Are You Prepared for Another Property Tax Hike?

Octorara Enrollment History

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.


22 thoughts on “Are You Prepared for Another Property Tax Hike?

    • Thanks for the article link. I have talked about this too. In fact, I just brought it up again when the Finance Committee was reviewing the iPad lease. Apple is a very expensive option and brings no real additional value. Even if the Board continues to want to provide a 1-to-1 personal device, iPads are just too expensive to justify.

      • It would be a crime if the kids had to use their own computer ( their brain ) and a pencil and paper. Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results = Insanity

    • What every fails to state is how much the PC devices need to be replaced versus apple products. They may be cheaper but in he long run they fail to hold up and need to be replace sooner than Apple products. Quality versus Quantity

    • Nice catch! The labels should be switched. I fixed it.

      My source for the chart is a report submitted to the Board by Dr. Newcome, the District Superintendent. Each Board Member received the report last week, and the same report was supplied during the fall.

  1. Now that the school board has raised taxes 75% since 2004 i believe there goal is to reach 100% by 2020. Why do you need a computer to learn (common crap, the dumbing down of America) when 2×2 can equal 5 give them a etch -a- sketch .

  2. I would very much like to see more community engagement at board meetings. Do readers here have ideas on how we might engage more? I’ve seen similar lack of attendance at local borough council and township supervisor meetings. Thoughts and ideas welcome. Thanks, Brian Fox

  3. It’s very curious that every single one of the comments on this thread drew three, four, or five thumbs-down, despite the fact that almost all of the comments were innocuous, harmless, and should not have been offensive to anyone. Indeed one of the comments came from a sitting board member, Brian Fox, and all he had to say was to ask for any ideas on how to get more people out to public meetings and how to engender greater civic engagement generally. Who could possibly object to that? Yet four anonymous, not-so-brave persons did. One might ask why. What’s the beef with a public official reaching out to ask for help in trying to make the community better?

    I think what is going on here is what is known as ‘trolling.’ And if my understanding of the term is correct, it refers to intentional, purposeful mischief-making in order to undermine and otherwise cause trouble for a website or blog that you don’t like.

    And if in fact what we have going on here is a case of trolling, perhaps even a conspiracy of trolls, I’ve got my own hunch about who may be behind it. I won’t name the individual, but here are a few clues to his identity: (1) he is a long-standing member of the board; (2) he is a demonstrable enemy of Tim Alexander and proudly stands athwart all of Alexander’s attempts to bring some common-sense change and genuine accountability to the OASD; (3) he apparently hosts some closed-door chatroom on Facebook where the price of admission is slavish devotion to the notion that all is well and fine, just honky-dory, in the school district, and that anyone who says otherwise is a heretic and should be shunned; and (4) his initials are BN.

    C. Vail

    P.S.  Note to trolls: either get some gumption, come out from behind your cloak of anonymity, and speak your mind publicly, or just go away.  Better yet, stick your thumbs where the sun don’t shine.

    • Mr. Vail,

      It does boggle the mind, doesn’t it? For a while, I thought it was just me. However, there does seem to be a few people who can’t let any comment pass without hitting that thumbs-down button, even if the comment is very benign and unprovocative. I’m sure you and I are not the only ones to notice.

    • Mr. Vail, I assure you i gave neither a thumbs up or down on any of the comments on this thread. In fact, i pointed out to Mr. Fox in a conversation that I was surprised that ( at the time there were two thumbs down) anyone would have done that. As far as the ” closed facebook” site goes, yes I am an administrator of the site. It is not closed to anyone. I believe all you have to do is put in a request to join the Octorara Parents and staff site. I will be happy to approve your memebership to this ” secretive, closed” group. This site is soley for the purpose of posting on goings and happenings in and around the Octorara community. Yes, it is a place where good news about our school and community is shared. Political, or op ed views are not permitted. I am pretty sure Tim is a member. He can give you more details. In fact , I would encourage you to join, or follow on the Octorara twitter account and perhaps gain a perspective you may not have had. As always , thanks for your passionate, reply.

      PS. Fyi, Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gun man!

      • Well, the “political or op-ed views are not permitted” seems to be a matter of perspective. There is one example from just a few weeks ago. Brian Fox posted some commentary about Octorara’s SAT/ACT scores. The post was left to stand when it was “positive.” However, when there was an attempt to turn to a deeper discussion about what those numbers mean, test participation, and overall college readiness, the discussion thread was deleted. So, it would seem that political and op-ed is fine if it is all positive spin.

        A more blatant example is political campaigning. Back during the last election cycle, campaign material was posted for Anthony Falgiatore. Joe Lynch is an administrator and I messaged him about whether or not that was appropriate. I still have his reply saved in Facebook Messanger. His reply was that it is was appropriate because “It concerns Parents and students and faculty.” As people may know, Mr. Falgiatore actually lost that election, but Mr. Norris publicly urged Board members to appoint him when the seat became open.

