The Octorara Area Board of Directors and Finance Committee met on Monday, February 20, 2017. All nine Board members were in attendance.
Issues Influencing Octorara’s 2017-2018 Budget
Currently, there are no changes to Octorara’s Draft 2017-2018 Budget. We are still looking at a tax increase, once again, up to the legal limit. Despite this, a revenue shortfall will cause a deficit of $1.2 Million and a use of Fund Balance of $652,775. That said, Mr. Jeff Curtis provided the Board with new information that may affect the budget.
⇒ Governor Wolf’s Proposed State Budget
Governor Wolf has been getting some positive media coverage for proposing a “reasonable” new state budget while increasing Education spending. Well, the devil is in the details. First, here is what the Governor’s friends in the media are saying:
“In this third budget proposal, Wolf once again prioritized education spending, which was a campaign promise he made after his predecessor Gov. Tom Corbett slashed it amid the Great Recession.
Wolf’s planned $32.3 billion budget for 2017-18 calls for a $100 million increase in basic education. It also calls for $75 million more in early childhood education, $25 million more for special education and $8.9 million more for the 14 state-owned universities.” – The Morning Call
Sounds good so far, right? In other reporting, it is explained that the increase in Education spending is not coming from tax increases, but by improved efficiencies and eliminating waste. Let us talk about reality.
Governor Wolf’s proposed budget increases the amount Octorara receives for Basic Education by $114,998 and Special Education by $43,438. However, it cuts the amount the state gives us for transportation by $99,169. This means our net increase is only $59,267. Nevertheless, some school districts are not even that lucky. Some districts are actually losing funding thanks to the way the Governor has decided to “pay for” his spending in Education.
Ultimately, this is just moving piles of money around. Wolf gets to say he increased Education spending. His friends in the media get to say the Governor makes Education a priority. Parents get to believe Wolf supports Public Education. All the while, school boards are wondering why Wolf didn’t buy us dinner first.
⇒ List of Possible Budget Reductions
With a $1.2 Million deficit and $652,77 Anticipated Use of Fund Balance, we all knew budget cut discussions were coming, right? This year, Dr. Newcome started the talks with a one-page memo. It is not the “cut list” of past years, but did touch on several items that we could possibly tackle.
- Staff Reductions, including classroom teachers
- Armed Security
- Instructional Technology, mostly focused on the iPad program
- Non-Athletic Supplemental Contracts
What was missing from the list were those items obviously placed there (at least from my perspective) to scare parents, like the complete elimination of bussing. Now, in all fairness, items like cutting transportation were on those lists because a past Board Member wanted to see everything that could possibly be cut, even if such a cut was remote.
For some reason, those line items remained even when that specific Board Member moved on. It could be for consistency reasons. But, it could also be because it is an effective way to create undue emotional anxiety in the public. Politically, the noise caused by the distress is an effective way to create smoke, masking what is really being cut… like classroom teachers.
All that said, Dr. Newcome’s memo did spark some conversation. The typical Board Members who defend the iPad program still point to anecdotes as proof of the program’s value… this is despite achievement scores going down since the program started. Nonetheless, the District will have 1 year left on the lease contract. Cutting the iPad program this time around does not make financial sense. Discussions about keeping it, modifying it, or eliminating it will have to wait until next year.
Next talked about was athletics. There does not seem to be majority support for reducing the number of sports offered by Octorara. So, the Board focused on the DIstrict’s pay-to-play fees. Maybe a decade ago, the District started charging students $25 for each sport he/she played. That fee has never been revisited or increased, even though other districts do charge more. Dr. Newcome was asked to collect information about what other Districts are charging, keeping it mostly very localized, with districts that have similar economically disadvantaged numbers.
Finally, there was the discussion of cutting teachers and increasing average class size. Now, for me, while I am willing to increase class size, this is something that should only be done when other options are exhausted. We already have an issue with academic performance, and we don’t seem to be able to improve with the teachers we have now. Regardless, we should talk about impact.
Impact per Grade
- Cutting one 1st Grade teacher increases class size from 20 to 22.8 students.
- Cutting one 2nd Grade teacher increases class size from 20.4 to 23.3 students
- Cutting one 3rd Grade teacher increases class size from 21.4 to 24.4 students
- Cutting one 4th Grade teacher increases class size from 23 to 26.3 students
- Cutting one 5th Grade teacher increases class size from 22 to 25.1 students
- Cutting one 6th Grade teacher increases class size from 22.3 to 25.7 students
If I correctly remember the numbers we looked at last year, other Districts had classroom sizes in line with the 22-25 range. This means there is a strong argument for cutting teachers. In fact, we could (in theory) cut a total of 6 teaching positions, saving over $600,000, and it should have no negative impact. I don’t necessarily support this way of thinking, but we all must understand it is an easy argument to make.
⇒ Property Tax Elimination
What a difference a week makes. If you read last week’s blog entry, you know that many superintendents and school boards were losing their minds over the impending doom of property tax elimination. As reported by Mr. Curtis, it does not look like property tax elimination legislation will happen this year. Apparently, there are not enough votes in the House. This doesn’t even address the fact that Gov. Wolf does not support the plan.
⇒ Utility Bills
The CCIU used the collective buying power of Chester County school districts to bid out gas and electric costs. For Octorara, this means a savings of roughly $50,000 next year. While this alone may not seem like much, the CCIU’s joint purchasing program saves Octorara over $230,000 annually for items like custodial supplies, fuel oil, paper, and much more.
⇒ CCIU Budget
The Chester County Intermediate Unit is also preparing their annual budget. It is all very good news for Octorara. Core contributions will not increase. Tuition rates for students to attend Occupational Education programs at the Technical College High School will not increase. And, there are no expected increases to any Marketplace Services.