If You Read Only One Article About Octorara’s Budget, Read This One

If You Read Only One Article About Octorara's Budget, Read This One

The Octorara Area School District Board of Directors held their monthly Work Session Meeting on Monday, May 9, 2016. Prior were the Policy and Facilities Committee meetings. All nine Board Members were in attendance.

Budget Update

Your guess as to what the final budget will look like is as good as mine. Since last month, the budgeted amount for state revenue has decreased from $521,736 to $486,313. The working amount of budget reductions seems to have dropped from $637,800 to roughly $537,000. The tax increase may decrease from 3 percent to 2.5 percent. And the deficit will probably increase to $443,277 or more.

However, things are still in discussion. All support for consolidating the traffic control officer with the armed security position has collapsed which, if added back, will increase the deficit. Also, Brian Norris suggested keeping the tax increase at 3 percent but earmarking a half a percent (which would be around $160,800) for the Capital Projects Fund. He stated it was important to start replenishing Capital Projects because it is notoriously difficult to raise money for. Wait, what?

Boy, I wonder where Norris got that idea from? …right? It is not like anyone has been arguing for awhile about long range financial planning or replenishing the Capital Fund. It is also not like, up until this week, Mr. Norris argued against repeated calls to protect the Capital Fund. Maybe next year he’ll have an epiphany about building consolidation.

Full-Day vs Half-Day Kindergarten

Once again I argued for a return to half-day kindergarten. Initially, Dr. Newcome reported that a return to half-day would save the District $150,000. At last night’s meeting, after a more comprehensive review, Newcome stated that the net savings would actually be $265,000.

The purpose for full-day kindergarten was based on a notion that families were choosing charter schools because of full-day kindergarten, and that if children started in a charter school then families were more likely to keep them there. Did that pan out?

Since full-day started in 2011:

  • Octorara’s enrollment has dropped by 100 students,
  • Charter school enrollment has dropped by 23 students, and
  • Private school enrollment has increased by 25 students.

So, this data very clearly shows that 100 percent of charter school tuition savings is attributed to students moving to private schools, which cost the District absolutely nothing. However, proponents of full-day are ignoring the net effect and point to the fact that Octorara’s kindergarten enrollment has maintained a consistent number of 160 students during the period.

Why do they say the 160 is important? Well, we know that Octorara’s enrollment has been in decline, and is the lowest in 20 years. Enrollment has also continued to decline since full-day kindergarten started. So, in their mind, the idea that the District’s kindergarten has not suffered enrollment losses while the charter schools have, means the program worked.

The problem with this line of thinking is we don’t know what we don’t know. The last time I argued for a return to half-day, I asked if we could get numbers of daycare kids now attending Octorara’s kindergarten program. Dr. Newcome could not get his hands on the information. Nonetheless, we know many daycares in the area had kindergarten programs before Octorara’s change, and we know that many (if not all) of those programs have now closed. Where do these Einsteins think those kids went?

In fact, Janet Eaby, former business manager for the George Fox Friends School, cited Octorara’s full-day kindergarten as one of the prime reasons her school closed. Lancaster Online reported last year, “George Fox Friends School in Cochranville, a non-profit Quaker school, has closed due to lack of enrollment and funding and is selling its building and 10-acre property… Eaby said the economy, competition from charter schools, and the Octorara Area School District’s decision to offer full-day kindergarten classes contributed to declining enrollment.” So, when you ponder how Octorara has maintained kindergarten enrollment amidst a declining school-aged population…. there is your answer.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “We must always think about things, and we must think about things as they are, not as they are said to be.” Well, the way things are is that Octorara’s full-day kindergarten program has become a daycare solution at the cost of $265,000 per year to taxpayers. Who needs Bernie Sanders offering free daycare at taxpayer expense when you have the Octorara Area School Board?

Octorara’s Continuing Enrollment Issue

I have been talking about Octorara’s enrollment problem for years. So, I expect at some point in the future Briann Norris will suddenly and strikingly announce there is an issue and ponder why no one else but him saw it. Anyway… Dr. Newcome provided some numbers.

