What Is Your Vision of Octorara’s Future?

What Is Your Vision of Octorara's Future?

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.

One thought on “What Is Your Vision of Octorara’s Future?

  1. “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.”

    Those are your words, Tim, the ‘money-quote’ from your post. They are well-taken and aptly put. And whereas you offered those words by way of explaining why you no longer attend meetings of the Education Committee, surely they apply broadly: to a politicized, insular, and not-quite-living-in-the-real-world board; to an administration and teaching staff which, let’s face it, are not Norman Rockwell-like selfless souls committed only to their charges, but who also and always have their own interests very much top of mind; to the overwhelming majority of citizens, and especially parents of students, who are blithely content to go along thinking that everything is right, honky-dory, in the OASD, and that thus there is no reason for them to worry, and no need for them to become engaged and involved in any way, shape or form…not even, for most of them, to attend a single board meeting throughout the entire time their child(ren) attends.

    And let us not forget the students themselves. I don’t really know what it takes to motivate kids these days, to pry their eyeballs away from their smartphones and their gaming devices, to get them to live up to their academic potential, which surely few do. But I have a hunch about what would likely help. In a word, discipline. And fear of repercussions if one doesn’t toe the line. In grade school I learned discipline through the tender, and sometimes not so tender, mercies of several order of nuns. In high school and college, Augustinian friars and Jesuit priests took up where the sisters had left off. And immediately after college, drafted into the Army, I found out what discipline was really about through the screaming, in-your-face, do-it-now orders of Drill Instructors.

    Am I advocating that kind of ‘old-school,’ Catholic school and military-training drill and discipline for today’s public school students? Well, yes and no. Yes, I believe that at least a good-sized dollop of that kind of discipline would do this country’s coddled public school students immeasurable good, but no, I am not so naïve as to think that such a regime could even be conceived, let alone counseled, in today’s modern, academically sophisticated, monolithic, public school sausage-making factory, where the costs keep going up even as the quality of the product keeps going down.

    In public education, as in virtually every other corner of government, the knee-jerk, go-to answer for most any problem is to just throw more money at it. But as you suggested in the money-quote from your post, rarely does more expenditure correlate with better product or performance, at least when dealing with the so-called public sector. On the other hand, as we know, things are different in the private sector. In the private sector, a bad product means that the company behind it won’t be around for long. In the private sector, poor performance usually means termination.

    This tug of war between the public and the private sectors, which I would characterize as existential to the future well-being of the country, is unfortunately not being discussed at all in this sorry spectacle of a presidential election. But it should be. The fact is that the public sector is bleeding the private sector dry. That is where the greatest employment gains are. That is where wages and benefits are rising. And despite all the talk about crooks on Wall Street, the corruption there is nothing compared to the corruption that is endemic, built-in to the practices played-out everyday almost anywhere an entity of the public sector, of government, is operating. Public sector employees should not take personal affront, for I mean no personal offense. But don’t we all know, if only on an instinctual level, that at best the public sector is, generally speaking, grossly and woefully inefficient.

    So in the next week or so I will write my tax check to the OASD, to the tune of $3,300. I’m sure I will reflect on the fact that the annual per-student cost in the OASD is somewhere close to $20,000. No doubt I will give out with a long, exasperated sigh, wondering how so much money can be so badly spent, or at least with so few results to show for it. But I won’t dwell on the seeming futility. After all, that’s pretty much just how things are these days, when ever bigger government requires more and more money, with less and less to show for it, and with little or no real accountability.

    C. Vail

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