This Final 2017-2018 Budget Showdown Is About to Begin

Octorara Property Tax Increase

The Octorara Board of Directors held their Facilities and Policy Committee Meetings, and the Work Session Meeting on Monday, May 8, 2017. Seven Board members were in attendance. Hank Oleyniczak and Nelson Stoltzfus were both absent.

Final 2017-2018 Budget Vote Countdown

Typically, by this point of the process, there is a level of certainty with the budget. The Octorara Area School Board has already voted to present to the public a 2017-2018 Budget that includes $54 million in expenditures, a 3.2% property tax increase, and a $563,000 expected use of fund balance. In years past, with the exception of some minor updates, that would be the Budget the Board would vote on come June.

However, the very evident public anger over another property tax increase calls this into question. Regardless, the proposed cure may cause more problems than it fixes. We have all seen those pharmaceutical commercials trying to sell you a drug to cure some affliction. But, then comes the list of side effects at the end… may cause insomnia, suicidal thoughts, kidney failure, problems with memory, tremors, nausea, increased appetite and weight gain, fatigue, high blood pressure, and risk of heart attack. Is a cure for toenail fungus really worth all that?

Taxing Less and Spending More

Well, the idea placed into the discussion last month by Brian Norris, and supported by Lisa Bowman, is to have a 2 percent property tax increase, rather than the full Act 1 limit increase of 3.2 percent. The change in the Budget would cause an increase in deficit spending from $563,000 to over $940,000. Moreover, the decrease in revenue, without corresponding budget cuts, will have a compounding effect going into future budgets. This could dramatically impact the financial health of the District. We will start the next budget process with a large revenue deficit before even one new dollar is added for just regular and predictable cost increases.

Using Savings to Pay the Bills

Currently, there is no majority support for making spending cuts. However, William Kloss stated, referencing statements I have made in the past, if he were to vote for the lower tax rate, it would require a commitment that we look at cuts as early as possible within the next budget. It is just a budgetary fact that using savings to pay your bills is unsustainable. The Reserve Fund is a finite amount of money and when it is gone, it is gone. The fasted way to cause our District to implode is to continue allowing the costs to grow faster than revenues.

Why No Cuts This Year?

The whole argument for taxing less without corresponding cuts is predicated on the idea that “other districts” use their reserve fund all the time to balance their budgets What it does not consider is the actual financial situations of those districts compared to our own. Other Chester County school districts do not have as much farmland, the limited commercial and industrial properties, the massive tax shift to other property owners, the declining enrollment, or many of the other financial challenges unique to Octorara. If we continue to try to spend like Tredyffrin-Easttown, we will tax people out of their homes and still go broke.

Ultimately, taxing less but allowing the budget to grow is the easy political answer, but it is not a sustainable long-term solution. I believe it is only an attempt to lessen public outrage. It would seem some would rather save the cuts for a non-election year, but the cuts are coming. The only question is… Will those cuts come from the regular teaching and support staff or will the Board finally look at building consolidation and program cuts?

Security Guard and Use of Firearm Policy Only a Possibility

Most readers will remember the backlash over the killing of a raccoon by our armed security officer. Some parents and community members expressed concerned that the District does not have a formal policy defining the security officer’s role, nor do we have a policy defining the appropriate use of a firearm. This issue is now being discussed in the Policy Committee.

Dr, Newcome provided the Committee with examples of policies used at other Districts. These were provided for review, and could possibly be used as a guide for creating our own. However, developing a well-defined policy is not a forgone conclusion. Other outcomes could include updating the security officer’s job description or even doing nothing. There was obvious aggravation from at least one Board member that this is being discussed. Conversely, I am at a loss to understand why defining the security officer’s role, and the appropriate use of a firearm, causes anyone any heartburn.

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9 thoughts on “This Final 2017-2018 Budget Showdown Is About to Begin

  1. This board needs to come to grips wth the fact that they can NOT continue to have a deficit. Once or twice they may slide by, but after that it will implode. They need to learn to live within the constraints of the monies available at the time of expenditure. I met with the Business Manager yesterday morning for quite awhile. At this time, I don’t see that cutting staff or reducing some of the popular programs would be feasible. There are things that can be cut and I would hope they will see their way to do that. Utilizing the buildings more productively could be a solution. The programs that other school districts pay Octorara to attend might be a revenue enhancer. Are there programs that other schools don’t offer that Octorara could start? Naturally there would need to be a feasibility study. Maybe outsourcing the Psychologist position. There are companies that can provide that service. Paying for the service to come to Octorara for two months to do the testing and write the recommendationsratzher then a full year year salary and genes for the psycologist might be something to think about. It could be a significant savings.
    Just suggestions.