  • 1990-91 — 2500
  • 1991-92 — 2503
  • 1992-93 — 2514
  • 1993-94 — 2509
  • 1994-95 — 2473
  • 1995-96 — 2538
  • 1996-97 — 2554
  • 1997-98 — 2512
  • 1998-99 — 2512
  • 1999-00 — 2597 (PLC opens)
  • 2000-01 — 2667
  • 2001-02 — 2605
  • 2002-03 — 2674
  • 2003-04 — 2672 (Octorara forecasts 3,089 students by 2013)
  • 2004-05 — 2668
  • 2005-06 — 2685
  • 2006-07 — 2667 (OIS construction started)
  • 2007-08 — 2682
  • 2008-09 — 2737 (Board approved expansion of HS / OIS construction complete)
  • 2009-10 — 2621 (HS renovation and expansion started)
  • 2010-11 — 2596 (HS completed)
  • 2011-12 — 2589
  • 2012-13 — 2563
  • 2013-14 — 2502
  • 2014-15 — 2525
  • 2015-16 — 2489

Back in 2013, I wrote a blog entitled 2013-14 Enrollment: Continued Evidence For Building Consolidation. At the time, Octorara had reached the lowest enrollment in almost 20 years. Two more years and we have enrollment continuing to fall. Any more losses and we will have to look back 25-30 years to find a lower enrollment number.

If you mention this simple fact to certain Board members, they will look at you with confusion. Even with the numbers in their meeting packet, they will claim to have no idea where you came up with such a thought. Even more delusional, if you push the issue, these same Board Members will confidently proclaim a housing and development boom is soon to hit Octorara. Don’t hold your breath for that one.

So, if you want to know why I have repeatedly brought up building consolidation over the years… this is why. Unfortunately, the fact that we have many board members who were part of that major misstep means it will never be fixed. You can not fix a problem with the same mind that created it. This goes for any other issue as well… full-day kindergarten, iPads, or any other bit of spending.

Library Without a Librarian

During visitor comments, Polly McCullough spoke about the potential elimination of the K-6 Librarian position. McCullough has been a Librarian at Octorara since 1988, and it is her position that is on the chopping block. If approved, she will be moved to another teaching position.

She made an emotional plea to the Board to keep the position.  She stated that when she came to Octorara there were 3 buildings, 3 Libraries, and 3 Librarians. When the PLC was built there became 4 Libraries, but still only 3 Librarians. After the OIS was built, and with the wave of teacher cuts that were made shortly after there then became 5 Libraries and only 2 Librarians.

McCullough argued that since the campus started expanding that the Library system was never fully staffed and it has been targeted to fill budget shortfalls. She stated that a library assistant and book exchange does not meet the needs of students. Only a teacher can teach how to use the library system, and only a teacher can teach students how to do research. Moreover, she cited studies that showed schools with fully functioning libraries have students who read better and perform better on achievement tests.

Allison Thaler (I hope I’m spelling that right), a member of Octorara’s PTO, also spoke in favor of keeping the Librarian position and keeping Library as a Unified Arts Class. She pointed to the discussion over the cost of full-day kindergarten and stated that her hope was those students had a Library to go to.

At the end of the meeting, several Board Members asked if students would have access to the Library or if there would be someone there to help them. Let’s be honest here… they asked these questions because they know the answer. Yes, children will still have access to the Libraries and will be able to perform book exchanges.

I brought the discussion back to the points actually made by Polly McCullough and Allison Thaler… Is it true that only a teacher can teach students how to use the Library and how to do research? The response was no one wants to see the cuts but that the schools will make it work.

Opinions of Cuts

I am going to give you my most brutally honest opinion of the cuts the Board is discussing. Keep in mind, this is my opinion… but it has been shaped by years of arguing against the ever increasing tax burden on the community. The items being targeted are being targeted not solely or maybe not even because they provide the least amount of impact. Even Dr. Newcome will admit that distinction is debatable.

