The Octorara Board of Directors held their Facilities and Policy Committee Meetings and the Work Session Meeting was held on Monday, September 12, 2016. Hank Oleyniczak was absent.
How Low Can We Go?
Earlier this year, Dr. Newcome provided the Board with the District’s student population history from 1990-91 to 2015-16. It showed that Octorara’s enrollment had dropped to its lowest since 1994-95. The 2489 student population was a drop of 248 students (a 9% loss) since 2008-09. At the time, I wrote, “Any more losses and we will have to look back 25-30 years to find a lower enrollment number.” Well, get ready…
Last night, Sam Ganow asked Dr. Newcome for Octorara’s 2016-17 student population. At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, the District has reached a historic low of 2404 students or a 3.4% drop in just one year. This is a loss of 333 students or a 12% decline within 8 years, and a population so low we will have to look back to the 1980s or maybe even 1970s for similar numbers.
I have been trying to make people aware of Octorara’s population problem for a long time and argued for building consolidation. Back in 2013, there were 2,502 students and the trending decline was obvious. Regardless, many Board members at the time were unwilling to accept this reality. Even today, there are Board Members who will describe building consolidation, as a budget-saving measure, as “a stupid idea.” This is despite the fact that the students that were the reason for building the OIS never appeared. Moreover, the children that were the reason for building the PLC have completely vanished.
Why is this happening? I think it is because young families do not find our area attractive. The property taxes are the highest in the area, and continue to go up drastically yer after year. This makes Octorara properties less attractive than other adjacent communities. Add to this the reality that our area has virtually no jobs, no shopping, and no entertainment. Worse yet, businesses are leaving the area or closing faster than new ones coming in. The combination of the District’s high taxes, and a general unwillingness of local municipalities to develop and revitalize the area, means young families are choosing other places.
Push to Change Track Terms… Again
At last nights Facilities Committee, Dr. Newcome gave an update on Track progress, Additional stone for the base has increased the cost by $26,575. Under the terms of the agreement and vote from September 2015, this cost is the responsibility of the Field Development Task Force. The Board approved spending 50% of the cost, not to exceed $210,000. Nonetheless, the total project has increased to $445,508. The Field Development task Force is now responsible for $235,508.
Nelson Stoltzfus approached the Facilities Committee about a conversation he had with a “concerned citizen” who is involved with Track and Field. The original agreement stated that work will not start until Field Development had at least the money for the main track renovation. They then had 2 years to raise the money for a protective coating. This “concerned citizen” asked the District to considered loaning the money for the balance so that the whole project can be completed at once.
Now, the reality is the idea of getting the whole project done at once was talked about during the process of getting this passed. The Task Force was so eager to get the track renovated, the project was split to make it more palatable and give them more time to raise money. Additionally, the agreement has already been modified so that the Task Force did not technically need the initial portion “in hand” for work to start. This has allowed the track renovation to begin a year earlier than it would have if we held fast to the original terms.
Dr. Newcome expects it will take the Task Force close to 1.5 years to raise the remaining portion of the total. This modification would fundamentally change the nature of the agreement with the Task Force. The original vote happened the way it did because there were Board Members who understood our financial problems, but still wanted to do something. The action was designed to limit the District’s liability and so that taxpayers were not left holding the bag. Yet, at every turn, it seems there is an attempt to change what was originally agreed.
Additionally, Brian Norris floated the idea that the Task Force should not be responsible for the additional $26,575 because it was “unforeseen.” What Mr. Norris conveniently forgets is that the vote to have the District portion not to exceed $210,000 was specifically to limit exposure to the unforeseen. There was at least one new Board Member who initially bought into Mr. Norris’s arguments until the details of the original vote were more completely explained… but who knows?
It should be noted this whole conversation was caused by one unnamed “concerned citizen” who called Nelson Stoltzfus. It was repeatedly mentioned this is not an official request from the Task Force. So, it begs the question, if the Task Force isn’t looking to change the terms, why are we even talking about it? Who is this unnamed person who has so much influence that a single phone call can push the Board into a heated debate?
Band Uniforms Loan
Last month, representatives of Octorara’s Band presented their plan for new uniforms. The existing ones are around 25 years old and well past their lifespan. Regardless, the Band is raising the money for replacements. They need a 50% downpayment to order the uniforms and the balance when delivered. They will have the money to make the order, and expect to have the money for delivery. However, they asked the Board to approve floating a loan if fundraising is short by the delivery date. Even so, any money borrowed will be paid back within the school year and will not affect the budget.
At last night’s meeting, Dr. Newcome asked for guidance on this request. Basically, should we include it on next week’s agenda for a vote? True to form, Brian “Tax-n-Spend” Norris spoke up arguing the Board should do more than the requested loan and actually provide $30,000 towards the cost. The Board just cut $537,800 from the budget, and the Finance Committee is examining reducing “big ticket items” to limit the next budget. Yet, Norris can’t help himself. Moreover, it appears he has at least two additional Board Members supporting the idea of spending money we don’t have. Who knows what a week will bring?
Look, I understand all the arguments. In a perfect world, we would not need fundraisers for things like refurbishing the track or replacing band uniforms. And maybe, if we had the wealth of school districts like Great Valley or Unionville-Chads Ford, we could do all the things we wanted. However, that is not the world we live in. Octotrara is the smallest and poorest district in the area. Additionally, the physical expansion of the campus, and the new and expanded programs over the last 15 years, has taxed this community to its limits. We see the evidence of this as young families are choosing not to live here and the shrinking number of businesses. How bad does it have to get before we stop the hemorrhaging?