The Octorara Board of Directors held their Facilities and Policy Committee Meetings, and the Work Session Meeting on Monday, February 13, 2017. All nine Board members were in attendance.
Fire and Brimstone Coming Down From the Sky
At last night’s Board Meeting, Dr. Newcome presented examples of two letters to the public. They were each regarding the proposed property tax elimination legislation brewing in the Pennsylvania Senate.The first letter was created for and by the group of Chester County Superintendents. The other was drafted by the Oxford Area School Board. Along with the samples, Dr. Newcome wrote, that he was “recommending that [the Octorara Board of Directors] approve a statement similar to that posted by the Oxford Area School District Board of Directors.
The Oxford statement is in opposition to the property tax elimination legislation, with this concluding statement:
As this potential piece of Legislation moves forward, the Oxford Area Board of School Directors, by and large, does not support the provisions as expressed in SB 76 without significant improvement in the language discussing alternative revenue streams and/or cutting costs.
This opposition to property tax relief had me lose my mind a bit. However, it may not be for the reasons you would think. I have been a supporter of the proposed property tax elimination legislation, and it is not new. Why is property tax elimination a big deal this year, but was largely ignored last year? This same legislation was voted on in 2016, and no one seemed to pay much attention to it, and they certainly were not running around with their hair on fire.
Why wasn’t this a big deal last year? It was because even if it passed, Governor Tom Wolf vowed to veto it. However, it lost by one vote, caused by several Senators pulling their support. This year, if it passes, Wolf is still expected to veto it, and there are not enough votes to overturn him. Everyone knows this. So, my frustration comes from a whole lot of showboating on all sides.
The Republicans in Pensylvania’s General Assembly know this piece of legislation is dead on arrival. Those who want to fight against change know this too. Why would the Chester County Superintendents, or any School District Board of Directors, spend any political capital fighting over something when the outcome is absolutely predictable?
Surprisingly, it seems that the rest of the Octorara Board (more or less) agreed with my assessment that this is all much to do about nothing. This does not mean that each of them actually supports property tax elimination, just that there are real issues that we need to address, and this is a nothing-burger. So, Octorara’s Board will not take any position unless and until something actually substantial occurs.
Exaggerated and Boastful Claims
We have all seen those career school commercials on television, haven’t we? They claim all your employment issues will disappear if you attend their Medical Office Assistant, Massage Therapy, Computer Certification, or some other Career and Technical program. However, in reality, many of these educational programs are created to convince a minimum wage worker to go thousands in debt for an entry-level certification that does not improve, on its own, the person’s circumstances.
Well, at last night’s meeting, the Board was treated to a presentation about Octorara’s CTE Programs that felt a whole lot like a late night infomercial. I can’t be certain, but a suspect that the display was a reaction, at least in part, to my comments last month that we need to take a hard look at Octorara’s CTE Programs before cutting regular classroom teachers and increasing class size. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.
For a person who is unaware of Octorara’s CTE Programs, the presentation did have some good information. Nevertheless, the performance was such a hard sell and filled with complete puffery that it was on the level of a “Tummy Tuck 10 Minute Miracle Slimming System” infomercial. One claim that I zeroed in on was the statement that 80 percent of CTE students go on to college. My question was if that 80 percent was of Octorara’s CTE students, or was that a state or national statistic. We don’t know! The Administration did not know the data they were actually sharing or the source they were citing… it just sounded good.
I am going to pick on a program that I actually support, the Homeland Security/First Responder Program. Why do I like this program? It is a purely unique course of instruction that does truly attract students into our District, plus it is a revenue stream. I am highly critical of Octorara’s decisions to spend money on things meant to “keep kids in the District” but are ultimately just image over substance. That said, the Homeland Security/First Responder Program really does add value, not only for students but also taxpayers.
Yet, we need to look at the puffery the Admiration used to promote the program at last night’s meeting. It was stated that a graduate of the Homeland Security/First Responder Program could come out of high school earning $60,000/year as an EMT. I made note of the statement, and later looked up the facts about the income of Emergency Medical Technicians. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in Pennsylvania, the annual mean wage for an EMT is $32,590 per year. In fact, nationwide, only the top 10 percent of EMTs are making more than $55,000 per year.
This is blatant false advertising. If the average of all EMTs is $32,590 per year, and only the top 10 percent earn greater than $55,000 per year, how likely is it that your child will walk out of high school making $60,000 per year? This goes way beyond just an exaggerated claim, and crosses the line into total BULL.
Curriculum Audit to Start
As most parents, taxpayers, and community members know, since Harrisburg and Washington have started collecting and reporting academic performance data, Octorara has struggled. Essentially, Octorara’s academic performance is extremely weak compared to similar districts, with some years meeting minimum requirements by the skin of their teeth, and sometimes outright failing to meet standards at all. Finally, it looks like the District has decided to get an unbiased evaluation of our curriculum and teaching methods.
The District has reached out the Chester County Intermediate Unit to perform a “curriculum audit.” As it was described, this will be a comprehensive and systematic evaluation. It will be an independent scrutiny of Octorara’s curriculum design, structures, processes, delivery, and equity. Moreover, the audit is intended to identify the District’s strengths and weaknesses, provide useful and actionable data for prioritizing curricular needs, and produce a clear evaluation and report for the Board and the public.
We must acknowledge this as a major success, and how important it is for our students. It has been almost exactly 4 years since, as a parent and taxpayer, I first spoke to the Board, highlighting the District’s performance issues and demanding a better return on taxpayer investment. At the time, Board members had actually deluded themselves into thinking Octorara was providing a “world’-class education” and taxpayers were happy to pay for the “quality”. Over the years, as I continued to beat the drum, the message has slowly changed. This curriculum audit is evidence that the District finally and fully understands and accepts there is a problem.