Lice Infestations, Property Taxes & School District Transparency

Skyrocketing Property Taxes & School District Transparency

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 =

Why Our Taxes Are So Darn HighWe 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. .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.
  4. 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.
  5. Persons with nonviable nits will be monitored, not be referred for treatment, and may remain in school.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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19 thoughts on “Lice Infestations, Property Taxes & School District Transparency

  1. So how can we find the board’s meeting schedule? Because I’m tired of these ridiculous taxes. I understand budgets are difficult, but this is just unreasonable and irresponsible. There need to be some hard decisions made, and very quickly. This little school district doesn’t have the tax base for this level of spending.

    • Board level meetings are shown on the District’s online calendar. But, once you know how they are scheduled, you can project out. Board Work Sessions are the second Monday, and Regular Meetings are the third Monday… both start at 7 p.m. in the Jr High Multi-Purpose Room. You will find that on their website.

      Committee Meetings are listed at the bottom of Board Meeting Minutes. However, the schedules for most Committees are consistent. So, once you know, you can project out for them too. Policy and Facilities are the second Monday of the month, usually starting at 6 p.m. in the Administrative Building Conference Room. Finance is on the third Monday, also usually starting at 6 p.m. in the Administrative Building Conference Room.

      All that said, this site’s calendar does sync with the District’s. In fact, if you know how, you can sync it to you own Google or Andriod phone calendar.

  2. Hello, I attended my first school board meeting last night. It was very informative. Thank you board members. I too think some members of the board did not understand why parents were so upset about not being notified immediately after the security guard shot and killed the suspected rabbit raccoon. This information needs to get out immediately after the incident so the information is clear and accurate. This did not happen in this situation and many parents heard the information second and third hand which we all know will definitely get twisted. We were informed last night that the guard is a retired police officer and well trained . I think this is important information to the parents. TAXES- I know some of the board members feel there are no more cuts that can be made to avoid another maximum tax increase but I encourage you to keep searching! I am a retired manager from a local food company and would have to look for cuts each and every year. Although I know it gets harder each year, we always found things. Thank again for all you do!

    • Thank you for your comments.

      We all tend to forget that not everyone has the same information we do, and I include myself in that statement. During the debate over whether or not to even add a security officer, hiring a retired police officer or military person was fundamental. Something we consider as a well-known fact turns out is not widely known at all.

      All that said, I do believe greater Transparency would have resolved most of this. People should not have heard about this incident first on my blog. It should have happened 10 days early when it actually happened.

  3. So wait I’m sorry am I reading this wrong a person won’t be sent to the nurse till the end of the day if they’re suspected for. Lice ?

  4. Wow!! that was some board meeting!! I recall Dr. Newcome stating he would post his email regarding the Rabid Raccoon incident on the website under business by 9:00 am today. I have not found it. Is it there buried in the drop down menus and I have not been smart enough to locate it?
    I was pleased with the extra explanations of the budget. I am sure people’s eyes still glazed over as the figures quoted are simply totals with no detail of the items it includes.
    The Teachers retirement will continue to be a problem with these budgets. All schools face it. I would like to see the state actually do away with this allowing the employee the opportunity to purchase healthcare and retirement accounts on their own. They are smart folks and the idea of the community still providing for the schoolmarm is very out dated…we simply can no longer afford
    it.

    • There are a lot of details left out of those presentations. Frankly, I would prefer much more historical data than we get, maybe add trends, future projects. Some of that was asked for and will be seen next month, but I would do the presentations a little differently… and probably cause people to go to sleep. So… you know.

      Anyway, teacher’s retirement is an issue… no doubt about it. We need to switch from defined benefits to defined contributions. There is a reason those types of retirement plans largely no longer exist in the private sector.

      I did find the email link, and you are right. You have to hunt for it. It is under the “School Board” tab. It is not the “email” but looks like a cut and paste. That said, it is the actual text.

      As you may remember from last night’s meeting, the other Board members were focused on the procedure of killing the animal… as in how would a police officer dispatched the animal. My initial objection was that the original email did not describe the raccoon as actually acting aggressively. Then, only after I pressed the topic at the Committee, were details given like it approached a teacher, was foaming at the mouth, hissing, and so on.

      In fact, you may also actually be able to pick out the inconsistencies in what was said last night and this email. Several people from last night asked about an investigation. I’m not really sure why having some kind of written incident report is not worth doing.

