The Octorara Board of Directors held their Facilities and Policy Committee Meetings and the Work Session Meeting on Monday, October 10, 2016. Eight of the nine members were in attendance, Anthony Falgiatore was absent.
2016 Annual Academic Report
Elena Wilson, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, provided the Octorara Area School Board of Directors with her analysis of the District’s academic achievement and growth. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds with this because the PA Department of Education has yet to release the complete School Performance Profile scores and reports, and I do plan to perform my annual comparison with other local districts. Nonetheless, we do have the scores from PSSA and Keystone tests and the PVAAS data.
The information provided is what one would expect. The Octorara Area School District finds it difficult to meet the state minimum standard of 70 percent of students testing at Proficient or Advanced. However, compared to overall state performance, the District scores about average across all PSSA tests, give or take. However, there is extreme difficulty with the Keystones, especially in Biology. Now think about that for a moment… The District has plans to continue to develop an Agriculture Career and Technical program, but struggles to teach students how plants and animals work. Does that make sense?
The frustrating thing is averages inform Harrisburg how well the state is doing as a whole, but it does not really tell us where we stand compared to the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania. Averages are skewed either up or down based on the best and worst performers. Seriously, if you get a chance, take a look at the report on the PDE website. There are schools in the City of Philadelphia receiving scores of 10 percent on some of these tests.
Better indicators would be the median score (the number separating the higher half of districts from the lower half) and a percentile score. Pennsylvania does not provide this information, but it would give us a clearer picture. Take for example (as a hypothetical) scoring above the state average of 61 but scoring below a state median score of 75 with a majority of districts actually meeting or exceeding the minimum. Regardless, this is me just talking to myself because there are just not enough politicians (at all levels) that really care about education. It is all politics and self-interest.
The 2017-2020 Comprehensive Plan Goals were lightly touched on in Dr. Wilson’s presentation. One item not covered was “Indicators of Success.” Included was a vision of increasing the District’s performance on the Keystones by 15%. I’m going to give you a little word problem.
According to the linked PDE report, 191 students took the Biology Keystone at Octorara High School. The state minimum standard is 70 percent, but the District had only 51.8 percent of students score proficient or advanced. If Octorara improves their score by 15 percent by 2020, will the District meet the state’s minimum standard?
Admittedly, I did not bring this up in the meeting. The idea that Octorara suffers from a culture of low expectations is not new and, in my opinion, academic performance is not what really drives the majority of the Board. It is one of the reasons I stopped going to Education Committee Meetings, which are dominated with puffery. There is always a lot of talk about all the good things this District is doing to improve learning, but it doesn’t ever seem to increase overall performance.
In years past, I would ask about the Learning Focused Schools program. It would be things like, “When can we expect to see results,” and “How do we define success and failure?” .Of course, it does take time to see full results. However,after several years, logically, we should see something in the data to say it actually works.
Surprisingly, this year, the program’s most vocal supporter, Brain Norris, inquired. While he wanted to make clear he was not trying to “indict” the LFS program, but he did want to know why we are not seeing a return on our investment. Dr. Wilson’s response focused on the success of implementing LFS’s techniques and strategies. However, if you watch the video, she clearly struggles to explain why LFS has not improved academic achievement and growth.
Now, I want to make it clear here that I, in no way, think poorly of Dr. Wilson. I believe she is doing the best she can, all things considered. I could be making this all up in my head, but my impression is Dr. Wilson is authentically concerned about the education of the children, and her work is more a vocation than a career. I could be wrong, but I think the politics that get played in our District are her biggest obstacle. I believe if we had a Board that valued librarians more than iPads, things would improve.
10 Year Capital Plan
The Facilities Committee received their first look at the 10 Year Capital Plan. This document has been created so that the District can get a better hold on planning for facilities repairs. The report lists many of the systems and fixtures within each school, providing a life expectancy and an estimated cost to replace. What the report does not include is things like the tennis court, the sewer plant, technology infrastructure, or “strategic improvements”. Also, what is not within the plan is a cushion for unforeseen and unexpected catastrophic failures.What it is, is only a list of knowable and predictable repair or replace items. So, it does not give us a complete picture of our capital costs.
Nonetheless, it is a big improvement over what we had in the past, which was nothing close to this. We clearly see and will now be able to track the $1 Million left in the Capital Project Fund and the $476K Assigned to Capital in the Fund Balance. The forecast reveals, just to maintain the campus, we will need to find $1.2 Million by 2021-2022. Keep in mind, this does not include spending for niceties, like refurbishing the tennis court or making strategic improvements,
Additionally, the District is expecting to receive close to $600K from the state for debt service reimbursement. It was not included in the 2015-2016 budget, but the state did pass the legislation for it. While the state has yet to cut us a check, the auditors are allowing the District to apply these funds to last year’s numbers. This should give us a significant surplus for last year. The administration’s recommendation is to place 100 percent of this surplus in a Capital Reserves Fund, which does seem to have support. Keep in mind, we expect to see this on paper long before actually seeing a dime of the actual money.
How much do you want your taxes to go up in 5 years? Back in February 2014, the District had over $2 Million in the Capital Project Fund plus any assigned balance in the General Fund. Today, only thanks to that “additional” state money, we will have $1.6 Million, between the Capital Project Fund and a new Capital Reverse Fund. In order to make this last 5 years, the Board needs to be extremely frugal and avoid the tendency to spend unnecessarily. Regardless, even if that is accomplished, we still need a plan to fund these projects starting in year 6.