The Octorara Area Board of Directors and Finance Committee met on Monday, March 20, 2017. Seven Board members were in attendance. Sam Ganow and Hank Oleyniczak were both absent.
Push Back on a False Narrative
If you watched the live-stream of last night’s meeting, you would have heard Lisa Bowman, Board President, claim that there had been no suggestions or support for Budget reductions from any Board Member. I had to push back and spoke up. I had to remind Bowman that just in November, we had a heated discussion about building consolidation. In fact, since the very beginning of the budget process, I have suggested other ideas like returning to half-day kindergarten, eliminating the 1-to-1 iPad program, and getting rid of the armed security guard. I have even advocated taking a close look at CTE programs.
While these ideas may not be popular with other Board Members, the notion that no Board Member has supported reductions, that would limit the budget’s growth, is a complete and utter deception. If you watch the video, you will see that Bowman did immediately walk back her statement when confronted. Regardless, this has become habitual behavior from both her and Brian Norris. Almost every year, since I have been on the Board, either she, Norris, or both have tried to make claims like this or that certain votes meant more than written. Each time, I have had to push back.
There is a reality with our financial situation. Years before the 2016-17 budget, I warned that cuts were inevitable, while certain other Board Members were describing me as Chicken Little. I stated that if we did not control the growth of the budget, the choice of making cuts will be taken out of our hands. That is exactly what happened. Last year, the Board passed a budget with roughly $600,000 in cuts and taxed up to the legal limit. Even with that, it required a significant use of Fund Balance. That said, we did really luck out with interest rates and being able to refinance more debt, and that savings may end up eliminating this year’s deficit. But we all need to appreciate the luck that was involved that this was able to happen.
Today, we face a similar situation. It is not a question of if we are going to cut, but when we are going to cut. Board Members may be a little gun shy this year to make any cuts…. this being an election year and all… but they can only legitimately punt the ball until next year. The current version of the Octorara 2017-18 Budget includes a 3.2 percent tax increase and an operating deficit of roughly $650,000. Interest rates are going up, and there is going to be no way to pay down the deficit using refinancing. Not tackling this operating deficit this year will cause it to grow to over a million dollars next year. So, this year or next, more cuts are coming.
Do You Want Teachers Cut?
Within the Finance Committee, there have been discussions about possible reductions. Included in those talks, the Committee was presented information about student enrollment and class size. As we all know, last year’s cuts relied heavily on eliminating professional staff. Teachers are the low hanging fruit that many school boards go after. Labor costs are the biggest portion of any budget. So, this tends to be where they often look to prune.
Generally speaking, you will not find me supporting teacher cuts when I clearly see other areas that can and should go first. However, you must understand the argument for continued professional staff cuts. We are at a historically low student enrollment. Our class sizes are where they are not because of a Board policy or vision, but because of the shrinking enrollment. There are times in Octorara’s history when class size was higher, In fact, there is an argument that can be made, despite being counterintuitive, that as class size has gotten smaller, Octorara’s academic performance has gone down.
As you can see from the chart posted at the top of the page, we have an extremely low student enrollment. The Board was presented with 26 years of data, going back to 1990-91. The last time our student population was this low, there was no Primary Learning Center nor was there the Octorara Intermediate School. Currently, we have a teaching staff of 197. But, go back 20 years, we taught more students with only 177 teachers. So, those who do not want to face building consolidation have a strong argument if they decide to cut teachers. In fact, eliminating the difference of 20 teachers would save the District around $2.4 million, and could save us from having an operating deficit or raising taxes.
All that said, so far this year, there does not seem to be majority support for making any cuts. Our current path will have us passing a Budget that taxes property owners up to the legal limit and will grow the deficit. As of this moment, there has only been one Board Member who has authentically supported reductions and controlling this Budget’s growth… and that is yours truly.
The reality of our budgets is that they are growing faster than we can tax and they have been subsidized by debt refinancing. Have you ever heard the question, “What happens when an unstoppable force collides with an immovable object?” We will soon find out the answer. Tinkering around the edges of our budgets, just to have us face the same problems the next year, will soon not work. The growth of new and expanded spending and programs, over the last 15 years, is catching up to us.
Encouraging Public Involvement
One of my big issues has been wanting the District to do more in the way of community outreach and encouraging involvement. There have been little things that the District can point to, like the town hall meetings in 2014, that allows certain people to say “we tried.” But there has never really been a sustained effort to actively encourage people to participate or come to Board Meetings.
Regardless, for years I have wanted the District to use tools like email and robo-calls to invite people to important Board Meetings. This is not something you can do once and become disappointed that only 5 people show. The community is not used to authentic outreach and it will require a sustained effort.
In the past, when I have brought up doing stuff like this, it was like talking to a wall. Typically, I would say my piece, people would provide no response, and the meetings would move on. Sometimes, I would get a ramble about the District having tried this or that once or twice, without much success. Or, sometimes Dr. Newcome would say that the District sends out so many emails and robo-calls that adding more would cause a negative response.
All that said, last night, Nelson Stoltzfus spontaneously and unsolicited asked if we could start using emails and robo-calls to encourage community attendance at important meetings. I don’t know what motivated him or what changed. Nonetheless, just as suddenly, this was something that could be done, with no real opposition from anyone. So, I want to thank Mr. Stoltzfus for adopting this position. It would not have happened without him speaking up and that is a big deal.