      Right now, there is no complete accounting of what happens, and each time it is discussed some details are updated.

      • I found the link. I just have to say..are you kidding me??? All that hullabaloo over that??? Good grief. Makes me shake my head. It still doesn’t address what they did with the animal or if they reported it to the Chester County Board of Heath.
        I think according to the CCBoH it is required. If I am wrong, someone will surely enlighten me. The folks that read your blog are good editors. I hope the rest of the Board now realizes people are not apathetic. Their word. I know people pay attention when they are given the opportunity.

  5. Why can’t octorara be like other schools??? 1st grade to 8th the high school. All these schools are ridiculous. People will move out, rent their homes out and it will become a ghost town. You won’t be able to afford your schools.
    Why did you put that ugly Indian statue up?? Our taxes paid for that too.
    Your school ratings are poor. If parents are smart, have the school fund for home schooling.
    WHT don’t the school board and employees take a pay cut, or better yet, pay our taxes… you are forcing a low income of families in. Hud, welfare, just so people can be guaranteed a mortgage payment.
    Time to get out of octorara school district.

    • Thank you for your comments. I hear your frustration and anger. The high taxes are making it difficult for working-class and middle-class people to stay. There are those who couldn’t sell their home, so have chosen to turn their house into a rental property. It places stress on the whole community. The final vote is in June. Please come to a Board Meeting between now and then. The rest of the Board needs to hear from you as well.

  6. I couldn’t stay for the meeting but I was able to watch the cube this morning. I want to say thank you to Tim Alexander for giving us transparency over the years. What is troubling is how Hank and Brian decided to attack Tim’s character last night while Lisa played mommy. I believe we will address their behavior next meeting. I didn’t appreciate getting singled out by Hank when I brought my camera to the pre-meeting as I have the right to do so and yes I informed Dr. Newcome as I entered the meeting. Since we are on the topic of transparency lets begin by looking at the facts here. Tim was a blogger expressing his opinion long before he became a board member and obviously the public liked it because they voted him in, so Hank sit down and be quiet or get off the board. Now on to Brian Norris, and yes it is obvious that my camera bothered him more than anything but hey he showed his true colors out in front of the public which was better. Brian you haven’t done anything for the public since you got elected nor have you expressed your opinions on how to reduce taxes with a school that has a reducing population of new students yet the taxes are going up. How is that possible. I say lets cut the teachers salaries, and start drug testing the teachers, and maybe we will start seeing better scores on tests because we are not getting what we are paying for. Next get rid of the security guards and the Ipads they are not needed and to risky to keep around. People are taxed to death and some are on fixed incomes, and not a single board member besides Tim has even thought of having the courage to try and find a way to reduce the taxes which is absolutely insane. How long before the tax payers are living somewhere else with less taxes and a better education? This is just my opinion.

  7. I share the anger and frustration felt by many who are posting here. Mine is pointed at the state and a bit at our local municipalities here’s why:

    * We saw in Monday night’s meeting that almost 70% of our Octorara school tax increases since 2011 have been to cover the state’s mishandling of PSERS. And, the PSERS rate was going to plateau yet now again will increase.
    * State funding of school budgets used to be 70% and now account for about 50%. The gap has been borne by our local property tax owners.
    * Every state that touches PA has a graduated income tax. We have a flat income tax that disproportionately taxes lower income residents.
    * We should include unearned income at the state level for income taxes. 90%-95% of the population should support this policy. If it’s within a graduated income tax system it works out far better for almost everyone.
    * In our local municipalities, some local elected supervisors have been simply obstructionist when it comes to commercial/industrial development that would broaden our tax base. As a result, residential property taxes pay more.

    We certainly should and do look for where we can cut costs yet we all need to be aware of these broader issues. That’s where my anger is directed.

    • Mr. Fox,

      Thank you for adding your perspective. I am sure everyone grew up with their mother telling them, “When you point a finger at someone else, three are pointing back at you.”

      Debt service to pay off the cost of over-building the campus is around $6 Million per year. This amount equates to roughly 7 Mills of the property tax burden. So, rather than expecting a tax rate of 38.63 Mills for next year, we could be talking about a rate of only 31.63 Mills. Moreover, many recent programs were passed with full knowledge of the District’s financial stress. In fact, the Board was told outright that there was no money in the budget to fund the armed security guard when they initially passed it.