I believe the reason these cuts were targeted was because either (1) it was perceived they will not cause a flood of special interest groups screaming at meetings, or (2) Board Members don’t want to look bad by reversing a past spending decision. That is my opinion and, based on my very real experience, is an opinion that would be difficult to change.

Is a Librarian important as Polly McCullough would paint them? I went to grades 1-8 at Coatesville Catholic. Back then, we didn’t have a real Librarian, and our Libraries were the size of a walk-in closet. Classroom sizes ran about 30. We had nothing that looks like the Art, Music, Sports, and other programs offered at Octorara or other public schools. My parents PAID tuition for a barebones experience that, while it included religion class, was ultimately narrowly focused on academics.

So, if you ask me if a Librarian is essential. my answer is no. However, my answer is no to a lot of things. I believe most of Octorara’s issues with achievement and growth is the District tries too hard to accommodate special interests and the passionate few. Our community is a low-population area with a very limited tax base. The result is very little of the programs are receiving the proper funding.

•  Talk to a person who supports Music and they will likely tell you Octorara is not doing enough for Music.

•  Many of those who promote Sports will state that Octorara is not doing what it should for our teams to be competitive.

•  Those who favor armed security will many times tell you one security guard for 5 buildings is just not enough.

•  There are teachers who will argue they are not being provided the proper resources to teach well.

I believe you will never see broad support from Board Members for “controversial” cuts because few are willing to stretch their necks out, and several have their own pet projects they want to protect. The net result is everything tends to be a bit mediocre or just good enough. The only way change will happen is if new people, with the political will to refocus the District, are elected to the Board. That will only happen if people actually run for these offices rather than throwing up their hands and saying nothing can be done. */end rant

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that a half a percent tax increase is $450,000. That number is incorrect, and more closely reflects half of the total 3 percent increase. The corrected amount is roughly $160,800.

5 thoughts on “If You Read Only One Article About Octorara’s Budget, Read This One

    • I brought up the possibility a while back. I’m pretty sure I blogged about it and I can find the post for you if you want.

      There are several hurdles to jump over first. There are Board Members who vehemently protect the decision to build the Intermediate School and refuse to recognize an enrollment issue.

      It would be nice to find another use, but even getting an agreement for building consolidation would be a miracle, and I doubt that could happen with many on the existing Board.

      Like I wrote in the post, you can’t fix a problem with the same mind that created it. The Board needs new blood with the political will to refocus the District.

  1. Tim; Since 2004 when the millage rate was at 22.5 and today at 37.5 this is an increase of 75% which has occurred under Newcomes watch.Can any one explain why you need to have a PHD to kill a community.What else has the board and Newcome done to improve anything.

    • Well, I think that Dr. Newcome and the majority of the Board would say that building the OIS, full-day kindergarten, iPads, Learning Focus Schools and armed security are all for the purpose of improving the District. With every bit of new spending, the answer in the past was just to raise taxes.

      Here is the issue. We have known and mostly predictable costs (like salaries, health care, and PSERS) and it is also well known that we have a very limited tax base. There does now seem to be an understanding, even if it is not always the center of conversations, that the community just can’t keep getting hit. This is part of the reason there are cuts this year, rather than taking exceptions so the District could tax beyond to Act 1 index.

      The reality is now we are just spread too thin. So, this means somethings have to go…. like cutting Library as a Unified Arts Class and cutting back on Gym/Health and changing/lowering the requirement for graduation. In the attempt to have more, we are experiencing shared scarcity, a problem caused by attempting to fulfill unlimited wants with very limited resources.

      Marget Thatcher once stated in an interview, “Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them. They then start to nationalise everything… and they’re now trying to control everything by other means. They’re progressively reducing the choice available to ordinary people.”

      We are seeing that now. There is no shortage of Octorara Board Members complaining that the State and/or Federal Government is not increasing school funding. In many of their minds, it is not the Board’s spending choices, but that the State and Federal Governments have not kept up with their spending, that has forced the District to raise taxes.

