I want to start my blog by thanking every person who showed up at last night’s meeting. In my opinion, believe it or not, that was probably the most productive School Board Meeting that I have attended. That was all because motivated people came out and spoke up. Before today, I don’t believe that some of my Board colleagues thought I expressed the real opinions of real people. They needed to hear what I have heard for the last 4 years. That said, real change will require citizens to become activists.
Many of those who attended last night’s meeting passionately spoke about the real impact of our high taxes. One speaker offered to provide the Board with a powerpoint report that revealed her own independent research about spending and return on investment. Others talked about the negative impact on home values, the difficulties selling properties, and how young families are not choosing our area. There are those who like living here, but taxes are forcing them to leave.
In addition, there were parents who were angry that the District did not think to communicate with parents when the security guard fired his weapon to kill a raccoon. The idea that parents should have been notified seemed confusing to some Board members. Parents expressed genuine outrage, sometimes shouting from the audience, when Board members attempted to defend the lack of communication.
= Firearm Use & Transparency =
The recent incident with Octorara’s security officer using his firearm is an almost perfect example of why I originally ran for the School Board. When I first started going to Board Meetings on a regular basis, I created this website to document my experience. Very quickly, one of the main focuses was highlighting issues that I believed the District was not being completely forthright about. When I was elected, one of my promises was to keep the public informed about issues they may not find out about just by attending a Board Meeting,
Without the backlash from last week’s blog, very little information would have made it to the public. The Right to Know laws exist because government entities tend to resist Transparency. Our Board receives emails, memos, supporting documents, and conduct committee meetings that are all part of the public record. And, things like Committee Meeting minutes and supporting documents could easily be archived on our website. Our online calendar doesn’t even provide the Committee Meeting schedule. Does that make any sense to you?
Let us stop here for a moment. Some of the comments from other Board members were that the Committee Meetings schedule is public. Here is what they just don’t get. It is only technically public. The typical person would go to the online District calendar to look for when meetings are held, but it is not there. This is information that should be easy to find, and it is not. You have to go hunt for it. There is no section for Committee Meetings, nor a listed schedule on the site. So, when some people feel that the Board is intentionally keeping the public at arm’s length, that is just one example.
== What Is Transparency? ==
Moreover, some Members seemed to have this idea that because the Board talked about the shooting in a Committee Meeting, that satisfied any perceived notion of making the raccoon incident public. But, does it really? It probably does satisfy some minimum legal requirement. And this is the main problem, at least in my mind…. there is the technical, minimum legal standard for openness and transparency, and there is actually being open and transparent. When I first started to attend Board Meeting regularly, this is the same wall that I encountered. There seems to be this idea that only those willing to work to get information are worthy of it. I just don’t understand why something like adding the Committee Meeting schedule to the DIstrit’s online calendar is controversial. Do you?
During the meeting, I talked about some of the feedback I received from my blog. Many parents and members of the community agree with me that our District should make parents aware any time there is an incident with the security officer discharging his/her weapon. The raccoon incident causes people to question, “Under what conditions would the District actually ever notify parents of a firearm incident?” Moreover, many were shocked to find out the District does not have any policy governing the use of a firearm or governing the security officer. Change requires action. If you want a School District that is open and transparent, you must demand a School District that is open and transparent.
I think it is a fair to say that some Board Members just did not understand the opinions and feelings of the people who spoke up. This is not a police department. It is a school district. Fundamentally, it has little to do with if the security officer followed proper police procedures dispatching the animal. The issue is a right for parents to know whenever a weapon is discharged on the campus, for whatever reason. There also seems to be some misunderstanding about the fact emails to and from Members, even if the intent is informational for the Board, are part of the public record. That misunderstanding may have changed after yesterday.
== The Outcome ==
- A very clear message was sent by the community demanding notification any time a weapon is discharged on campus. There will probably be more conversation, but I suspect that will be the practice going forward.
- A very clear message was sent that the public wants a policy defining the security officer’s role. The original intent was very narrow and focused. There will be a policy discussion. Parents and the community will need to pay attention and communicate if they want to shape it.
- I talked about putting more information online, like Committee Meeting minutes and supporting documents. I believe those who were there may agree that the issue got talked into a circle. If you want more information online, you will likely need to force the issue to get it done.
= Why Our Taxes Are So Darn High =
We had a healthy discussion about the Budget. That said, there is always al least one Board Member who makes an oversimplistic year-over-year comparison They will often point to the growth in one number, like PSERS (the teacher’s retirement), and try to say that if it wasn’t for that … yadda, yadda, yadda. And those at last night’s meeting experienced something along those lines
Don’t glaze over… Our 2017-2018 Budget includes a spending increase of around $1.6 Million. And, the 3.2 percent tax increase will generate roughly $1 Million in additional income.That said,, this leaves an operating deficit of over $562,000. However, it is only that low because of a $231,000 credit from a bond refinancing. Our actual revenue shortfall is closer to $793,000. How can things look like this?
My position is not new. Spending choices have grown the budget to the point that we can not cover growing shortfalls, and things are so tight that it will not take much to blow it all up.,, like the next teacher’s contract. Today, the only reason we look as good as we do is because of last year’s budget cuts. The over-building of our campus, without the tax base to support it, had a devastating effect on taxes. In more recent years, when the Board passed spending on things like the iPad program and the armed security guard, they did so without truly factoring the long-term consequences to the budget.