      We can all find reasons to blame others for our problems. But we must accept responsibility for our own actions. I’m sure every property owner feels the same way about taxes as you do about PSERS. However, as their property taxes take a larger and larger percentage of their income, they must adapt their home budgets. They may be forced to not buy a new car, make a home improvement, or buy something for their kids. Some older folks, on fixed income, may have to make hard choices about paying taxes or buying food and medication. It is time our DIstict starts to make some hard choices, just like the people we demand pay our bills.

      Granted, you have not been on the Board very long. You are not directly responsible for the votes that have created our high tax rate. However, in my opinion, the more you adopt our Board’s group-think, the more you become culpable for our tax situation.

      • I’m trying to elevate and broaden the conversation. What do you think about the regressive tax policies of our state? The obstruction at the local level for development? The bungling of the retirement system and how that has been kicked down from the state to the local taxpayer where they must know the issues they are causing in the school districts?

        I’m not seeking to blame others for problems – we have other issues in the environment of what we’re trying to manage that also need to be addressed.

        I’m not group-thinking – I know what it is – you’re making an incorrect assumption on my thinking.

      • Mr. Fox,

        There are many things I would do differently if I was king of the world. However, there are things we can directly control and things we can not. Just like property owners cannot directly control the school district’s property tax rate, we cannot control PSERs or the decisions of other government agencies. When people look at the way our tax rate has gone up over the last 15 years, they talk about it around the kitchen table the same way the Board talks about retirement costs. Yet, they still have to pay the taxes, and many have to make real sacrifices to do it.

        I have supported and promoted action in Harrisburg that I believe would help. I am a big supporter of the effort to pass Property Tax Independence. In the meantime, we have to work within the conditions that exist. Our responsibility is to the whole community and the taxpayer must be a consideration. I truly believe you have closed your mind to alternative viewpoints. The current trajectory is unsustainable for those who are actually paying the bills.

  8. Hi Tim,
    I do want to change this conversation and interested in hearing your thoughts on the questions I raised about a more equitable tax structure that’s possible here in PA. The changes needed are beyond the ones proposed in the property tax legislation.

    On the $6m debt funding, if the new construction hadn’t been undertaken I would expect that there would have been some significant renovations. To say we’d save the entire amount is likely overestimated. Regardless of that value, if we apply the PSERS contribution rate from 2008, after it started increasing and had gone up a few points over historical levels, the difference in our PSERS contribution expense could be $5-6m less. If funding from the state had maintained similar levels, we’d see over $10m more each year.

    The issues are of a different scale. I acknowledge that yes, we should and do continue to look for savings yet as readers here only see the issues you choose to share, you do a disservice to them if you ignore the larger ones. This blog is a forum where you can energize people to make the substantive changes that need to be changed. In your response you said, “we cannot control PSERs or the decisions of other government agencies” – that’s fatalism. We can change things at the state level. And at the local municipal level as well where we can encourage township supervisors and seek more favorable actions for growth.

    Eisenhower has a quote I came across several years ago that I think of and use often: If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.

    Our school operates at the local level yet we can see the impact of constraints and issues pushed to us from other entities. You should advocate here for action at all levels.

    Best,
    Brian

    • You tell me that I do a disservice to my readers when in the same breath you insult them as ignorant? You honestly believe that the public does not know that farmers receive a tax break, that PSERs is sucking resources from every district in the state, or that PA does not have a progressive income tax? There are also people who support the way Harrisburg has those things.

      You and I can pontificate all day and night about the issues with Harrisburg and Washington that are making things difficult for school districts. I actually support grassroots organizations that are trying to effect change. But neither of those things are going to change the tax rate we are voting on in June. Do you know how long groups have been working to get Property Tax Reform done?

      If you don’t want to cut anything, just be honest about the fact that you will do nothing to fix the problem. Why talk people in circles? The only fatalism is coming from you and other Board Members who boohoo about the municipalities, Harrisburg, Washington, and anything else you can point the finger at to blame for our high taxes.

      Do you think that PSERs, special needs legislation, charter schools, the farm tax shift, and all those things that Board Members complain about happened just to spite the Octorara Area School District? Yes, it makes it difficult. It means making hard choices. It means, in a small, rural school district, we can’t be all things to all people, and we need to be leaner and more focused.

      We both know the trajectory of the District’s financial situation, and the fact we have been subsidizing the budget with refinancing credits. There are things we can do, you just don’t want to do them… own it. Talking is cheap, and talking in circles is boring.

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