      Even the protected iPad program suffers from the shared scarcity. Last year the District decided to move from the iPad 2 to the iPad mini to save money. The lease changed from $210,000 per year to $170,000. So, to keep the program going, the students get something less. Whether one supports the program or not, there is no denying that even pet programs suffer from our limited resources.

      Security is another good example. If (just for argument sake) we agree armed security is needed, the reality then is having just one security officer is not enough. We had an incident this year that proved this. It was nothing serious, but a security officer suffered a torn meniscus running to the administrative office. Had that been an active shooter incident, it would have been almost like not having an armed security officer at all. If you are one of the security parents that pushed for an armed officer, shared scarcity means your child is not being properly protected.

      This is why, in the article, I wrote that the net result is everything tends to be a bit mediocre or just good enough. The District tries to do too much, and often it is trying to accommodate special interests and the passionate few, with too little.

  2. I think the response to your question of “can only librarians teach library skills” was a bit misleading. Dr Newcome quietly stated that the “teaching portion” of library has been gone for several years. In the k-4 buildings, library is a UA that gives classroom teachers their planning period. Only certified teachers/licensed professionals can “run” a UA class. What exactly does Dr Newcome think happens when 25 kindergartners come into a room and their teacher vanishes for his/her planning period? Is it a free for all, where the little ones run around and play tag and climb the shelves, tearing pages out of books to use for paper airplane or spit ball use?
    Of course you have to teach them something in that time frame. You have to have a teacher’s classroom management skills, and a lesson plan mapping out your day/month/year of activity.
    The library UA was never a baby sitting service for when the classroom teacher needed a break.
    So…back to your question…does library information technology have to be taught by a librarian?
    In some aspects, no. A classroom teacher can teach the parts of a book, it’s proper care, etc. But how does the classroom teacher do that when we don’t have text books or “reading books” in the classroom? How do you explain to a 5 year old, sitting in a classroom, the proper care of a book when he/she don’t have one in their hands and don’t have them at home? A classroom teacher would have to go to the school’s library to show the children shelf markers, how to find books, how to use the computer card catalogue (in 3-4 grade), how to check out a book, the library policy (2 books for one cycle…be quiet…sit down…etc). What the classroom teacher could not do…even if he/she was knowledgeable enough in the other areas, is to have a working knowledge of every book in the library collection. Sure, they can get on the card catalogue and look like everyone else, but if a child comes up to them for a recommendation, the teacher would have to know 1. reading level of the student. 2. reading level of the books in the library that match the child’s interest 3. basic understanding of the book and the student…too scary for a sensitive child? Animals in the book….do they get hurt? Some students can’t handle that. Too mature for the student? 5-6 grade girls, especially, like to read things that seem a bit “edgy” …and finally 4. who purchases these appropriate books for each grade level at the end of the year? Teachers simply don’t have the whole picture for a library. They are concerned with their students…not students in another grade, or even in another class…there are too many!
    In the 5-6 building, Dr Haller introduced library as a reduced, quick 15 minute, in and out process with the teachers’ approval. Their approval was because they had too much to teach and not enough time to teach it for a whole period, once in the 6 day cycle, to be devoted to “reading and library”. Now, if they don’t have enough time to allow students 40 minutes to learn about books, or browse and find a good book, do you really think they have time (or will make the time) to teach their students library procedures, learn about new books on the market, etc? It doesn’t seem likely to me.
    So if you are tasked with the job of knowing interest levels, reading levels, curriculum topics and/or maturity levels of 400 students in each building, along with Newberry award winning books, classics, new authors, new books in the series, and their content as it applies to the students in the building, as well as maintaining up to date collections each year, I would say, yes. You need a librarian. The pay scale for a library assistant does not include enough pay for that responsibility. They are not trained to teach. They are not trained in classroom management. They can’t order books or deal with the library budget. They can’t be expected to know something about each of the 10,000 books on the shelves. The position is a clerical one, and does not carry the pay ,nor the training, nor the certification for that sort of responsibility.

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