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.
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.