deserve the traffic for this reason. You may Google “Brandywine Referendum Do-Over” and you’ll find it.

  3. pandora says:

    Yeah, I keep hearing the same arguments against the referendum.

    Excellent blogging, Brian. We really need to get rid of referendums – they are being used as retaliation. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Pet peeve: People tossing out per student cost averages. Just. Stop.

  4. mediawatch says:

    Once upon a time, people who lived north and west of Wilmington (in districts then known as Mount Pleasant, Alfred I. du Pont and Alexis I. du Pont) were proud to pay more in school taxes so their kids could benefit from smaller class sizes and special programs that the districts in more blue-collar areas couldn’t afford. One of the kids who benefitted from having parents willing to pay more in taxes was Mark Holodick, the Brandywine superintendent, who graduated from Concord High School. These folks recognized the value of a good education and realized that if you wanted something better, you had to pay a little more for it. You can blame the negativity on a lot of things — desegregation (yes, that started 38 years ago and some people haven’t stopped griping yet), DuPont cutbacks, worries over pensions and Social Security, or how well (or poorly) Johnny did on his stinkin’ standardized tests.
    But our schools, if financed adequately, can be one of the best economic development tools in our arsenal — and it’s one that we can control. If you care about the future of your neighborhood, and the community at large, you won’t shortchange your schools.

  5. Tom Dean says:

    Wow, made up “facts and figures” with no sourcing and people just accept it as true. Maybe you all need to go back to school and learn something. Lies and knowingly putting out misleading or false information is despicable and it is people like you who are leading this country down the wrong path. Your perception isn’t reality – get over it..

  6. Brian says:

    Both of my kids go to private school, but I voted YES last time and will do so again tomorrow. Starving the infrastructure of any business will eventually lead to a downward spiral from which it will not recover. Denying sufficient operating and capital funding is an excellent way to destroy the district and real estate values.

  7. Donviti says:

    Brah effing O.

  8. Donviti says:

    In Sharpley constituents were heard saying they were concerned that the city kids would tear the turf fields with their knives and they don’t deserve to have them

  9. MrsXStryker says:

    I’d like to put in a correction. BSD has loads of special needs kids, my son included. The Brandywine Specialized Autism Program (BSAP) is quickly gaining a reputation for being one of the best in the state.

  10. FWIW, we sent our kids to private school during Tom Carper’s first stab at education reform. Didn’t vote in the first referendum, and I thought the district did a poor job of reaching out to potential voters. At least to voters like us, who vote yes for referenda, but no longer have school-age kids. The outreach has been a lot better this time.

    I’m voting yes tomorrow, I think it’s the most important investment we can make, and I can tell you that the BSD has done a great job educating many of the kids we know who live in our community.

  11. Rebekah says:

    This is excellent! Thank you for caring about children in our state!

  12. Man Bites Dog: Guess who sent out a robo-call in support of the referendum?

    Greg Lavelle. Of course, it came complete with Greg as the hero of his own narrative as he says he talked to the superintendent and basically told him what was wrong with the first referendum, and now they’ve heeded his advice, and he’s A-OK with it.

    But still.

  13. Gotta think it’s looking good for passage of the referendum today. We just got back from voting. The election officials told us that the turnout was much larger today (we voted at Green Street Elementary). I figure that the ‘no’s’ turn out regardless, and the push for passage was much stronger this time. It’s been reflected in turnout.

  14. Brian, you wrote: “When a District goes out for an operating referendum they’re not going out because the Superintendent wants a raise or because they want gilded flatware in their cafeterias.” Now obviously, no public school cafeterias in Delaware have (to the best of my knowledge) gilded flatware. What we do have in this district is the highest paid Superintendent in the state. This is what happens with referenda: they exist because the boards use funds for multiple raises over the years. Holodick and many other admin salaries have gone way up the past few years. This is done by the board. So by the time a referendum comes up, the damage is already done with all the salaries. Not to mention the step raises for all the teachers. I’m not saying no one deserves a raise. But how much money has BSD given for the BRINC initiative over the years? And all the other “fluff” contracts? What is needed for referenda doesn’t concern me nearly as much as what money is spent on during the in-between years. If these districts are so cash poor all the time, then why do they have so many (not just BSD but across the state) administrators making such high salaries? Where do those funds come from that justify some pretty hefty salary increases?

    In regards to the guy from NY comment, you can’t even begin to compare what New Yorkers pay for school taxes with Delaware citizens. It is night and day. Granted, schools get less state funding, but the average citizen pays through the nose up there for schools.

    If I lived in BSD, I would most likely vote yes for the referendum with extreme reservation based on the “in-between” spending.

  15. Brian says:

    Kevin I’m actually pretty surprised you’re hopping on the ‘bloated salaries’ wagon.

    Mark Holodick makes a lot of money. His base salary is $195k. That’s at (or near) the top for a Super in Delaware. The BSD’s Board (which is publicly elected, mind you) approved his contract. I don’t know exactly what BSD Board turnover has been like lately but I’ll wager membership has been pretty stable and with a 60-40 margin last night, BSD residents evidently don’t have a major problem with the Board or what its doing.

    Superintendents typically have doctoral level degrees. Sometimes their Deputies do as well, if not they have masters level degrees. Principals have masters level degrees, some even doctorates. Many teachers have (multiple) masters level educations. I’m confused as to why you wouldn’t want a payscale commensurate with experience, education, and talent level. As to the number of administrators, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that statement as an ‘argument’ against referenda. Most of our districts have an Administrative Hierarchy chart on their websites with each administrative position at the district level listed. I’ve yet to have someone articulate what administrative positions are ‘fluff’ or excessive, unnecessary, or not needed. I’m also okay with step increases and raises to our educators, they aren’t paid nearly what they’re worth and if you ask me, we should go for a referendum to bump educator salaries alone.

    If you want to talk ‘fluff’ contracts- the definition of ‘fluff contract’ is pretty subjective, so I’d have to know what exactly you define as ‘fluff’. Fluff to some may not be fluff to others.

  16. Brian says:

    @MrsXStryker; thank you for the correction!!

    @El Som, I got the robocall from Lavelle too. I don’t live in BSD. Or Wilmington. Or in his district. Glad he was able to save the District from itself..