By now you’ve seen the Philly.com article focused on the daunting financial challenges facing the Octorara Area School District that came out this past Monday morning.
The piece had a couple of bucolic pictures of the district’s Highland Road campus, including the image above, and was welcome coverage of the uphill challenges administrators and board members face each year as they balance the educational needs of the district’s children against what we tax payers can afford to shell out to educate our offspring.
The article however, had several glaring omissions and errors that left this long-time observers of the district’s struggles wondering how a paper with The Philadelphia Inquirer, which owns Philly.com, reputation, could get so many substantial and pertinent facts wrong.
To start with, the Philly.com article claims twice, falsely as it turns out, that “”Farmland” is off limits to taxation.”
Whatever you do don’t go knocking on the Hershey’s or Kings doors, or any one of the 250 or so farmers tilling the land or raising livestock in Octorara, and tell them they don’t pay county, municipal or school district property taxes.
You’ll be shot on the spot and deservedly so!
For the record, farmland is evaluated just as any other real estate asset and assessed appropriately. The land and soil are evaluated by county tax assessors to determine how appropriate the tract is for farming and a value and tax rate is set.
Unlike suburban homeowners however, farmers do receive a discount on their property taxes if they give up the rights to develop their land. Otherwise farmers pay property taxes on their land and commercial holdings just like the rest of us.
The second mistake made by the Philly.com reporter was stating the district is overbuilt and has excess capacity. This was a theme candidate Tim Alexander hit on incessantly during his campaign in 2013 but one in which he has been oddly silent about at month board meetings since assuming his hard-won board seat in December.
The article quotes Alexander and talks to the question of over building:
“”One of the issues that I believe is the problem is the overbuilding of the campus,” [Alexander] said, noting that some $6 million of the budget was debt service for projects such as an intermediate school built in 2007 and an expansion of the high school in 2011.”
According to an Octorara official I spoke with yesterday, “all space in the District is utilized – there are no spaces sitting empty and un-used.”
The district official went on to tell me that while Octorara rents classroom and gym space to the Chester County Intermediate Unit and the Octorara YMCA for programs that benefit many Octorara students and families, it is done with the understanding that if and when growth come to the Octorara region, the district won’t be forced to play an expensive game of capacity catch-up as has happened in the past.
On another topic, the district’s graduation rate, the Philly.com article correctly puts it at 83% but doesn’t explain the logic or reasoning behind that number. The district loses 5 to 10 student every year to “drop-outs” or students that fall behind and don’t graduate with their ninth grade classmates, a rate that has held steady at Octorara for years.
What isn’t reflected in the 83% graduation rate however, is the fact that Octorara High School graduates students at a high rate but not in a four year cohort and that many students who statistically qualify as “drop-outs” do in fact graduate but take more than traditional four years to do so.
Finally, the article includes the observations and quotes of Tim Alexander, the school board’s least experienced and most anti-tax member along with those of John McCartney, who resigned his board seat in 2013 but who shared many of Alexander’s anti-tax views.
Ignored in the article are the more experienced and balanced views of Board President Lisa Bowman, Vice-President Brian Norris and more moderate conservatives on the board like business people Sam Ganow, Shawna Johnson and Nelson Stolzfus, West Chester professor Sheri Melton and former state cop Hank Olinziak.
My guess is the reporter simply ran out of time and rushed the article to print to meet a deadline or didn’t think the views of more moderate board members were as important as Alexander’s or McCartney’s.
So much for the liberal media!
Despite these glaring flaws the article, which can be found here, is worth the read.