Octorara faces lowest student population in 20 years

Octorara's Population DeclineThe Octorara Area School District Board of Directors held its annual Reorganization Meeting, monthly Work Session meeting, and Facilities Committee Meeting on December 1, 2014. Eight Board Members were in attendance at the Work Session; Leon Lapp was absent.

The annual Reorganization Meeting, because if it being a non-election year, had only minor changes to the Board structure, with just a few Committee changes.

During the Work Session, the Board was presented the Agenda Items to be voted on at the Regular Meeting on December 8th. There were no Presentations, Visitor Comments, or Informational Items.

Octorara’s Population Problem

Let us start at how this discussion started…

Readers may recall, at last month’s Facilities Committee Meeting, I recommended finding a more profitable use for the approximately 45 acres of undeveloped land, owned by the District, now leased out for farming.

The District purchased the land for $29,000 per acre. The original purchse was a total of 100 acres (most the the difference was used for the Intermediate School) for $2.9 Million. A review of TrendMLS shows lots of similar sizes (on the market and selling today within the school district) now go for between $10,000-$11,000 per acre.

The response to my suggestion had some members completely rejecting the idea, with an expression of faith in the 2003 Feasibility Study which predicted that the student population would be 3,089 by the year 2013. Following the meeting, I requested a copy of the 2003 Feasibility Study, and then a report of this year’s enrollment.

At Monday’s Facilities Committee Meeting, I used the discussion of the YMCA rental agreement to spark a conversation about keeping the option open for building consolidation.

The Argument For Consolidation

I did not relitigate the whole report. However, at the time of the Feasibility Survey (before the Intermediate School was built) the building design capacity, across the whole District, was 3,031 students, and there was a population of 2,669 students.

Doing nothing, the District could have accommodated 362 additional students. The Pennsylvania Department of Education calculates this differently, because not every classroom is full. The way they calculate capacity increases the number of students the District could have accommodated at the time, but I used the lower number to be fair.

The Feasibility Survey projected that the District would be at 3,089 students by year 2013 (last year). Stop there for a second. The existing design capacity in the year 2003 was 3,031 students, and the projection was that there would be 3,089 students some 10 years in the future. I have argued before that the District should have not rushed the campus expansion to see if enrollment numbers started to manifest. Add the design capacity, and I believe it strengthens that position, because we had the room to accommodate much of the growth.

That projection of 3,089 students by 2013 never manifested, nor was the District ever on pace to meet those projections. This is an inarguable fact. Adding insult to injury, the District’s enrollment numbers have been in a nose dive since 2009, and this year the District is the lowest it has been (2,468 students) since 1994. Wasn’t the PLC built in 2000? That means the last time enrollment was this low, not even the PLC existed.

According to Dr Newcome, to the best of his recollection, the design capacity of the Intermediate School added room for 500 additional students. He does not know the design capacity change to the High School, but stated it was “only 4 classrooms.” So, we can safely say the campus expansion changed the total capacity to at least 3,600 students, and we are now at 2,468 students.

Debt from expanding the campus, and the additional costs associated with operations and maintenance, has caused detrimental harm to both taxpayers and students. Merging the the High School and Jr High (on paper only) was used to be able to cut teachers back in 2007 and 2008 to control costs, at the same time the biggest tax hikes where hitting property owners.

I believe it is time school consolidation and District reorganization received serious consideration. At the very least, another Feasibility Survey should be considered since the Department of Education is projecting enrollment declines through the end of the decade (as far out was they currently go).

The Rebuttal

The responses to my proposal were only during the Facilities Committee Meeting. I was asked to repeat my suggestions during the full Board Meeting, which I did, but there was no rebuttal at that time.

The same individuals who had and still have complete faith in the Feasibility Survey projections, want to also question the reliability of design capacities listed in that same report.

In fact, these individuals took it a step further, stating the 3,600 student capacity is absolutely wrong based on the “way we teach now,” and they believe all classrooms are fully filled.

Ok, so the Intermediate School was built because the Administration and majority of the Board at the time believed that by 2013 the District would have 3,089 students, and with a new capacity of 3,600 students the District could comfortably grow. They may have rush it, but otherwise it seems reasonable… on the surface.

Today, in 2014, the student population has dropped to 2,468 students, but the argument is that the District is currently fully filled, not underutilized, and (based on opinion only) the design capacity of 3,600 cannot possible be true. However, in the same breath, a belief was stated that the projections from the Feasibility Survey will come true in another 10 years, and people will be happy the Intermediate School exists.

I asked one individual, “At what student population level would you consider consolidation?” The response was “under 2,000 students,” a level this person agreed had not been seen since the 1970s.

3,089 Students By 2024

One of the main arguments of those opposed to consolidation is a continued faith in projections that never materialized will now materialize at some point in next 10 years. What does the historical data tell us?

Using the 11 years analyzed in the Feasibility Study (1993-2003), and the 11 years since (2004-2014), Octorara’s lowest population was 2,456 students in 1994. The District’s highest number of students was in 2008 with 2,714 students. That is an average growth of 14.5 students over 14 years, or a total of 258 students.

