Octorara’s Enrollment Continues Freefall

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Octorara's Enrollment Continues Freefall

The Octorara Board of Directors held their Facilities and Policy Committee Meetings and the Work Session Meeting was held on Monday, September 12, 2016. Hank Oleyniczak was absent.

How Low Can We Go?

Earlier this year, Dr. Newcome provided the Board with the District’s student population history from 1990-91 to 2015-16. It showed that Octorara’s enrollment had dropped to its lowest since 1994-95. The 2489 student population was a drop of 248 students (a 9% loss) since 2008-09. At the time, I wrote, “Any more losses and we will have to look back 25-30 years to find a lower enrollment number.” Well, get ready…

Last night, Sam Ganow asked Dr. Newcome for Octorara’s 2016-17 student population. At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, the District has reached a historic low of 2404 students or a 3.4% drop in just one year. This is a loss of 333 students or a 12% decline within 8 years, and a population so low we will have to look back to the 1980s or maybe even 1970s for similar numbers.

I have been trying to make people aware of Octorara’s population problem for a long time and argued for building consolidation. Back in 2013, there were 2,502 students and the trending decline was obvious. Regardless, many Board members at the time were unwilling to accept this reality. Even today, there are Board Members who will describe building consolidation, as a budget-saving measure, as “a stupid idea.” This is despite the fact that the students that were the reason for building the OIS never appeared. Moreover, the children that were the reason for building the PLC have completely vanished.

Why is this happening? I think it is because young families do not find our area attractive. The property taxes are the highest in the area, and continue to go up drastically yer after year. This makes Octorara properties less attractive than other adjacent communities. Add to this the reality that our area has virtually no jobs, no shopping, and no entertainment. Worse yet, businesses are leaving the area or closing faster than new ones coming in. The combination of the District’s high taxes, and a general unwillingness of local municipalities to develop and revitalize the area, means young families are choosing other places.

Push to Change Track Terms… Again

At last nights Facilities Committee, Dr. Newcome gave an update on Track progress, Additional stone for the base has increased the cost by $26,575. Under the terms of the agreement and vote from September 2015, this cost is the responsibility of the Field Development Task Force. The Board approved spending 50% of the cost, not to exceed $210,000. Nonetheless, the total project has increased to $445,508. The Field Development task Force is now responsible for $235,508. Continue reading

Newcome Provides List of Possible Budget Reductions

Newcome Provides List of Possible Budget Reductions

The Octorara Area School District Board of Directors held their monthly Work Session Meeting on Monday, March 14, 2016. Prior were the Policy and Facilities Committee meetings. All nine Board Members were in attendance. Linda Bicking attended the work session electronically.

What Budget Cuts Do You Want?

From the Work Session, the major item of note was Dr. Newcome’s presentation of potential reductions. This was provided in advance of budget discussions at next week’s Finance Committee Meeting. The list is significant, identifying almost $5.9 Million in potential budget cuts. Items ranged from minor cuts worth only $1,500 in savings to individual cuts over $1 Million.

What was originally asked of the Administration was to work with each school to find $420,000. To accomplish this, the Administration tasked each grade with finding $30,000 in savings. The idea was that having each principle, working with the staff, would be able to find cuts that had minimal impact on programs.

However, the list presented was not all that dissimilar to potential reduction lists (aka cut lists) presented by the Administration in the past. The presentation was also only a list of what could be cut. There were no specific recommendations, but the list was segregated into two categories: those that may affect programs and those that will affect programs.

Potential reductions included:

  • Miscellaneous cuts to Administration spending.
  • Reduction to building budgets by 10%.
  • Teaching cuts:
    • Substitute teachers reduction by reducing administrative leave by 30%.
    • Choosing not to replace multiple retiring/resigning teachers in K-4.
    • Not replacing or reducing a Special Education Teacher.
    • Not replacing or reducing a Spanish position.
    • Cutting a Music teacher.
    • Eliminating an Instructional Assistant position.
    • Elimination of a Reading Specialist.
    • Eliminate Librarian.
  • Returning Kindergarten to half-day or eliminating altogether.
  • Eliminating In-School Suspensions (ISS).
  • Reducing coaching staff.
  • Reducing or eliminating the Security Guard Positions.
  • Eliminate all technology.
  • Eliminate Athletics.
  • Eliminate Non-Athletic supplemental contracts.
  • Eliminate Bussing.

Continue reading

An Interesting Outcome to Octorara Track Vote

Octorara Track and Field

The vote to approve $210,000 in spending to refurbish the Octorara Track was held at the Board of Directors’ Meeting on Sept 21st. The agenda item caused information to surface that several Board Members had been asking for almost 2 years. A last minute modification to the agenda item also added a bit of a twist, However, before all that, lets talk about current district costs, expected deficits, and the 2016-2017 Budget process. Good times, right?!

Explaining Budget vs Actual Costs

The issues of actual cost and the budget were discussed in the Finance Committee meeting. However, my first observation comes from comments made during the Track discussion. It explains a lot about our current financial situation when there are Board members who—either actually or intentionally—don’t understand the difference between budgeted costs and actual costs, or the difference between coming in under budget and coming in under revenue.

