The Octorara Board of Directors and Finance Committee met on Monday, August 15, 2016. All Board members were in attendance.
More Cuts and Tax Increases?
The Finance Committee has begun discussions on the 2017-2018 Budget. DIspite the Board not expecting to see a Draft Budget until December, the Finance Committee has already started to request information on “big ticket items” to find savings. Sam Ganow requested an in-depth analysis of Special Education, acknowledging that much of that is mandated spending. On the other hand, I asked that we examine building consolidation, which currently does not have much support.
We are also still waiting on the 10-year Facilities Long Range Plan. If the Board wants to start true long-range financial planning, we will use these costs and some projection of other future costs, including the next Teacher’s Contract, to help shape this year’s budget. We need a plan to fund the Capital Expenditures Fund and maintain the Reserve Fund, while not continuing to radically raise property taxes.
More Debt Refinancing
Regardless of what you may think about the weakness of the “Obama Recovery,” it has created some opportunities for the Octorara Area School District. The last time the District refinanced debt, we did not expect to be able to refinance again or squeeze any more savings.out of our debt. Well, no one would have ever predicted the absolute weakness could cause the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield to fall below 1.5%.
Now, I’m calling what we are looking at as refinancing, but it is a little more complicated than that. Essentially, the plan is (to put in home budget terms) to take a loan to make our mortgage payments. Most of us would think this is insane, but historically low-interest rates have a potential of saving $1.3 million between now and 2031, with most of the savings weighted between now and 2021. Of course, this all relies on interest rates staying low between now and when we do the refinancing. I don’t think that will be a problem. Do you?
Nothing to See Here!!
If you have ever paid attention to Octorara’s Budget Process, you will notice a certain trend. In December and January, when discussions of tax increases and budget cuts start, some in the public take notice and start speaking up. The response from some Board Members is to tell taxpayers and parents, “Don’t worry. There has been no decision to increase taxes or cut programs.” They will tell you, don’t listen to the guy telling you that taxes are going up or that the District is cutting this or that.
Then, come April when the Budget is almost completely solidified, when there is a large tax increase and there are cuts to classroom teachers, taxpayers and parents will start speaking out again. These same Board Members will then tell you the Budget is a public process and you should have come to meetings and you should have been involved. There has still been no vote, but most of the decisions have been made, and most of the Board take the stand it is just too late for the public to influence things.
They are hiding behind the process. For all the talk about wishing there was more public input on Board activities, they really don’t want you there, and you can see it year after year as they hide behind the process. They actively discourage people from paying attention to what they are doing. Ask yourself, why doesn’t Octorara provide online the Committee meeting minutes when we post Board minutes? Why don’t we televised Committee meetings? Why are Committee meetings, which are technically public, held in a small back room?
The argument for keeping these public meetings generally behind closed doors is to allow Board Members to speak freely. What are they saying that they don’t want you to know? Are you not entitled to know which Board members are arguing to take exemptions so that the District can raise taxes beyond the Act 1 limit? Don’t you have a right to know when a Board Member argues for cutting teachers to save iPads?
The only way this changes is if you demand greater transparency. There are Board members who, very obviously, don’t want to be questioned nor held accountable. They are not all that different than those Washington politicians who collude behind the scenes, making deals. Obviously, it is not on the same scale or a pay-to-play situation, but it is a situation of working in the interest of certain special interests, inner circles, and personal agendas. Like Washington politicians, they hide behind the process so they can tell you they are working in the best interest of the whole community and all taxpayers, while truly only helping the few.
Ultimately, democracy relies on an active and engaged public. If you don’t want your taxes going up another 3 to 5 percent next year, you need to start speaking up now. If you believe the new or expanded programs from the last 10-15 years are not as important as basic education, you need to start speaking up now. If you believe a classroom teacher is more valuable than an iPad, you need to start speaking up now. Don’t let Board Members hide behind the process.