Sunday, February 22, 2015

School Daze

Parents in two elementary school communities within the Methacton School Dstrict are in an uproar following a school board announcement at their February 3, 2015 meeting that they have reviewed recent enrollment and capacity studies they commissioned from the Pennsylvania Economy League (PEL), an education consultant, and will hold public hearings to consider closing two schools.

The PEL reports, which cost $18,000 in consulting fees, provided key findings, including the observations about our dropping enrollment rate, along with the recommendation that Methacton evaluate the potential closing of Arrowhead and/or Audubon Elementary schools for the 2015-2016 school year (and, presumably, for the foreseeable future beyond that, since the enrollment trend is expected to continue downward over the next decade) in order to cut costs and best use its resources. According to the reports, Arrowhead and Audubon face the highest costs of recommended repairs and updating to ADA code.

No serious public outcry came about until the February 3 meeting, in which the capacity study piece was presented along with its findings and recommendations. It was at this meeting that the Board voted practically unanimously (one member was absent) to begin the process of considering the closure of the two schools.  No parents were at the meeting to protest that decision.

As word spread among the parents of children attending both Audubon and Arrowhead that the school board was taking this recommendation seriously and had scheduled public hearings about it, disbelief and anger quickly galvanized into action as parent and civic groups at each school organized to voice their displeasure and to attempt to convince the school board members to reverse one or both proposed closures at the February 23, 2015 (and potentially February 25) public hearing.

But for those looking to assign blame for why shutting these schools down may have to happen, we need to look back in time, before the current board was seated. Some parents are blaming the focus and funding being expended on turf fields and lights, and that may or may not be true, but there is more to it than that.

A handful of concerned citizens from both Lower Providence and Worcester Townships tried, since circa 2005-2006 when the concept and plans for the new 5-6 school began to solidify, to sound the alarm that enrollment trends were already trending down, contrary to the assertions of the Methacton School Board seated at the time the vote was taken to build it*.  And, further, that trend did not support the construction of the Grade 5-6 school eventually named “Skyview Upper Elementary School” nor the approximately $50+ million (across three bonds) in debt the District incurred to build it.  This is debt for which the District doesn’t even begin to start paying down principal until 2018. In fact, we can’t even attempt to refinance the first one until 2018.

The District based future enrollment projections back then on a previously projected population for the then-current year, even after the actual population for the current year was known to be less than that estimated value. Thus, the school district is left with growing consequences of long-term overspending across several different Methacton school boards that only continues to grow.

While belated vindication may be sweet for the residents who expressed concern back then, given that their assertions were borne out with the passage of time, their contention now is that the Skyview project and related soft costs are arguably the primary reason why the closure of two elementary schools is now up for consideration. They say residents were lied to in order to get Skyview built, and told enrollment was trending upward in order to justify the spend. Now, Skyview is at 75% of capacity and can absorb some of the elementary school students.

Meanwhile, as Facebook pages have sprung up (Save Arrowhead School, Save Audubon School), yard signs and unity tee shirts are being ordered, and parents at these schools are mobilizing their forces, I can’t help but wonder if people were paying more attention to those sounding the alarm back then, and perhaps doing some of their own homework on the issue, it’s possible this expenditure would never have happened and this conversation would not be necessary now.  Each elementary would have been spruced up and life would have gone on – and we’d be in much better position to be able to pay for things like turf fields and teacher’s contracts today without the specter of raising taxes.

Total District enrollment when Skyview was built was at 5338 students and expected to climb to 6500 students. That never panned out - we’re at approximately 4974 now and enrollment has dropped every year for the past seven years. The PEL reports give compelling justification for the downward trends that jives with what I know to be true about what’s going on in each of the member townships as far as development projects and demographic trends is concerned.

Perhaps we should try to get our money back from the consultant used to come up with those terribly flawed projections (EI Associates, in combination with enrollment projections the school board developed internally at the time). It’s also worth noting that Methacton’s superintendent at the time, Dr. Jeffrey Miller, listed EI Associates as one of his sources of income on ethics reports filed at the time.

