Every Octorara voter needs to pay attention to next week’s Board vote, specifically the vote to approve spending to refurbish the track. The total cost of the project is expected to be around $420,000. The Board will vote to approve spending up to 50%, but not to exceed $210,000, of that cost.
If passed, a second vote will need to occur to determine how much the Field Development Committee must have in hand, of the remaining $210,000, before the Board would approve work to start. In a $50 Million budget, $210,000 doesn’t seem like much, does it?
Here Is Why This Vote Is So Very Important.
You will hear a few of Octorara’s Board members say that we have “talked” about the track for years. However, the vast majority of this talk was only at the Committee level, and paying for the progect was never actually planned. You will hear some Octorara Board members say we have money in the Capital Fund, but that money has projects depending on it.
The refurbishment of the Octorara track was not included in the 2014 Five Year Facilities Plan, a document that was intended for prioritizing, planning, and budgeting of Facilities repairs and capital expenditures. Octorara’s track was also not included in the draft of a new Ten Year Facilities Plan—a plan that even incomplete showed our Capital Fund being fully depleted within 3 years.
These are the Budget issues facing the District today:
- The current 2015-2016 Budget, passed in June, has a deficit of $1.7 Million
- The District has ended the past two years with actual deficits
- Within 3 years, the District will have depleted the Reserve to the point it can no longer be used to balance budget shortfalls
- Also within 3 years, the District’s Capital Fund is projected to be gone, and this does not include spending on things like the track nor the tennis courts
- There is talk of limiting the growth of the 2016-2017 Budget, but we should be prepared for a $1.5 Million increase in spending
- While the exact numbers have yet to be calculated by PDE, we should also expect that taxing to the Act 1 limit will only add roughly $800,000 in revenue
- This year’s deficit plus next year’s increase means needing to come up with $3.2 Million in revenue to balance. Subtract the expected maximum allowed tax increase, and this creates a budget deficit of $2.4 Million.
- We do not have the ability, if we actually wanted to add to our debt, to borrow again until 2019.
The Octorara School District’s financial reality is we are fast approaching a fiscal cliff. If nothing is done, by 2018 we will have reached a point of no return. Right now, it seems the only solution that may have the votes is a combination of large tax increases and deep personnel cuts. I think building consolidation could lessen the impact, but I’m the only one on this Board willing to even look at that as an option.
I ran for the Octorara Area School Board in 2013 on the idea that this Board has spent money without concern for the long term consequences. Additionally, when I ran, I had pointed out there were signs in the road that the Board seemed to ignore. There were opportunities to reconsider spending, and they didn’t. I believe we are seeing one of those road signs now.
Missed Opportunities to Change Course
The 2003 feasibility report, used to justify the building of the Octorara Intermediate School, speculated the District would add 500 new students over 10 years. The District, shortly after the report, recognized the report was wrong (you won’t get anyone to actually say those words) and created the Octorara Regional Planning Commission to encourage development. It failed.
The Octorara Board, at the time, knew there wasn’t a tax base to support building the Intermediate School, and they voted to build it anyway. Additionally, not only did we not get the 500 students, we actually have lost students with 2014 being a 20 year population low. We built a building for students who never appeared.
A similar thing happened with the Octorara High School expansion and renovation. By Aug 2008, the US foreclosure and credit crisis was undeniable and had existed for a year, but they pushed forward anyway. In September 2008, America’s biggest financial institutions were in collapse, and Americans were losing their jobs in record numbers.
On Sept 22, 2008, the School Board held a special session, voting to award that contract and give notice to proceed, a month ahead of schedule, and without receipt and approval of PLANCON F & G from the PDE. The first week of October, the Stock Market Crashed, heralding in the Great Resection. Oct 20th, the Board could have called a pause, but instead just voted to acknowledge and approve PLANCON paperwork, and pushed forward. (see the timeline)
A Look at More Recent History
The iPad program has been and is being paid for with deficit spending. This wasn’t originally intentional, but it happened. Members were just not paying enough attention, in my opinion. However, it was intentional when members voted to renew the lease back in June.
The armed security officer has always been and is being paid for with deficit spending. This always was intentional, and the members who voted for it in 2014 knew it would be paid for with deficit spending. They knew we had 2 consecutive years ending with actual deficits when the contract was approved again on June 2015. These are not items costing tens of millions. However, they are straws breaking the camel’s back.
Last year, we unexpectedly had a dump truck die on us, and needed to replace it. I say unexpectedly, but the Facilities Committee knew it needed to be replaced. It was on the Five Year Plan, and they knew the condition of it, but it was kicked down the road.
This year, we had the abrupt failure of the Octorara Elementary School’s heating and hot water systems. This also was a known issue. The Facilities Committee knew it was being held together with paperclips and bubblegum, but fixing it was also kicked down the road. We see, over and over, an issue with putting wants before needs, and ignoring long term financial consequences.
How Does the District Pay for These Wants?
The approval of the Octorara Intermediate School was followed by massive tax hikes, and also deep personnel cuts in 2007 and 2008 to help pay for it. Right now, the Octorara Board is again talking about massive tax hikes and deep personnel cuts to get us out of our current crisis. All these wants could potentially be paid for with fewer teachers, larger classroom sizes, and massive tax hikes. Does that sound good to you?
This is why every resident, parent, and voter needs to pay attention to next week’s vote of the Octorara Area School District Board of Directors. Ask yourself, what do you want the Octorara School District to look like in 5 years? What do you want your taxes to look like? How many teachers are you willing to cut? Are your representatives on the Board actually representing you?
We all want to give our children the best, but we all also know we are limited to the best we can afford. I’m not against Track & Field. I’m not against tablets in the classroom. This is an issue of there only being so much money, and making academics the priority.
There are 60% of our High School students who cannot pass the Keystone Biology test the first time. No matter what anyone thinks about testing, this is an unacceptable failure rate. One reason cited is we don’t have enough science teachers. Another reason given was the District has a literacy problem, and many students just can’t comprehend the material. Do you think iPads are going to magically fix this problem, or do we need actual teachers?
This is the Board you elected. We are a reflection of you—or should be. Over the last 10-12 years, in my opinion, this Board repeatedly has chosen image over substance, and ignored the local community’s economic situation. As a result, we are expecting deficits for as far as the eye can see, and there are those who want to use massive tax hikes and deep teacher cuts to try and fix problem. Is this what you want? Is that a reflection of you?
We are now sitting at another sign in the road. The Dow Jones has lost 2000 points of value from its high of 18351. More than 1200 points of that loss was in just the last 30 days. Oil prices have dropped as some have started to suspect the world is slipping into another recession. Americans are making, on average, 4% less than in 2008 and 5% less than 2000. The 5% unemployment rate in the US ignores the record number of Americans who have dropped out of the workforce, and stopped looking for work. We have a good idea of what is coming. Do we ignore it and spend on, or do we get our financial house in order?