Fiscal responsibility is a topic that seems to make Americans cringe these days. Spending within our means, managing a budget, and saving for the future are values we all try to instill into our children. For some reason, we don’t want to apply those same lessons to our school districts and government entities.
Managing a budget for a school district can be especially difficult since spending too much means raising taxes on homeowners and business which can ultimately drive them away. Spend too little and your quality of education dips which can also drive people away. Walking this financial tight rope can be difficult but ultimately, it is no different than running a business or any other organization. Spend too much in one area, and you will need to sacrifice somewhere else. Incur debt on the wrong projects and you can pay the price for years to come.
It was said at a recent school board meeting that Wilson is in the bottom third for millage rates in Berks County and we should be proud of that fact. What wasn’t said is that Berks County has the second highest taxes of any County in the State and that we spend almost 20% more than the national average for public education. Being in the bottom third in taxes in the second most taxed county in the state is akin to saying we are one of the best of the worst in the state. We can do better.
Additionally, our campaign has approached the board and administration regarding the increase in Charter School enrollments over the past 2 years. While the reasons for the increase in charter enrollment are varied, the cost to our district is very real. When asked how the district is addressing the increased cost of Charter School enrollment, the answer we received was “we do not consider those students in our budget.”. This is very disturbing since the PSBA recognizes that “it is virtually impossible for a single dollar of savings to be realized in school district budgets when students attend charter schools”*. This means that driving parents to alternate education sources ultimately means a net financial drain on our district’s budget.
We have also been told that Wilson is currently suffering from student over-population problem that has grown to the point that we are using modular classrooms at certain schools. This is an ongoing issue that has failed to be addressed for the past decade. While this issue is a known long-term problem, our board is currently working on a 30+ million dollar renovation to our auditorium. While I would also love to see a state-of-the-art auditorium at Wilson this would be a “want” compared to the “need” of providing adequate classroom resources to our children.
So what are they doing to resolve the classroom capacity issues at Wilson? There seems to be only one seriously considered option on the table which is to build a new elementary school and make changes to classroom distributions throughout the district. Since this option would require a significant increase in long-term hard costs in the form of facilities, support staff, teachers, and administrators; it means that borrowing the money is not an option and significant tax increases would be the only way forward.
What most people don’t realize is that our 2 newest elementary schools were built with expansion in mind. Both Elementary School designs were specifically chosen because of their simple and modular architecture. Adding wings to these buildings are not only possible but they were part of the original intent when these schools were built. Additionally, by expanding existing facilities, the district avoids the need to hire all new support staff like janitors, cafeteria workers, clerical staff, etc… Also, the number of buses and bus drivers can remain roughly the same as these routes are already established.
The big advantage to this plan is the reduction in long-term expenses makes this primarily a capital project. These types of projects can be financed through traditional lending to significantly reduce the burden on taxpayers. Finally, this prevents the district from further committing itself to ongoing facilities costs in a time when both virtual enrollment and charter enrollment seem to be becoming more popular.
While there is so much more that can be analyzed from a fiscal standpoint to help Wilson navigate big changes, I hope these examples show a glimpse into how our group of business owners and budgetary experts can bring value to the board and bridge the gap between the needs of our students and the financial burden on our community.
School Board Write-In Candidate