Even if you buy that alleged crowding at the elementary schools at the time warranted a new school, we were already getting by with modular units at some of the schools and the need for that temporary flex space would have gone away. When enrollments dropped, we could have eliminated the lease cost of the modulars and be done with it, instead of paying long-term for a significantly empty "upper elementary" 5-6 school.

For example, Worcester resident Dr. James Mollick** put together a nearly 70 page document (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 ) with supporting facts and data for school board review as to why they should not approve the 5-6 school. He was ignored, laughed at, mocked, and called a ‘kook’. **

However, the PA Dept. of Education took Mollick’s concerns seriously and on the basis of a complaint filed by Mollick which included that same document, voided Methacton’s original submission based on problems with Attachment C of Methacton’s application (which included details such as enrollment and capacity projections). The school district was forced to reapply as a result.

John Andrews of Lower Providence, a former, actual rocket scientist for GE / Lockheed-Martin who worked on NASA projects (a graduate of Princeton and MIT) and a master at compiling and analyzing data, has appeared at practically every single school board meeting over the past ten years, many of which were spent attempting to get the Board to understand that Skyview was not needed and was an expense the school district could ill afford. He ran his own enrollment data (which he has updated frequently and provided to the school board regularly over the years) which was in direct contravention to those provided by the school board at the time. In March, 2008, Andrews was quoted by the Times Herald as calling Methacton’s enrollment projections “unreliable and fictitious”.

Mr. Andrews has also been treated with a degree of derision over the years by various board members (for this as well as other matters he has spoken out about). The PEL report has largely validated Mr. Andrews’ projections at the time and since.

Candy Allebach, another LP resident whose property is adjacent to Skyview/Arcola, has been very vocal over the years and quoted often in the press questioning the school district on various matters, but most particularly related to opposing the construction of Skyview – from the cost, to the validity of the enrollment numbers proffered by the Board at the time to justify it, and to the traffic impacts an additional facility would bring to Eagleview Road.

I’ve seen and heard a lot of angst about class sizes since this story broke. Personally, not only am I a Methacton alumni but I put two kids of my own through the District. As part of the ‘Baby Boom’ generation, it wasn’t unusual when I attended Woodland, Arcola or Methacton to have as many as 35 kids in a class. The vast majority of us turned out just fine and are upstanding, productive citizens contributing to society. Many of my teacher friends tell me that times have changed substantially in recent years such that a large number of kids are on IEPs – so they are hardly being lost in the shuffle regardless of class size.

Ideally, we’d love smaller classes and more individualized attention; turf fields and all kinds of bells and whistles. The reality is, just like with our household budgets, we can’t afford everything we think our kids deserve.  We elect people to help figure out what should be prioritized when it comes time to make tough decisions. We’re in a tough economy and education is heavily regulated with many mandatory spends. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, even in a budget that’s a tenth of a billion bucks.

Bottom line, our residents have been misled in the past. We had a board led by several people who stayed on for years, and considering that there has been a history of 30+ straight years of tax increases, they were spending boards. Several current board members, along with some of those prior board members – are still trying to silence the voices of those who were outraged at the unnecessary spending to build Skyview, saying ‘that’s in the past’. Well, perhaps, but it’s relevant because residents were misled in the past, significant money was spent that arguably didn’t need to be, and it’s an important part of understanding what we are dealing with in the present.

More troubling, several of the individuals who served on the ‘Skyview board’ are still active behind the scenes in selecting and mentoring future school board candidates and helping to shepherd them through the election process. A positive consequence of the proposed school closing announcement has been an increase in the number of folks looking to run for school board in the May 2015 primary. Fresh faces may well be in order.

In recent years, our school board has already trimmed any low-hanging fruit: T1 classes have been eliminated, after-school late buses have been eliminated…then ALL our buses were eliminated when transportation was turned over to First Student, along with our fleet. The cafeteria workers were furloughed and Aramark brought into replace them. And in that time, so far, teacher salaries and pensions have NOT been touched. If schools are not closed, serious cuts will need to be negotiated there.

