Legend has it that when the U.S. Cavalry anticipated an attack by hostile bands of those who first populated this land, scouts would put an ear to the ground listening for the sound of approaching horses's hooves. Likewise, as Hollywood have it, those marauding bands, now intent on terrorization and thievery, would do the same to pin-point the distance of locomotives approaching across the open plain.

In either case the result was heightened awareness. Something was coming and the effect for some, if not all, was likely to be none too pleasant. So graphic is the imagery, so redolent of the fear instilled, we make metaphors of the practice whenever we sense that something of unknown impact is about to befall us. We hear the thunderous hoof beat, see the storm of dust midst galloping fetlocks. Who can't conjure the image of a train barreling along the line, bearing down with insuperable weight and momentum?

Well, when it comes to what Octorara has in store for district taxpayers come budget time, the bands of braves are just gathering, the train a mere whisper. The rumble of hooves a steady pounding beat with, as yet, no sound of forward motion. Our locomotive is just descending through the cinematically essential gorge, barely a speck on the horizon yet to cross a sea of prairie grass, still a long way off.

But make no mistake, it's a comin'. At the mere mention of Octorara's budgetary future, school directors take on the cast of the cavalry scout: discussion turns serious, eyes lower, voices portend doom. Having put their collective ear to the ground, those in the know have a pretty good sense of what is amassing on the ridge before it descends on us relative innocents. They see the unstoppable train of ever-escalating costs threatening to crash the budgetary calm like never before.

Enthusiasm for prospective projects, even the educationally justified, is immediately dampened by reference to the inevitable increases already assumed for the 2006-2007 budget year. There are rumblings of program cuts. Who knows where the axe of tax-containment may fall? Directors make no secret of their fear some sports programs may not survive budget scrutiny. While supporters of an Octorara football program have come closer than ever to seeing their fervent wish fulfilled, they're being told they are on their own when it comes generating start up monies.

The cause of these fiscal rumblings, this pervasive sense of gathering gloom, is rooted in the new debt assumed by the district to meet the inexorable pressures to expand school capacity. Houses, as we can see all too clearly, are going up with a rapidity that is unparalleled for the district. Filling them, the statisticians assume will be an estimable number of children. New kids, kindergarten through high school, living in the new townhouses at Routes 10 and 30 or the McMansions hither and thither, will require Octorara classroom space.

Without dime one in tax revenues generated by the influx of new folks, the school board is compelled to make provision for the soon-to-be Braves massing on the proverbial ridge. Hence the $37 million bond issue floated last year to pay for new school construction, land purchase and refurbishment of existing building stock. School directors have no other option but to put their ears to the ground, employ specialists to do the same, and come up with their best assessment of what is about to bear down on the district. They are obligated to accommodate and educate all kids living in the district regardless of how long they've lived here.

Similarly, under the present school financing system (mess is a more apt term), local taxpayers, you, me and your neighbor, are obligated to come up with the lion's share of the cost of so doing. Partial state reimbursement only follows local commitment and project completion. It is up to us to put up the initial investment and commit ourselves as taxpayers to paying off interest on such gargantuan loans. Law and practice provide for no other way of dealing with the hordes that would otherwise overwhelm the district and its classrooms.

Such are the perils of burgeoning residential development. And this is only a beginning. From here on out Octorara taxpayers will bear the burden of this entirely unavoidable investment. But this is the crunch year, when we are first forced to face down the reality of the fast approaching locomotive. When, to unmercifully mix metaphors, the invading Braves-to-be are literally pounding on the schoolhouse door demanding admittance.

There's no doubt - you're going to be required to dig deep!

Tav Murray lives in Christiana. His e-mail address is acmurray@epix.net.

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