Lisa Bowman, Octorara School Board President, stated at the February 11 meeting, “All we do is cut.” The way the school board discusses the budget, one would think spending has been cut to the bone, and any more cutting would compromise students’ education. Is this true?
The local lancasteronline.com, Intelligencer Journal’s online version, reported this past November:
For the 2012-13 school year, the county’s 17 school districts plan to spend a total average of $14,196, or $411 more than the previous year, for every student they educate.
All but two districts — Columbia and Manheim Central — anticipate spending more than they spent last year.
The per-pupil spending figures are derived by dividing budgeted expenditures by a district’s Oct. 1 enrollment figures.
Octorara schools have the highest average per-pupil cost, at $18,207, followed by Pequea Valley ($17,754), School District of Lancaster ($15,272) and Cocalico ($15,189).
Elizabethtown has the lowest cost, at $12,435 per student, followed by Solanco ($12,808), Conestoga Valley ($12,820), and Penn Manor ($12,823). (Read more…)
Octorara spends $4,000 more per-student
The main reason, cited by the school board, for our high taxes is that we live in an area with lower home values, less business, green space restrictions, and farms. However, they make these comparisons to communities to our east: West Chester, Great Valley, Tredyffrin. When we compare ourselves to communities that look more like us, we see that it is not a tax base issue, but an issue of spending. Octorara schools have an average per-pupil cost of $18,207 compared to Lancaster County average of $14,196.
Blaming farmers and green space
There is no way to argue that the City of Lancaster suffers because of farmers and green space regulations the way Octorara does. What does that have to do with per-student cost anyway? Lancaster pays $15,272 per student. If our per-student cost was within a reasonable range, and taxes were still high, then the school board’s argument would hold true. In reality, our high taxes go hand-in-hand with high per-student spending.
Labor costs have been allowed to get out of control
It has been reported that the average teacher salary was $66,523 for the 2011-12 school year, within the Octorara Area School District. Additionally, for the 2013-14 school year, the starting salary will jump to over $49,000. The lancasteronline.com article already notes labor as being the largest portion of Octorara’s high per-student cost. How do we compare with a broader look?*
Nationally, Average salary $40,358-$43,944
Pennsylvania, Average salary $43,825
Philadeliphia, Average salary $43,230
Therefore, while the average teacher’s salary seems to consistently average around $43,000 everywhere, the Octrara School District is starting teachers at over $49,000. Average salaries are not available for 2013-14. This does not include benefits.
Don’t blame the union
It is easy to place blame on the teacher’s union, and the school board did just that at the last meeting stating, “We are dealing with a very powerful union.” The union is only doing what a union is suppose to do, negotiate in the best interest of their membership. If they try to be “fair” to the school district, taxpayers and students, they would breach their duty. The school district has a responsibility to negotiate the best deal possible. Our high labor costs are not the fault of the union. It is the failure of the school district.
Labor is not the only issue
Other, non-mandated programs and spending is also a problem. One example is the school district’s iPad program, as reported on ParekesburgToday. The school board is promoting it as a cost saving measure. The program will cost $300,000, will replace 400 computers with 900 iPads, and will also be used to phase out traditional textbooks with e-books. It does save money, but there is more to be saved.
If the numbers hold true, the iPads will cost roughly $333 each, a significant discount to the iPad-2′s cost of $399. However, there are many tablet options retailing under $300, and I’m sure most can be purchased with a bulk or educational discount. If the purpose is to replace text books, could the Kindle Fire HD Tablet ($199) be a better choice? (To compare the 7″ model of Kindle Fire HD vs. iPad mini, click here.) The cost savings is an additional $120,897 paying full retail for Kindle Fire HD Tablets verses the discounted iPads.
In fact, we could get more powerful devices for a comparable price. The Dell Vostro 2420 Laptop is retail priced at $358, and you are getting a much more powerful and functional machine. The Toshiba – Satellite 15.6″ Laptop has 4GB memory and a 320GB hard drive for under $300 at Best Buy. Tablets tend to be a more expensive alternative to laptops when we compare power and performance.
Who said anything about easy?
There is a former school board member who accused me of not understanding the complexity of school finance, and wanting an easy solution. Who said anything about easy? There is nothing easy about telling the teachers union we can’t raise taxes again in this economic environment. There is nothing easy about going thru the budget line by line, cutting programs. There is nothing easy about making a choice not to hire new coaches. It seems easy is the route the school board wants to take.
The numbers don’t lie. We pay our teachers a premium wage compared to national and state averages, and we have the highest per-student cost compared to similar school districts. As a result, we pay the highest school property taxes. Taxpayers can no longer accept the ever increasing tax burden.
*PayScale has collected salary and career data from more than 35 million people, covering 12,000 job titles and 1,100 distinct industries in 150 countries. PayScale regularly provides data and insights around salary and career topics for various publications including Time, CNBC, U.S.News, and Forbes.