    • Thank you for your perspective, Linda.

      I have a lot of respect for Mr. Curtis. He has made a very positive impact on the budget process, and we are doing as well as we are because of him… at least, in my opinion. However, I would have to understand the context of your conversation to know why you concluded cutting staff or reducing some of the popular programs would not be feasible. If we are talking about the Ag and Homeland Security programs, I would agree. These both have the potential to attract outside students and generate a revenue stream from tuition payments. However, as of my most current information, they are not money-makers.

      That said, I believe there is only value to the Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs if significant numbers of students are going on to jobs or additional education in those fields. I have not been given any information that shows that is the case. Moreover, since the number of our students continuing their education tends to be on the low side, it leads me to believe some of these CTE programs are “popular” because they have replaced other electives.

      Full-day kindergarten is also considered popular. However, it does add a significant cost. Regardless, the return on that investment is very low. Much of the information I looked at shows that children who receive additional early learning appear more prepared going into First Grade, but that those gains evaporate quickly. By the time their cohort reached Thrid Grade, their counterparts do just as well. The only children that are definitively shown to benefit from early learning are those considered “at risk”. These are the children living in actual poverty or have other major challenges at home.

      Furthermore, while I do not support cutting teachers first, our classroom sizes are on the low side. In fact, comparing and contrasting past performance, the students actually achieved better outcomes when the classroom sizes were slightly higher and more in line with other schools that we looked at. At the elementary school level, we could cut 1 teacher from each grade without any negative impact. We would then need to closely examine every class offered at the Jr/Sr High School and eliminate classes that do not meet a reasonable standard.

      You know what they say about government spending, one person’s pork is another person’s essential spending. Add to that, it is very difficult to roll back a program once it is in place. That said, many of these programs seemed to be rolled out based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Full-day kindergarten was rolled out despite the fact that Dr. Newcone did inform the Board that such programs did not provide a long-term benefit. The CTE programs were rolled out in the hope that students would choose Octorara over programs offered by the IU. Yet, Octorara’s CTE programs seem to be “popular” more because of a lack of choice, and the students that choose the IU are still choosing the IU.

      The Administration and some other Board members like to say we have already cut to the bone, and there is little left to cut. I obviously disagree. In my opinion, it is more correct to say that they have cut all the low hanging fruit… the easy cuts and the positions that few people will notice, at least not at first. What is left will require some political will and fortitude. It will take bravery, only roughly 10 years after the Intermediate School opened, to vote for building consolidation. It takes a certain kind of individual to put their ego to the side, admitting an original decision was wrong (or conditions have changed), and make a course correction.

      We can return to a school district that is leaner and more efficient. It just requires the Board wanting to do it. Regardless, if they don’t make these decisions themselves, they could potentially be taken from them. Our financial situation is such that we cannot sustain the continuing cycle of budgets that grow faster than we can tax. We need to learn to live within our means. There is no way around it.

      • In a little less then two hours with the Business Manager, I obviously cannot know all that you know. He is the numbers man, not an educator, so he would be limited in opinion in that regard. I also am not fully cognizant of the listing of the offered curriculum. I will familiarize myself. Having lived here for over 40 years, I can see the benefit to other avenues for learning not associated with a four year degree. I think this district can benefit from it if the right courses are offered. On the other hand, what 14 year old knows with certainty what he/she wants to do when they go out into the world. It is difficult to second guess and make available the type of learning these young people may find an interest. They don’t all want to be hot rod mechanics and hair dressers, although they can pay well.
        I do think only raising the tax 2% is not a good option. The fund won’t last long at that rate.
        The 2018-19 needs to be balanced with no deficit spending. So the board has a year to fix it.
        I hope to hear some good solutions at the meetings in the next school year.

      • Oh, I know. I don’t think Mr. Curtis misled you in any way. But, he does have to support the dominant position of the Board.

