By John Chambless
The big-ticket item at the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board's work session on Jan. 13 was the approval of the proposed preliminary budget for 2014-15, but there were plenty of other topics that filled the three-hour meeting and drew a large crowd.
The board approved the preliminary budget of $76,057,213, while several members acknowledged that there is a long way to go in hammering out the final tally. Gov. Corbett will not announce the state's budget until Feb. 4, so much of the funding is still unknown. But as a best guess, director of business and operations Robert Cochran laid out a budget that seeks a real estate tax rate of 26.79 in Chester County and 22.50 in Delaware County. That averages out to a weighted average of 4.03 percent, which exceeds the Act 1 Index of 2.1. Therefore, the school district is seeking exceptions of $925,978 in Chester County and $174,665 in Delaware County, for a total of $1,100,643, to bring the budget within the limits of Act 1. Cochran cautioned that the district does not necessarily plan on using the exceptions, but is including them as a contingency in case they become necessary later in the budget process. Cochran presented figures that showed an available balance of $1.4 million in exceptions, of which the district is earmarking $1.1 million.
The board also approved a timeline for approval of the budget, with a series of meetings leading up to the final adoption and the setting of tax millage rates on June 16. The complete proposed preliminary budget is posted online at www.ucfsd.org, under Board Documents.
The agenda item that drew a big crowd to the meeting, though, was a discussion of approving a club team for rowers at Unionville High School. The team, to be named the Unionville Rowing Club, would get no funding from the school district. If the team is approved, though, students could get letters in crew, and they could row under the school's name. They could also use the school indoor facilities, but would be based at the Wilmington Rowing Center.
Seven parents and students stood up to address the board on the benefits of crew, citing the positive influences, the work that's required and the discipline learned by rowing as a team. That discipline, they said, pays off with improved academic results.
Cuyler Walker, an attorney and the chairman of the East Marlborough Board of Supervisors, said that he is arranging the club team's paperwork as a non-profit group and helping formalize its selection of officers. “I rowed in college, and I can say that it builds character and it builds discipline,” Walker told the school board. “It stimulates a desire to achieve excellence. Kids need to work together to reach the pinnacle of success, and I believe that's in keeping with the excellence of this school district.”
The school board will vote on whether to approve the crew team at next month's meeting.
The board also heard from Sheila Fleming of the Brandywine Conservancy, and landscape architect Michael Lane, about proposed changes to a walking trail that runs along the edge of the Chadds Ford Elementary School property. The issue was raised almost a year ago, and board members expressed concern at that time about safety issues due to the proximity of the public trail and the school's playground.
Lane presented photos showing a proposed solution, with fences and signs to keep the public away from the playground area.
The trail has been an informal footpath for decades, and runs along the eastern edge of the school property. It is “the missing link” in the Brandywine Creek Greenway, Lane said, a 30-mile conservation corridor that will ultimately include 230 miles of sidewalks and trails along the Brandywine Creek. Without the critical piece of the trail, he said, there will be no link between trails in northern Chester County and trails that lead south into Delaware.
Lane specified that the trail is unpaved, and will be used only by walkers. He proposed a series of post-and-rail fences to guide walkers around the school, and a series of chain-link fences that will prevent direct access to the playground. To complete the plan, the trail will need to be moved three feet closer to the playground, thereby avoiding an adjoining property whose owner does not want the trail placed there. The Conservancy is seeking a 10-foot easement so that the trail and fences can be placed. The process could take a couple of years, Lane said.
The project will be paid for by the Conservancy and donations, not by the school district. The easement is not intended to be permanent, Lane said. The ultimate goal is to get the trail moved over to the adjoining property at some point. He added that the trail is most often used on weekends in the summer, when students will not be in school.
Board member Kathleen Do told Lane, “I feel much better after seeing what you're proposing. I can see that a significant amount of work has been done on this in the past year.”
The board seemed satisfied with the safety procedures in the proposal, but said that no decision on the easement would be made until next month's board meeting.
At a curriculum meeting that preceded the work session, John Nolen, the director of curriculum and instruction, presented some results of the Olweus anti-bullying program that was rolled out in the district's elementary schools last year. The program has been in place at Patton Middle School for the past five years. All students in third to eighth grade were surveyed last spring. Class meetings on bullying are being held at the schools twice a month to keep the topic in discussion.
Nolen cited results that indicated about 25 percent of the elementary students say they have been bullied two or three times in the past month, which is similar to the national average. About 80 percent of the students indicated that they would respond to bullying by telling an adult, and about the same percentage said they would personally try to help a bullied student. Most of the bullying is verbal, Nolen said, including rumors spread by others or excluding an individual student.
The responses will be tracked next year to see if the year-long emphasis on anti-bullying spelled out by the Olweus program has an effect on bullying.
The principals of each elementary school were at the board meeting, and they all indicated that students are getting the message about the effects of bullying and how to handle it when they encounter it. Incidents which cannot be immediately remedied by a teacher in the classroom are put in writing and reported to the superintendent's office for action.
The subject of teacher evaluations was also discussed at the curriculum meeting. Ken Batchelor, the assistant to the superintendent, said a committee has recommended making surveys available to students and parents which will be analyzed and turned back to the teachers in each classroom. Batchelor said that a company called Panorama will be engaged to write and implement the surveys, and to report the results, at a cost of about $1 per survey. “Teachers will get the data results and work with their principals to evaluate the results or make recommendations,” Batchelor said.
The board discussed the necessity of getting surveys from a wide cross-section of students and teachers, not just from those with an issue they feel strongly about, so that a true picture of a teacher's work can be uncovered.
The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board will meet on Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Patton Middle School. Visit www.ucfsd.org for more information.