Ultimately, if you want the budget brought under control, it will require citizens willing to become activists. You must keep demanding change, and refuse to accept excuses. I know there are Board members want to make it sound like the world will end if any if anything gets cut, but we all know that these high taxes have bought us… schools that fail to meet state minimum standards. We keep paying more, and the schools are producing weaker results. If iPads could actually teach the kids, we would save a ton.
= So, What Does 2017-2018 Budget Look Like? =
The item that everyone wants to know is the tax increase. So, before I go too deep into the other numbers, let us get that out of the way. Octorara residents should expect a tax increase of 3.2 percent. That is the budget presented at last night’s meeting. It is the 9th inning, and not much time to make changes.
- The Budget is increasing $1.6 Million over 2016-2017.
- A 3.2 percent property tax increase will produce $1 Million in revenue
- There is a deficit of $1.1 Million
- $350,000 is a budget contingency, not expected to spend
- $232,000 is a credit from refinancing debt. This is not reoccurring income.
- $563,000 is the expected use of fund balance, otherwise known as deficit spending.
Keep in mind, the current 2016-2017 year needed a 3 percent tax increase, around $650,000 in budget cuts, and a $576,000 refinancing credit for us to maybe break even. Even so, the original budget included only $340,000 from refinancing credits. These credits are subsidizing our budget, and it won’t last forever.
This current school year, we were able to refinance one last time. Interest rates have gone up, and are expected to continue to rise. There will be no free money to cover our $563,000 of deficit spending. Moreover, as the credits from refinancing debt diminish, there is no money to replace it.
I know that some would like us to use our “savings account” to stop the next tax increase. The problem is that it is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. The only way it would work is with a commitment to make major cuts next year. Using a large amount of the Reserve will make the deficit grow. The gap between the Budget and Revenue will become larger, and the impact would make things worse. We have to factor long-term consequences.
== The Outcome ==
- Brian Norris suggested a limited tax increase of 2 percent, rather than the full 3.2 percent, but without any cuts to pay for it. As I pointed out, this will add probably around $400,000 to our deficit. There are long-term consequences for doing this. A lower tax rate should only be done with corresponding budgets cuts.
- What are they willing to cut? Unless I missed something… the answer is nothing. Several times my list of suggested cuts were brought up. When Mr. Ganow specifically asked what other Board Members were willing to cut, none seemed ready to cut anything.
- At this point, the only possible alternative to the “Final Budget” looks like growing the budget but taxing less. I think this makes most Board Members a bit uncomfortable, not just me. So, I still suspect a full 3.2 percent tax increase.
= Conclusion =
I walked away from last night’s meeting feeling that some of the other Board Members were struggling with the idea people were not agreeing with them. I have long accused the Board of suffering from group-think, a phenomenon that occurs within a group with a strong desire for harmony, spawning decision-making without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints. As a result, a different opinion of the facts is many times interpreted as abnormal, wrong, or even hostile.
Characteristics of group-think include overestimation of the group, excessive optimism of ability, and stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as biased or spiteful. Additionally, there are efforts to shield the group from dissenting information, and rationalizing or dismissing information that conflicts with the group’s assumptions. I believe this is the driving reason why anytime I have a different point of view, it is interpreted as misrepresenting the facts and creates anger. Even writing this, I know my opinion will be taken as a personal attack… and that is a shame.
While groups that lack cohesiveness can create a poor environment for decision-making, having cohesiveness as a prime goal leads to group-think. It isolates the group from differing perspectives and they become hostile toward outside ideas. After last night’s meeting, one person I spoke to described the other Board members as “living in a bubble”. Changing that will be a difficult process.
= One More Thing… A Change to the Lice Policy =
There is a change to the way our schools will handle children found to have lice.
- Persons with lice or viable nits (those a half inch or closer to the scalp), visualized by the school nurse, will be referred for treatment at the end of the school day. Prompt treatment at home will be advised, including removal of live lice and all viable nits. Immediate removal of the person from school is unnecessary. If the person has lice, he or she has likely been infested for weeks; therefore, prompt removal of the person is unwarranted and priority lies in maintaining his/her confidence, emotional well-being, and school attendance.
- Recommendations for treatment will follow current standards of evidenced-based practices as recommended by the AAP: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/AAP-Updates-Treatments-for-Head-Lice.aspx
- .Following treatment, the person will be rechecked before returning to the classroom. If no live lice or viable nits, the person may be readmitted to school.
- If ANY nits are found, at the time of either the initial or return check, the person will be rechecked in 1 week, or at the discretion of the school nurse, and the individualized assessment of the person.
- Persons with nonviable nits will be monitored, not be referred for treatment, and may remain in school.
- Siblings and other persons, at the school nurse’s discretion, who are felt to be in close contact with a person with live lice will be inspected for infestation and referred as appropriate.
- The school nurse retains the authorization, at his or her discretion, to require proof of treatment and/or to exclude a child with repeated infestations of live lice or viable nits or a child with a current active infestation for which there in an apparent lack of adequate follow-through by parents or guardian.
It should be noted, this change in practice comes from the school’s doctor. The Board has no power to make changes.