        If I had confidence that the Board would actually work on developing a budget with no deficit spending in 2018-19, I would actually support a zero tax increase this year without any cuts. Using the Reserve to get us over the hump is a good plan, if the opportunity is used productively. However, the only other member talking about the possibility of tackling the problem next year is Mr. Kloss… and I don’t really have any idea about how far he is willing to go.

        I tend to agree with you about not all learning needs to be geared towards college. The debate is really about Octorara diverting resources. The CCIU’s Technical College High Schools exist because traditional school districts could not effectively provide Career and Technical Education. While I can see the benefits of Octorara being the area’s “Agricultural School”, other courses should be left to the IU. All that said, we can only afford what we can afford. Reading, writing, and math must be the primary focus.

  2. I think the primary emphasis on the 3 fundamentals is completely out of touch, baby boomer mentality and is completely out of touch with today’s job market for the abundance of students that will eventually seek that direction after failing out of college, or pursuing an education or degree of mediocre stature at an extremely high cost, leaving them either un or under employed.
    I was somehow voted in junior year as Senior Class President, yet completely struggled in many courses, flunked out of Penn State, and was left at 20 , with a hard labor going nowhere manufacturing job that I had no skills for. Octorara just happens to be located in rich Farmland, but is full of all kinds of students which are both , not Farmers, and not college bound. Please excuse my ignorance if there are already classes in place, but there needs to be education on how to balance personal finances, loans, mortgage process navigation, the insurance industry,how to live your life as a productive adult. I have been in the collision repair industry all my life and did you know that a body repair technician makes 80K a year up to 150K a year? A car painter makes the same, as do estimators? Build a technical training center, charge extra tuition rather than increase taxes and GROW the young talent appropriately that walks into the doors every day, instead of considering every student as a possible college candidate. White collar, and middle management jobs are dissipating rapidly today and technical trades are in dyer need of new people coming in. Thanks for letting me share honestly………

    • Thank you for taking the time to add your perspective.

      There is a lot you wrote about that I agree with, especially the idea of a specific class to teach students about credit, loans, contracts, and insurance. Young people leave high school able to sign their life away, but they are often ill-prepared for handling their own personal finances. I would add also a specific class on civics which includes the practical aspects of citizenship, a citizen’s role in the operation and oversight of government, and education on overall rights and responsibilities.

      Another great idea is having a distinct technical training center that charges tuition. I don’t know how feasible that is, especially in a low-population area like Octroara. However, it is that kind of out-of-the-box thinking we need in order to get ourselves out of the mess we are in.

      The only area that I strongly disagree with is your thinking on fundamentals: reading, writing, and math. I would argue these abilities are important for the vast majority of jobs, including skilled labor and the trades. But, to your idea about teaching credit and personal finance, an adult needs the ability to read and comprehend credit applications, mortgage agreements, contracts, insurance documents, technical manuals, and more. An adult needs to have the math skills to do everything from home budgets and balancing their checkbook to managing and understanding their 401(k) investments. These skills also are needed for future learning. The 40-something person who lost his/her job because it was shipped overseas or because of automation… that person needs reading, writing, and math in order to go back to school and learn a new skill. The fundamentals are important for every person.

  3. This comment may not be entirely on point. But in a way it flows from the comments of Linda Cleaver and Tom McChesney above. It is humbly offered.

    I hope that all, in whatever region, will come out to vote next Tuesday, May 16, for seats on the school board. And I hope that voters in Region 3 will re-elect Tim Alexander. My reasons now are pretty much the same as they were four years ago when Tim originally won his seat on the board:

    1. He is hands-down the hardest working member on the board.

    2. He sees and acknowledges problems, plows into and investigates them, thinks about potential solutions and remedies, and then thinks some more before he speaks and/or writes. With Tim Alexander there is always a whole lot of thinking going on.

