Gov. Wolf’s Education Spending Deception

Gov. Wolf's Education Spending Deception

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
  • Athletics
  • 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.

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3 thoughts on “Gov. Wolf’s Education Spending Deception

  1. Regarding the matter of eliminating local school property taxes as the primary means of funding school districts — and presumably replacing them with an increase in state income taxes, an increase in state sales taxes, or whatever — I recently talked with a politically astute and financially savvy guy who lives in one of the more affluent communities to our east and he made a point I hadn’t considered.

    It’ll never happen, he said. And when I asked him why he replied, to paraphrase: ‘Because the people in my school district pay very high taxes, even higher than yours, to buy the best education possible for their kids…and do you think they will stand still for an alternative system of school funding which will turn the whole thing over to a bunch of pointy-headed bureaucrats in Harrisburg who will homogenize everything, so that school districts across the state receive funding based on the number of students or some other objective measure? No, no, no, my friend, people on the Main Line are not interested in equality when it comes to funding school districts…in fact they want just the opposite…they want to preserve the real (or even imagined) superiority of the education their kids are getting and for which they pay so much in taxes, and they will never stand for a tax-funding system which in effect uses their money to subsidize less affluent, less achieving school districts like yours.’

    I had to admit he had a point, a point about human nature in general. Is it not human and reasonable for people to want the fruits of their own labors to be focused on their own families, at least on their own communities, rather than being spread scatter-shot-like across a wide area?

    I guess it was Karl Marx, founding father of Communism, who put the philosophy into just a few words: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’

    Last time I checked, America was still rejecting that kind of collectivist thinking. And so, if I lived in one of those affluent Main Line communities, paying big, BIG dollars in school taxes, I wouldn’t want my tax dollars being commingled with the tax dollars of every municipality from Parkesburg to Pittsburgh, essentially put into a blender and then poured out by some bureaucracy according to some made-up rules to try to ensure that each muffin cup got precisely the same amount of batter. Know what I mean?

    C. Vail

    P.S. And yes, while it’s true that most of the taxes we pay are put into a big, bureaucratic blender — chopped, diced, sliced, whipped and whirled — and then poured and doled-out according to what the bureaucrats perceive to be the most pressing issues of the day (and always including payoffs to big donors and special interest groups), the fact is that local school property taxes are probably the last remaining area in taxation where locals can still call the shots, control their own destiny. Now, if only we had a school board that was hip, tuned-in, with ear to ground, instead of their collective head in the clouds.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mr. Vail.

      As you have pointed out, this is how most taxes work. That said, your example is an affluent person from the Main Line not wanting his/her tax dollars going to educate the unclean masses. I have talked to people who don’t want their taxes going to support money-pits, like Philadelphia. Regardless, something has to be done. The same person who wants their tax dollars kept in their community is also likely someone who supports green-spaces legislation that inhibits less developed areas, like Octorara, from building a commercial and industrial tax base.

      At our last Finance Committee Meeting, one Board Member was complaining that the tax elimination legislation will unfairly benefit business. However, this same Board Member is also one who knows and has pointed out that our lack of business is partly to blame for Octotara’s high taxes. He also overlooks the reality that eliminating taxes will make Octorara more attractive for development, because property taxes will be taken out of the decision-making process. That translates to local jobs, shopping, and entertainment.

      Nonetheless, I do have some philosophical and ideological heartburn over the state taking over funding almost completely. My own political leanings want to say keep the power as close to the local community level as possible. But, I have seen how that fails. All it takes is 5 like-minded yahoos to damage a generation of kids, and increase taxes to the point that it is negatively impacting the local economy. It is too easy for a small clique to take control and work for the few, rather than the many. At the very local level, it also is too easy for people to vote with their feet, rather than mobilize for change and vote the yahoos out.

      All in all, there are alternatives that I would support, but no one in Harrisburg seems to have any interest. For instance, I would support county school districts. That would keep the certainty of property taxes, but it would be a county-wide tax. This solution would virtually erase the negative impact of green spaces on small districts, like Octorara. It would also mean a more diverse and more effective board of directors, like we have with the CCIU.

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