At the last board meeting, an invitation was extended for me to meet with Dr. Newcome. Yesterday, I took him up on his offer. I expected maybe an hour, but an hour turned to two… then three… then four. The conversation was friendly and informative, and we spoke on a variety of topics, each trying to get the other to understand the other side of the issue.
I have no doubt Dr. Newcome cares about the students and the community. However, I do believe his judgment of this issue may be a little clouded by his role. He lives in a world that requires him to balance the wants and needs of many different groups, and to craft outcomes to satisfy various interests. His commitment to the students, staff, and board are without question, admirable, and deserving of our respect.
However, that will not change my persistent challenges to the Octorara School Board to freeze taxes this year, to cut taxes over the next 5 years, or to address issues of spending and labor costs. The school board must be made to see the other side of the coin.
I believe everyone on the board genuinely cares for the district, the students, and our community. However, there are those on the school board who, in my opinion, do not perceive the reality of the situation in the same way as the typical property owner. I hold no personal animosity toward any of them, but I will speak bluntly about what I see as a rigid, narrow vision.
Dr. Newcome stated, in order for anything to happen, there needs to be greater participation than just signing a petition. At the very lease, you have to want tax cuts enough to show up to board meetings. If you have ideas for cuts, you need to present them to the board.
Personally, I am hesitant to make specific recommendations. It creates a straw-man for the board to argue. The debate would become about the big mean tax protestors wanting to cut the athletic budget, rather than the fact it was years of spending that put us in this position. It is not just our board. During the housing boom, property tax money flowed like water, and local governments and school boards spent like drunken sailors. Now that the tap has been turned off, they painted us all in a courner and can’t seem to find a way to stop themselves.
I need to be blunt here. We need to fill those seats, or the school board will do what the school board always does. Some on the school board take our wanting/needing tax cuts very seriously. Others dismiss every signature on the petition. If you want them to change things, we need to light a fire under them. Several of these board members are up for re-election. They need to know you are paying attention.
This is another topic I wanted to share. Dr. Newcome reiterated the talking point from the school board meeting that the recent agreement has helped contain cost. He also provided me with a copy of a brochure entitled “Pennsylvania School Facts & Figures 2012″ from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which was the source Lisa Bowman used to counter my assertion that labor costs are too high.
Thanks to Dr. Newcome providing me the brochure, I found newer 2011-12 numbers, and was also able to get the information breakdown based on individual school district. This data is publicly available within the Professional and Support Personnel Data and Statistics section of the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.
Even using the Octorara School Board’s own source material, we find we are paying a premium. Octorara’s 2011-12 average teacher salary ($66,523) is higher than the Pennsylvania average ($62,019), higher than the both the Chester ($64,344) and Lancaster County ($60,124) averages, and higher wages compared to our closest neighbors: Coatesville ($59,662), Oxford ($54,843), Pequea Valley ($58,610). Moreover, every Lancaster County school district has a lower average salary, and the five schools in Chester County having higher salaries are much more affluent than Octorara. A full list can be found on the previous post. This is still after having put a pay freeze in place last year.
No More To Give
Dr. Newcome admits the millage is high. He does understand that this taxes have a greater impact in a community with lower incomes compared to the rest of Chester County. Yet, he still defends the budget, and past choices the school district made to spend.
There are many homeowners who, even if Octorara was the best performing school in Chester County, or even the best in Pennsylvania, they have just hit a wall. In the 2007-08 school year, left off the budget talking points memo, the millage rate was only 28.37. Today, the millage rate is 36.66, and projected to go higher with the 2013-14 budget. That is a dramatic increase by anyone’s standard. Even in the 2011-12 budget, the budget that the school board likes to point to as them actually making a real cut in spending, they raised taxes.
In my opinion, we have not only hit a wall of property owners not being able to pay, we have hit a wall where the high taxes could cause diminishing revenue. As time goes on, more and more property owners may start challenging Tax Assessments. The Octorara Area School District could become an even more depressed housing market. Tax revenues will go down even with the high millage rate, forcing them to raise taxes even if actual, real spending cuts are made. Who wants a millage rate of 47 or 50 in 5 years?
Return On Investment
I think this, more than any area, is one Dr. Newcome seemed to most dispute. The perception of many is that we are paying the highest taxes for education, paying a premium for teachers, have acquired all this debt, and yet we are a poorly performing school. The school board states that the high taxes are needed to provide a quality education, but there is a dispute over if they are really providing the quality they claim.
Dr. Newcome freely admits that the PSSA scores are not where they should be, and he is at a loss to explain why. He believes factors other than the education may be at fault, despite the school district being under warning for not making Adequate Yearly Progress. He points to the number of other school districts, in both Chester and Lancaster Counties, being under warning, as well as other test indicators, to defend the school.
Dr. Newcome provided testing outcomes for NOCTI Testing (National Occupation Competency Testing Institute). The report showed steady test improvement for the OAHS in Agriculture Production, Agriculture Mechanics in the 21st Century Workplace Readiness Co-op. The students who participated had 75% test at Advance to Competent levels. However, the same report showed NOCTI Testing inclusive of all students, not just Octorara, was 88% at Advance to Competent levels.
In conjunction with NOCTI, the SOAR program provides free technical college credit. Octorara has the forth lowest enrollment of all schools, but the highest number (15 students) receiving free credits.
I was provided with SAT scores. Octorara does slightly better in Critical Reading and Math compared to Pennsylvania averages, but under in Writting. Octorara falls behind in all areas compared to national scores. No information was provided comparing us to other Chester or Lancaster County school districts.
I believe Dr. Newcome believes he is providing a good return on taxpayer investment. However, looking through the Annual Report from November 2012, I also feel there was an effort to take focus off the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Adequate Yearly Progress issues.
I have no doubt Dr. Newcome cares for the students, and about providing the best education possible. He felt he needed to educate me about certain processes and past decisions. He felt he needed to defend the board who (agree with them or disagree with them) do what they do out of genuine concern. It was an attempt at building consensus. In my stubbornness, it has me thinking, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
This has to be the year of change. If it is not, we will see a sure and steady increase in our taxes. Our school district will continue to have issues with under-performance. There needs a fundamental change in the way people think and act. Sign the petition. Come to school board meetings. Speak up and speak out!!