    3. Far more, infinitely more than any current member of the board, Tim Alexander has regularly and routinely spoken and written about the nexus between school district taxes and the region’s socio-economic woes; i.e. some folks deciding or being financially forced to move away, other folks declining to move in and to look elsewhere, and the burden on those that are here when the OASD annual cost-per-student is around $21,000, which is about twice the national average and about 60% higher than the Pennsylvania state average, and is in fact comparable to the per-student cost at a majority of state colleges and universities, and indeed even rivals the per-student cost at a great many private colleges. To be sure, OASD high per-student costs, and the high taxes required to pay those costs, are not by any stretch solely responsible for the economic funk this region is in, but almost certainly they are a significant contributing factor. High costs, high taxes, and low and slipping student achievement: so why would a family with young kids want to move here? For that matter why would anyone want to move here? The charm of regularly seeing Amish horse-drawn buggies on the streets can only go so far.

    4. As he was maligned in his original campaign four years ago, Tim Alexander has been maligned in his re-election campaign. Those who attended the candidates’ forum event several weeks ago, and those who may have watched the event online, on that Cube thing, may know of what I speak. Several of the candidates took precise aim, in my opinion cheap shots, at Tim Alexander. Their gripe was characteristic of the general and long-running gripe against Tim Alexander amongst certain board members and their sympathizers; to wit: he can be confrontational, contentious, even at times combative…he just doesn’t always play nice with the other kids. To which I say: Hurrah! Huzzah! Hallelujah! Thank goodness there is at least one mind and one voice on the board that does not necessarily, in knee-jerk fashion, buy-in to the ‘group-think’ pattern of gauzy, rose-tinted, everything’s-coming-up-roses ways of looking at things which have been characteristic of the OASD board since at least when I moved here seven years ago. Tim Alexander is not only, by a country mile, the most thinking person on the board, he is also far and away the most questioning member of the board. And in my opinion those are the most basic and most important traits one should look for in any public servant. Like him or not, agree with him or not, by his public record and as well by his thousands and thousands of posts and comments on his blog, I would happily debate anybody who would deny that Tim Alexander is the most thinking and most questioning member on the board, one of the most thoughtful and deep-thinking persons hereabouts. And by no means incidental, Tim Alexander COMMUNICATES, with his constituents and with the regional community. No one else on the board or in municipal government does that, at least not in an open forum.

    5. I did attend that recent candidate forum for seats on the board. And while I’m truly grateful to anyone willing to serve in the unpaid and largely thankless role, I have to say, with all due respect, that except for Tim Alexander all left me unimpressed. There was a lot of talk about good intentions, caring about the kids, long-standing roots in the community, and wanting to give back. There was also a lot of talk by way of offering verbal resumes. All well and good, nothing wrong with any of that. But actual ideas, or even any hints that the other candidates had thought about the issues, problems, and challenges, were for all intents and purposes non-existent. And importantly, I believe, about half of the other candidates were more or less totally unprepared, but just stood up and spoke extemporaneously, and sadly ineffectually, at least in my opinion. If the sole intent of those candidates was to leave an emotional impression that they are well-intentioned good guys, well then one or more of them may have succeeded in the minds of one or more of the attendees. But they made no impression on me. Similarly, and equally sad, the other half of the other candidates, while at least coming armed with a few notes scrawled on a piece of paper, were similarly unimpressive and ineffectual, in my opinion. With these note-bearing candidates it was pretty much more of the same: here’s who I am, here’s what I do for a living, here are the volunteer ways I have tried to serve, and you should vote for me because I am a well-intentioned good guy. But no substantive ideas, no indication of deep thought, or much real thought at all. Conversely, and conspicuously so, Tim Alexander alone among the candidate speakers came with prepared remarks: comments which were substantive, which reflected not just thought but deep thought, and which, to the exclusion of almost all other remarks made by any of the other speakers, paid due honor to the importance of the occasion.

    For these reasons and more I’m supporting and will vote for Tim Alexander. He thinks. He questions. He researches. He thinks again. And before he speaks and/or writes, before he criticizes others or proposes something on his own, he makes sure he knows the facts, has his arguments marshalled. And not least, this most-maligned man, this grossly, unfairly maligned man, has always conducted himself on a higher, more respectful plane than virtually all of his critics, all of public gripers and secret snipers who consistently, day in and day out, yap and try to nip at his heels. And why? I respectfully and humbly submit that it may just be because Tim Alexander thinks and questions; isn’t interested in ‘playing ball’ or being a rubber stamp; doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the manifestly failed current leadership on the board, and who, by DNA design and philosophic bent, really and truly just hates waste, fraud, and abuse…and even more so, irresponsibility and unaccountability.