In order for the District to reach the new target of 3,089 students by 2024, the district will need to add more than 62 new students per year, or a total of 621.

The 2003 Feasibility Study was developed during the Housing Bubble, and projected a sustained rate of growth of 42 new students per year, or 420 new students added to the population that existed in 2003.

There are Board Members who want taxpayers to believe our District will grow in the next 10 years at a rate 3 times faster than it did over the 14 years when Octorara saw the most growth.

What we know is the Housing Boom began in 1993, became hyper-accelerated starting in 2000, and then peaked in 2006. Is it reasonable to believe Octorara will see growth over the next 10 years at a rate 3 times higher than this period of unprecedented housing growth?

Which version do you accept?

On one side there is the undeniable fact the Feasibility projections were false. Enrollment is the lowest in 20 years, when even the PLC did not exist, and it is time to consider building consolidation to save taxpayers and help students.

Or do you accept the Octorara Campus is just the right size for the current population, but you also except Octorara will have unprecedented hyper-accelerated growth over the next 10 years?

15 thoughts on “Octorara faces lowest student population in 20 years

  1. The district still has one whole wing of the elementary school, now occupied by the YMCA, that it could use for class room space. Why is this not being considered?

  2. Tim, Nice work!

    Would be interesting to know how many potential/eligible Octorara students are being educated elsewhere (private, charter, etc) and how that number is trending compared with Octorara enrollment trends. Also, if there is such a metric: it would be revealing to know how the family makeup & demographics of folks moving into our district compare to new residents in neighboring districts… Are the property taxes chasing away potential home buyers who have children, and young couples just starting out (i.e. future parents)?

    If the district’s academic performance & cost of moving into the district are impacting enrollment, then it would seem like a no brainer to consolidate and divert resources towards boosting academics, and/or easing the burden on the taxpayers.

    Maintaining appropriate capacity is obviously a delicate balancing act. The school district and the local economy have a symbiotic relationship. I am glad that you are bringing a holistic view to the board.

    David Byers

    >

    • David,

      I don’t have that exact number of students living within the area but attending other schools.

      However, I do know that the number of Charter School kids within the District is going down. That was something discussed during the last budget process, and explained why our Charter School tuition payments were going down. It was not that we were bringing kids back into Octorara. There are just less kids overall.

      The enrollment issue may revolve around an aging population, and young families choosing not to move here.

    • David; I believe you are very accurate at stating property taxes are the reason for chasing away potential home buyers.When you can go to Solanco at 11 mills, Paqeua 27 mills Avon grove 27 mills and downingtown at 27 mills.The school district has killed the community .We still have delusional board members who speculated growth and built new schools and still believe we will grow three times faster in the next ten years then we did the past 14.Some people just can’t admit they were wrong.

      • A school district with high taxes and low test scores – not exactly a mecca for home buyers. I’m just wondering what numbers or facts they are using to stick by the “if you build it they will come” mentality.

    • David,

      I have some numbers for you.

      Since 2011, Charter School enrollment has dropped from 202 student to 170 students in 2014.

      The traditional Charter Schools saw a significant decline, from 152 to 117 students. The cyber students increased from 40 to 53 students. I have been told in the past that a significant portion of cyber students are children that would have been otherwise home-schooled.

      During that same period, Private School enrollment has increased from 108 students to 121. That entire increase in Private School enrollment looks to be related to the Fairhaven Christian School, in Gap, which I believe was opened in 2012.

      Overall, it is a decline of 19 students living within the District, but attending other schools, or a 6.1% reduction since 2011.

      Also, 8 of these children are Preschoolers.

      The decline in the District’s enrollment from 2011 to 2014 is around 4.3%… and a lower percentage decline is reflected regardless of which “official” numbers are used.

      This all tells us there is a definite decline in the District of families with school aged children.

  3. We have a District that put’s wants before needs and any one can be a board member. Most of the board members for years must have thought if the District wants it they must need it and just agreed with every thing.They have to find out the difference before passing items;

    • Jim,

      We are entering an election year. There will be seats in every Region of the District up for re-election. I encourage anyone interested in making a difference to run.

      It is not a complicated process. You just need to go to Voter Services to get your petition. You can start collecting signatures in February, and only need 10 signatures to get of the ballot. You can also cross-file, and run as both a Republican and Democrat (because the position is considered non-political) which would mean 2 separate petitions.

  4. Lower taxes would be great however – more children in each classroom would not be. Right now each class room is averaging about 25 students. Anymore than that and it would be difficult to provide the individual attention the children need.

    I am all for consolidating to make more classrooms but not to increase the class sizes.

    • I completely agree with you about class size. I believe it comes down to effective use of space. Thing is, before the Intermediate School was built we had less space, but could afford more teachers. After the Intermediate School we have more space, but less teachers, and no improvement to academic achievement.. and with Science, we are seriously going down hill fast.

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