How has the District, for the last 2 years, come under budget but still ended with deficits? It is easy to come in under budget when you inflate costs on paper. As an example, if you know your actual car payment is $250 per month, but on a written budget you pencil-in a cost of $300 per month, then on paper it looks like you are doing a good job saving. This is essentially what the District has done for roughly 10 years.

What we have today is a situation where the car payment is $250, we only have $240 to pay for it, but we still are showing $300 a month on the budget. On paper, we look like we are saving. In reality, every month that goes by, we are getting farther and farther behind. Did I explain that well?

Projected Actual Costs and Deficit

The current projected actual costs for the 2015-2016 school year are expected to create a deficit of $647,472. These numbers were given to us by the Business Manager. They are also based on the current Teachers’ contract, and do not include any projected cost increases associated with any potential new contract.

Mr Curtis is also projecting 2016-2017 school year actual costs will increase by $1.5 Million, with a deficit of $1.6 Million. These projections assume only a modest increase in revenue, without a tax increase, and they again do not include assumptions about costs associated with any potential new contract.

While not specifically discussed in the meeting, we can have a reasonable expectation that taxing to the Act 1 limit will only add roughly $800,000 in revenue. If the Board decides to take that path, the actual deficit for 2016-2017 could be a around $800,000. Continue reading

Armed Security Overshadows Other Topics

20660230_BG1Good morning friends, neighbors, parents, and taxpayers. At this week’s regular Board of Directors’ Meeting, the topic on everyone’s minds and lips was the possibility of using the Safety Grant money or rejecting it.

Ultimately, that question will be answered on  Monday, April 14th. It is an unusual action because the Board will vote on this item during a work session meeting, rather than waiting until the next regular meeting,  on April 21st.

Why the sense of urgency?

The short answer is, the grant is use-it-or-lose-it for the current school year. Failure to use the grant within 2013-14 will forfeit the automatic award of next year’s grant. That is a potential loss of up to $60,000 in total… up to $40,000 this year (no way we would be able to use it all), and another $20,000 for the 2014-15 school year.

A little background

After the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, in December 2012, a group of concerned parents began working to convince the School District to acquire Armed Security Officers to be a layer of defense and deterrence against an “active shooter.”

Over time, part of this group began meeting with Dr Newcome monthly, as the Safety Task Force. A task force is a special committee formed expressly for the purpose of studying a particular problem. A task force would typically draw up a list of all the current problems present and evaluates which ones merit fixing and which ones are actually fixable. The task force would then formulate a set of solutions to the problems and pick the “best” solution to each problem.

A task force should then present its findings and proposed solutions to the institution (in this case the School Board) that called for its formation. It is then up to the institution itself to actually act upon the task force’s recommendations.

Their efforts have been the catalyst for School Security being placed as a regular agenda item on the Facilities Committee Meeting, adding Armed Security as an item to the District’s 2014-15 Proposed Budget discussions, and applying for the Safety Grant now causing all the hoo-ha.

Binding our hands

The reality of the grant is it will pigeonhole the District into one option, forsaking all others. The grant limits who can be hired, and under what terms. The grant would also require the District create the Octorara School District Police Department, under which the contracted police officer will be granted his/her authority.

If we do some Monday Morning Quarterbacking, we could say this was done a little backwards. It may have been better to have this discussion before the District applied for the grant. However, that may not have turned out much better.

The concern over public involvement

Brian Norris again voiced his opinion, and I agreed, that there has not been enough by way of getting public feed back… something supporters of Armed Security disagree with. However, there had been plans by the Safety Task Force to poll parents, students, and teachers. That information was to be give to the Board to gauge public opinion.

Additionally, there were proposed plans to have a moderated public discussion. It would give the opportunity for all concerned parties to get together, and talk out all the ideas and possibilities.

These plans could still happen, but if the grant is accepted by the Board, then all those actions would be after the fact.

Freedom from limits

Brian Norris continued his statements with the idea that the best course may be to reject the grant. If that happened, the Board could continue down the original path of making the decision for the 2014-15 school year, evaluating all options, public opinion, and cost vs benefit.

Paying for it

The grant only gets us so far. The question then becomes, what are you willing to cut out to pay for it?

Also at the Board’s meeting was Mr. Carsley’s budget update. Contributions to retirement are going from 16.93% of payroll to 21.40% for 2014-15, and is scheduled to increase to over 30% of payroll in just a few years.

This years’ healthcare costs are projected to be a record $3.1 Million, and will continue to increase as taxes and fees to pay for Obamacare are added. In the Long Range Plan, there is a $25 Million renovation to the Jr High School that will be needed.

Tax increases are limited by Act 1, with the potential of some kind of property tax reform coming out of Harrisburg that will limit the District even more.

At some point, there will be a discussion of what program(s) to cut for the District to maintain a Police Department.

The meeting before the vote

All parents and concerned citizens are invited to attend all Safety Task Force Meetings, held the first Tuesday of each month at 6:30pm. However, special efforts will be made to reach out, and invite participation at the April 1st meeting.

The District will be making Robocalls in an effort to achieve maximum turnout. If needed, the meeting may be moved from the Administrative Conference Room to the Jr/Sr Multi-Purpose Room.

Your next, and final opportunity before the vote, to speak out will be at the School Board Work Session meeting on April 14th, at 7:00pm.