By Jack Mariano
The Octorara area school board met on Monday, June 15 and from what was reported to be a very sparse audience, as part of the regular meeting, the directors passed a $50.7 million budget for the 2015–16 school year, resulting in a total tax millage of 27.42 in Lancaster County and 37.51 in Chester County.
Voting for the two items (1a and 1b) were Lisa Bowman; Sam Ganow; Nelson Stoltzfus; Brian Norris; Hank Olneyziak and Shawna Johnson. The lone dissenter was Tim Alexander.
Directors Melton and Lapp were absent from the meeting.
The tax increase, the first in two years, is the maximum allowed by Pennsylvania’s Act 1 index without PDE exception or voter approval, leaves the District with a deficit of $1.7 Million – as Director Tim Alexander stated on his blog page.
Financial officer Jeff Curtis informed the attendees that the final figures regarding the state homestead / farmstead reductions will amount to -$268.76 in Chester County and -$268.60 in Lancaster County.
Prior to the vote, a spirited discussion ensued between Mr. Norris and Mr. Alexander with the latter pounding his hand on the table, vehemently driving home his point. Alexander stated that he could not vote in favor of this budget as it does not cover the $1.5 million dollar increase that the budget entails. “It is irresponsible to pass a budget when a serious look at pruning has not been done” Alexander said. To that comment, Brian Norris replied: “We have been discussing this budget for roughly six months and I think the record would reflect that at every time we had a budget discussion publicly here in this room, there was very little comment, direction, suggestion of cuts from board members in regards to which direction administrators should take in preparing this budget. Alexander began to interrupt when Norris added: “Tim, you certainly have the right to conduct yourself as you see fit, that’s your right as a Board member but, part of your right as a Board member and really an obligation frankly is, if you feel that way, to bring to the forefront and discuss it and we debate it here, publicly. Here we are in the final hour and you bring this up and I think you do a disservice to your convictions if you present it that way”. Alexander retorted that is was not as if these items were not discussed at public meetings using examples that finance committee meetings, the facilities committee are public meetings not behind closed doors and “these are items that I’ve brought up in discussions there is only so much beating my head up against the wall that I can do, I’m talking about there’s no money…for track, there’s no money for a security guard, the I Pad program is going to cost us half a million dollars I mean if…the only legitimate comments are the ones made at THIS table, duly noted and that’s the way I will move forward. If nothing counts in any of the other meetings… Fine! (pounding table) you will hear all my comments at this table.” After a short round of word sparring, with President Bowman trying to keep conversations and tempers under control, Norris added that since January, he has heard “nothing…at this table.” Norris: ‘The discussions that have been provided for at this meeting, AT THIS MEETING, you (meaning Alexander) have been silent. We ALL have been silent and the record reflects that. And you conveniently take the opportunity most times to engage at home, on your blog, with your ideas. And maybe you would be better served and maybe some of this needs to come to fruition if we have them discussed in a timely, public forum that we are required to do. That’s all I’m suggesting.” Ganow added (referring to Mr. Alexander) that he has brought items up such as cutting transportation, going back to part-time kindergarten, eliminating the I Pad program much of those we disagree with but he has brought forward ideas if items to cut.
Mr. Olneyziak commented on pruning: “We are looking at some pretty hefty branches and I don’t think we are ready for that just yet.” He lamented to Parkesburg Today that nobody wishes to pass an increase like this but some of the cuts that would need to be made are pretty deep adding it is difficult to enact a budget by July 1 when the state hasn’t approved what funds will be available.
Bowman said that she and Mr. Curtis has been asking for comments on the budget since January and up until there was a slight mention about kindergarten but this was about the only comments that were mentioned. She also commented about a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer where state items like PSERS and other issues that are beyond control of school boards. People are finally starting to ask Harrisburg to address these education shortfalls. Accoding to Bowman, the biggest driver is the pension cost. the tax increase this year will bring in $693,000 but the pension and special education costs alone will cost more than $900,000 and if you add charter school and transportation to that it’s over 1.2 million and those are costs we cannot control. Taxes are paying for pensions and special education costs. We can’t keep up with the increases. I don’t think people realize the mandated costs we have. We would need to cut 5 teachers just to pay for pension costs.
Ganow accused the President of giving Alexander a hard time because he was voting “no” which she strongly denied. At the end of the day, he said, all we have is our vote.
Alexander referred to his blog piece written in 2013 before he was elected to the Board entitled “Gone in 30 minutes” paraphrasing “That is how long the meeting took. It started at 7:30 p.m. and I was home drinking coffee by 8:10. I bring this up because last night, more than any other meeting, I noticed a true lack of public discussion or debate”. Alexander lamented that he has fallen into the very trap that he spoke out about in those days when he was just a private citizen attending Board meetings. Things like budgets were passed without any or little discussion. “I’m the one who brings up the cut list, I’m the one who brings up ideas and it is returned to me ‘what would YOU do, to cut the budget?’” “You want me to do it? Make me Superintendent and I’ll start cutting stuff”. He added that it is not the Board’s job to micro manage – but to say that a cut of say $300,000.00 is needed and it is the Superintendent’s job to make that cut.
After many tenuous moments, the vote was taken and although Alexander did a good job explaining and defending his position, the final tally was six for the budget and one against. Perhaps though, Alexander’s words and thought were not totally discarded because as Bowman stated, the process of the 2016-17 budget will begin in July. Now that the “table has been set” it will be most interesting to see who comes for dinner.
Among other business was the hiring of a new Assistant Principal for the High School namely, Mrs. Carrie Dickmann at the salary of $85,000.00 year who will be replacing Mr. Bankert who is moving on to another district. That vote was a bit closer at 5-2 with both Ganow and Alexander voting no. Both have gone on record saying that personnel replacements should not be hired as the District cannot keep running into deficits year after year.