In Haddonfield, an unexpected leader helped defeat a plan to buy the Bancroft School

Brian Kelly founded Haddonfield United, which led the fight against buying the Bancroft School site.
Brian Kelly founded Haddonfield United, which led the fight against buying the Bancroft School site. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

In upscale Haddonfield, a town with a disproportionate number of lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, a massage therapist and political novice who only recently moved back to the borough might seem an unlikely leader for the movement that last week defeated the proposed purchase of the Bancroft School.

But Brian Kelly, 57, had a knack for tapping into residents' psyche. The outcome surprised school and borough officials, who had expected to win over a majority of voters.

Kelly grew up in Haddonfield but lived in Bellmawr for about a decade, he said in an interview last week, "because I couldn't afford" the borough's high taxes. He returned in mid-2011 "because I just wanted to come back home."

To reacquaint himself with Haddonfield, Kelly said, he took long walks, stopping to chat along the way.

"I would sit on people's porches and talk with them for maybe an hour, sometimes not talking about politics at all - just talking about their lives," he said. "I really love the town; I've always loved it. . . . It was an enriching experience."

He learned many residents believed their leaders already had made up their minds to buy the Bancroft property without taking their views into account, Kelly said. "They felt that a small segment of town was being catered to . . . I think for most people, there was a trust factor."

He added: "A lot of people said, 'If the referendum goes through, I'm going to put the house up' for sale. "They said, 'We need a voice, we need a voice'; I was that voice."

Starting with just three people holding signs at the 2012 Fourth of July parade, Kelly built Haddonfield United, the group he founded to oppose floating a $12.5 million bond to fund the school district's acquisition of the 19.2-acre Bancroft property on Kings Highway East. Bancroft, which educates students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, wanted to sell the land so it could move.

Haddonfield United raised about $2,000, compared to about $7,500 brought in by One Haddonfield, a group formed to support the purchase.

But Haddonfield United had a vigorous Web presence - about 5,000 page views a week by the end - and put frequent commentaries in local media, many written by Kelly. It raised numerous objections, saying the Bancroft property was overpriced and the bond reflected misplaced priorities because it called for funding only an athletic field and parking. It said the district should concentrate on fixing up existing facilities.

By the Jan. 22 referendum, Haddonfield United had mobilized about 100 volunteers to hand out 11,000 leaflets and make 1,500 phone calls in a borough that has about 9,435 voters.

About 48 percent of the voters - 4,523 - cast ballots, much more than the 3,211 who voted in a 2000 referendum about whether to authorize $18.3 million in school capital projects. The Bancroft referendum lost by about 250 votes - 53 percent to 47 percent.

Kelly, said John Sullivan, a lawyer, parent, and Haddonfield United leader, is "a real people person. . . . He's not afraid to walk up to a stranger on the street, take their concerns, and bring them back to us."

"Brian was able bring all sides together - liberals, conservatives, moderates - because the issue affected all our pocketbooks. He is plainspoken. He wins everyone's respect," Sullivan said.

Lee Pease, a leader of One Haddonfield, which favored the purchase, said Haddonfield United "clearly tapped into the no-tax-increase sentiment of the population. . . . They did a really good job of getting people fearful of what would happen down the road - that this would be the tip of the iceberg" because more money would have to be spent and taxes would be raised even more to fund educational projects that were mentioned in the referendum but never spelled out.

Some residents, Pease said, asked themselves: " 'Why are we going to spend all this money when this proposal is so nebulous?' - it was hard for people to get behind."

The Bancroft referendum victory is just the beginning for Haddonfield United, Kelly said.

"There's so much talent and so much dedication in this town," he said. "We need new blood; we need a new direction; we need to put our house in order - to take care of our roads and our schools.

"These people are my neighbors - I like them and I respect their opinions - I like to talk to them. . . . I hope the whole town gets involved in the discussion; we weren't before this."


Contact Dan Hardy at 856-779-3858, dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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