        A more recent example was another Brain Fox post. This one included a linked news article about Pequea Valley. He stated, “Brian Norris referenced this article during this evening’s school board meeting. It’s a good example of what works and we’re implementing several similar initiatives here at Octorara seeking to improve academic performance.” However, if I went on there to discuss the FACT that since LFS and iPads have been introduced our performance has gone down, that would get the thread deleted. Yes, PV does have a 4-year head start, but there is no indication that we are on the path for our High School to jump from FAILING to a very commendable score of 87.2.

        Additionally, the “Octorara Parents and Faculty” Facebook group is a closed group. This means that non-members cannot see posts and members do not have the ability to share (repost within Facebook) information found within the group. However, I have found no information about membership standards. It may be very well true that anyone and everyone who requests membership is approved. It could also be true that membership is based on an administrator’s whim on any given day. All that said, it is technically a personal group and generally falls under the standards of “my house, my rules.”

        This is the group’s description:

        This is a group that keeps the communication child centered about anything happening in the Octorara Community. This site is not affilated with the Octorara Area School District. Feel free to post about things happening in the district and community that involve our children, our parents and our teachers. Ask questions, keep things positive. Questionable posts will be deleted. Comments or suggestions can be sent to any of the administrators of this site. If there is a post that seems questionable or crosses a boundary please contact an admin immediately.

        For the most part, the group posts are focused on events like fundraisers, sports competitions, concerts, and theatrical productions. If one wants to discuss academic performance or special education, it better be completely positive and one sided. Any criticism or objective discussion is shut down.

      • Tim – as I posted the initial comment in that group, I had the ability to delete is as I saw the discourse becoming unproductive. No one else had anything to do with removing it. I owned it as the original poster. I let the same post stand in two other places where there was more balanced responses.

        I read into your responses that I had intentionally misrepresented information and was being manipulative. I was clear from the start of the post that it was a selected set of data. I could silence the commentary – so I did.

        Apologies to Brian Norris as my action was attributed to his role as group moderator.

      • Mr. Fox,

        While I appreciate you cleared up who actually deleted the post, it doesn’t actually change my criticism that “political or op-ed views are not permitted” is a not completely accurate. What is acceptable in that Facebook group is positive spin.

        When an elected official… at the local, state, or federal level… intentionally reports on data out of context, it is for the purpose of pushing a specific political agenda. The idea that Octorara is “above average” is one you promoted, based on that data point. However, in context, those numbers don’t prove that at all.

        Now, I do realize that some people believe that happy thoughts and positive speech will magically transform our failing school district or erase 15 years of bad choices. I’m just not wired that way.

        Mr. Norris fights to keep the status quo because he (and some other members of the Board) own the outcomes of their decisions. If we have failing schools, it falls on them. If we have out of control budgets, it is their fault. They have an incentive to point the finger at others or market the idea that things are not that bad. You don’t. You are new, which means you have the opportunity to create positive change. However, the longer you defend poor performance and skyrocketing taxes. the more you take ownership of the hole others have dug.

  4. Note to Brian Norris, and to paraphrase Groucho Marx: I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that has you as an administrator, with the power to decide whether my membership gets approved. So thanks but no thanks to your offer. You just go on without me, and remember to play nice with the other kids.

    • Thank you for you comment Amanda.

      Unfortunately, many of our Board members are more interested in image over substance, and want you to have faith in the iPads program despite the facts. You cited a well-respected online publication as the basis of your position. Moreover, the article, written by a Clinical Psychologist, includes a list of verifiable resources. Yet, in the short time that your comment has been up, someone anonymously gave it a “thumbs down.” Why? I wish I had the answer to that. But I can tell you that the majority of our Board will ignore facts in favor of opinion and wishful thinking, and the iPads are just one example of that.

    • Second-Graders Use Apple Inc. iPads In The Classroom
      Second graders work on iPads as part of their classroom work in a Utah elementary school on Monday, May 20, 2013. George Frey—Bloomberg/Getty Images
      Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax
      Dr. Nicholas Kardaras
      Aug 31, 2016
      IDEASDr. Kardaras is the author of the new book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance.
      As the dog days of summer wane, most parents are preparing to send their kids back to school. In years past, this has meant buying notebooks and pencils, perhaps even a new backpack. But over the past decade or so, the back-to-school checklist has for many also included an array of screen devices that many parents dutifully stuff into their children’s bag.
      The screen revolution has seen pedagogy undergo a seismic shift as technology now dominates the educational landscape. In almost every classroom in America today, you will find some type of screen—smartboards, Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones. From inner-city schools to those in rural and remote towns, we have accepted tech in the classroom as a necessary and beneficial evolution in education.
      This is a lie.”

      • Amanda,

        I want to thank you for taking the time to share this very informative article. As I have looked into this issue of technology in the classroom, personal devices seem to be a necessary tool for a very select few. For instance, there are special needs students who would not be able to communicate without their laptop or tablet. However, for the vast majority, personal devices do not and will not improve learning or outcomes. The technology works best when its use is focused, intent-driven, and with clear goals.

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