Last week, as school directors readied to vote on an agreement with football boosters, which would allow introduction of the sport at no expense to taxpayers, I warned of the law of unintended consequences. On Monday, the directors took the step, rejected by previous boards for years, and gave football the green light. Within minutes of the 6 to 2 vote in favor, some directors were questioning the tax-based system by which other Octorara sports are funded.
Confronted with a 2006-2007 budget crunch and the potential for millage increases in excess of 4 mills, directors are scrambling to make cuts so as to reduce the prospective hike. A hike, if approved, that would cause the average homeowner's school property tax bill to rise by between $600 and $800. The proposal is highly unpopular and some school directors are saying they cannot countenance a mill rate increase of such magnitude.
As far as Director Sam Ganow is concerned, not only is sports' funding on the potential cutting table, but his possible hit list also includes school transportation. Neither of which, as he noted, is the school district legally obligated to provide. Passing the football agreement, by which the sport will be privately underwritten for the next three years, directors may have set an unintentional precedent. Is what's good for football good for everything else, from soccer to lacrosse?
A question some of us have asked for years. Why, after all, should an elderly widow, living on a bare bones pension, have to contribute her tax dollars to the realization of Johnny's or Jane's dream of a college sport's scholarship? Similarly, why should relatively poor folks, elderly or not, have to pay anything to transporting their often wealthier neighbors kids to and from school?
Of course one can make the social compact argument that such expenses are rightfully community-based. After all, each successive class enjoys the benefits paid for by the productive generation ahead of them. Although, from the comparatively simplistic three 'R's' approach of yesteryear's education system to the demands placed on the educational system today, the benefits have grown exponentially. So have the costs. Think tablet versus computer. You'll recall that few, if any, sports were played by girls. As opposed to today when law requires schools to provide them a roster equivalent to that offered boys.
This is how a community-based system ought to work. But at a time, when the property tax system is so strained then, perhaps, we who keep the system afloat should rethink our commitment to the way things have always been done. Pay to play, pay to ride may have to be the budgetary way of the not-too-distant future.
If most of us can't afford the proposed hike, much of which is accounted for by non-discretionary spending increases such as debt service, salaries, etc., then we must point our budget cutting knives in the direction of what directors do have the ability to cut. That may mean goring the sacred cows that are sports and bussing and, if these two sacred cows are to fall victim, why not all of them? What of: Band? Music? Art? Electives? Class size?
Ganow says increasing class size is off the table. Other directors may see it differently. The loss of 12 teachers spread across Octorara's four school buildings, counting salaries, health benefits and retirement, could easily amount to savings equivalent to the $825,000 now raised by a district-wide one mill increase. Is this a path we wish to take on the road to reducing that $600 to $800 increase per average household? Can we even contemplate such drastic action in face of increasing enrollment? Octorara has already taken on 53 additional students this year.
There is dim prospect of relief for taxpayers in the form of property tax reform. Decades of proposals and counter-proposals has Harrisburg hamstrung. Neither political party is willing to allow the other to take credit for accomplishing what most in the Commonwealth demand. Little currently in the legislative hopper spells immediate relief. Thus the onus is on Octorara to drag itself out of the budgetary hole that factors beyond local control have pushed it.
How that's done is properly a community decision. But with or without taxpayer wisdom, directors are obliged to pass a balanced budget by June 30. Now is the time for our two cents worth of input. An hour before the regular April 17 school board session, beginning at 6:30 p.m., has been assigned to hearing your concerns. Bear in mind, the consequences of this painful process, unintended or not, are likely to be with us for a long time.