While money certainly isn’t the only consideration when evaluating closing schools or redistricting, here’s what we save if we do this…the approximate $11M in school refurbishments to correct deficiencies at the neediest two facilities identified in the study, Audubon and Arrowhead. If you take the average cost per square foot to do so noted in the study ($200 per square foot, and multiply it by the 55,000 square feet total between the two schools) you arrive at the $11M number. On top of that, there are savings to be had in teacher salaries and pensions and in the costs of keeping two extra facilities open, heated, lit and operating each year.

We’re at critical mass – mandatory PSERs (Public School Employees’ Retirement System) debt/increases to the tune of $12M is on the horizon beginning in the next two years, which Methacton is obligated by law to fund, and that will only continue to grow going forward. A new teacher’s contract will need to be negotiated as well. Room in the budget needs to be made to accommodate these.

In the alternative, should the school board raise your taxes 15-20%, driving our tax base right out of the school district, or is there something else we can do about it so we don’t have to take that step? We all know that if put to a referendum vote, such a huge tax increase will never pass, which is why school districts generally avoid the kinds of tax hikes that by law have to go up for referendum.

What else should be cut to accommodate keeping these schools open?  Contrary to what some politicians would have you believe, there is no infinite supply of money. Even lobbying the Commonwealth for more money, like Philadelphia does, still results in more money coming out of each of our residents’ pockets to support this, at a time when cries for property tax reform are growing louder in Harrisburg. Any funds that come from the state are obtained from taxpayers first…the same taxpayer pool paying local taxes too. People are tapped out, especially our seniors on fixed incomes. 

We’ve redistricted several times over the past thirty years, as have many other school districts, and I don’t believe anyone has suffered dire, life-changing consequences or loss of quality of life as a result.

It is long past time for the adults in the room to stand up and come clean with parents.  The public has finally been told the truth:  enrollment is down, and there is too much capacity at Skyview. Anyone who wanted to expose what was going on before Skyview was constructed, and disagreed with the need for it, was shut down, disparaged and silenced.

I applaud the current board for having the courage to have the hard conversation now and for having the fortitude to consider making very difficult, unpopular choices NOW to avoid even more difficult, unpopular choices later

*school board members at that time were: Jim Van Horn, Joyce Petrauskas, Marijane Barbone, Michael Simeone, Dan Sattler, Ted Chylack, William Kazimer, John Lynch and Wilson Bohanak.
The first five voted to build Skyview; the last three voted against. Chylack was absent for the vote.
Shortly after that vote was another election;  some of the individual members changed and voted on subsequent items such as putting it out for bid etc. It was during this time that disgraced and departed former superintendent Quinn was hired.
**I note with a bit of hilarity the schadenfreude  - and delicious irony - going on over at neighboring local community blog, , which, while anonymous, is rumored to be authored by David Brooks, the spouse of Worcester supervisor Susan Caughlan, and/or Art Bustard, and/or John Harris, recently of child pornography arrest fame. Dr. Mollick is a frequent subject of attacks on the site, primarily for daring to question them about anything.
Worcester Township and Dr. Mollick have been at odds for several years over a number of issues, so there’s no love lost between them, but since Worcester Township is also locked in combat these days with Methacton over (primarily) the stadium lights issue, and thus happily taking shots at Methacton of late, they begrudgingly admit – without naming him, of course – that Dr. Mollick was one of those who was right to sound the alarm about enrollment and Skyview, noting “At the time, several residents complained at public meetings about these projections, but their complaints were ignored”. How it must kill them to realize that the one person who consistently calls them out on their shenanigans was right about Skyview.

"Dozen Methacton School Board Hopefuls Slated to Appear at Candidates Forum" - April 2007
"Space Occupies [Methacton Candidate] Forum" - May 2007
"Slim OK to Seek Bids for 5-6 School" - March 2008
"Board OKs bids for 5-6 School" - May 2008
"Skyview Construction on Schedule" - June 2009
"Is Methacton Really Growing?" - August 2014
"Without Change, Methacton to See $12M Deficit by 2019" - September 2014
"Methacton's Enrollment Study Shows Continued Declines in Student Populations Over Coming Decade" - January 2015