    All the other current and prospective board members, as well as bleeding-heart apologists who occasionally get up the gumption to speak out, can spare me their pleas, protestations, and excuses about their good intentions and their overall good guydom. PLEASE, SPARE ME! I want ideas, solutions, and results. I want my taxes down and student test scores up, especially the latter. I want some academic bang for my tax buck. I want some indication, even a blip of understanding, that you have grappled with the conundrum as to why the per-student cost of even a kindergartner in the OASD should be on a par with the per-student cost of a kid at Penn State, including room, board, and books.

    Bottom line, last word, I promise: Why vote for Tim Alexander? Because in the large sense, a very real sense, a day-to-day sense, he is the only adult in the room. At the very least, he is the sage voice, the one with a track record of tackling difficult issues, thinking them through, noodling some possible prescriptions, and then speaking clearly, leaving no doubt about where he stands.

    Tim Alexander thinks. He thinks deeply and broadly, getting into all the nooks and crannies. He researches, acquaints himself with statutes, rules, regulations and all other stuff effecting the finances and operations of the OASD. He does all kinds of comparative analyses. Unlike some other board members, he never misses a committee meeting or a general meeting. And unlike some Milquetoast board members, he is never afraid or reluctant to speak his true mind. He is conspicuously courageous in that regard.

    And so while all around town there are a lot of lawn signs promoting the candidacies of others, I’ll venture that most of the hosts of those lawn signs know next to nothing, or even nothing at all, about the views and ideas of the persons whose names are on their lawns. In all too many cases, I’m afraid and I suspect, those lawn sign hosts are acting just like most members of the board; i.e. let’s play nice and go the consensus route, let’s make like mind-numbed robots. Sorry, not me.

    Tim Alexander was the only one who came to the candidates’ forum with prepared remarks, remarks which focused not on himself and his good intentions, but rather on his ideas about how we can at least begin to turn things around. Tim Alexander does not have any lawn signs up, at least none that I’ve seen. Good. After his past four years of sterling service on the board, he shouldn’t have to beg for votes. It should be self-evident to voters in Region 3, at least any paying attention, that Tim Alexander should absolutely, positively be returned to the board…and with such an overwhelming mandate that the powers-that-be on the board will be forced to treat Tim Alexander with significantly more respect than they thus far deigned to show him.

    If Tim Alexander is defeated it will in my opinion be a shame, a blot on this community and whatever pretensions it has about truly representative and accountable government. If Tim Alexander is defeated, then we all might just as well bend over and kiss our sweet asses goodbye.

    C. Vail

    P.S. All these names on all these lawn signs all around town promoting candidates for the board. Who, really, are these people? What do they stand for, other than nice-guy good intentions? What do they think? Do they think, seriously think? I wonder. What serious ideas do they have, and what thoughts and proposals are they about to bring forward? None that I know of. So are all these other candidates just well-intentioned, hale-fellow-well-met empty suits, just fluff? Sadly that is pretty much what I concluded after the candidates’ forum. (And in all honesty at least two or three of the candidates were embarrassingly weak, demonstrably dull and dumb, not really worthy of running for dog-catcher.)

    Four years ago, well after launching his blog and just after launching his candidacy for his original term on the board, I invited Tim Alexander to lunch and he accepted. We had a long, two-hour conversation, of which probably no more than 15 minutes were devoted to getting-to-know-you matters. All the rest was focused on education generally, and education in the OASD specifically. I was more than impressed; I was nearly blown away by Tim Alexander’s command of not just big-picture issues and ideas, but as well of specific facts relating to any and all facets in which our discussion took us. He knew the big picture in education, both nationally and locally, and he knew the about the nexus between healthy schools and healthy communities. If he hadn’t had an appointment to get to, I could have happily stayed with him for another few hours just listening to his analyses and his ideas. He was that interesting, so engrossing. And in the years since he has never, not once, given me cause to question my original judgement, my first measure of the man. He is the real deal, and through his public actions and votes, as well as through his blog, he almost always daily proves, underscores, the fact that he is the real deal. And against him we have what? Just some names on some lawn signs representing some persons about whom almost everybody knows nothing. Sheesh, if this election ain’t a no-brainer, I honestly don’t know what is. Tim Alexander is the word; the others are ciphers.

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