Here’s this month’s dispatch to the Saucon Source. This time, I’m running down four of the latest “Big School Board” happenings from my limited perspective. And just to reiterate what I wrote about in the first column, last month: I’m writing as one of nine board members, and this is no way represents the position of the board or district. It’s just me!
- The iTeam.
I think I can safely speak for all our school board members about one thing this month: We all appeared touched and delighted to have received 3D-printed art objects from Saucon Middle School’s super “lit” iTeam. Saucon Valley Middle School eighth-graders Anthony Albano and Henry Denzel from the iTeam brought the lovely “prints” in gift bags to appreciative school board directors as a way of acknowledging January’s School Board Appreciation Month. A beaming SV Middle School Librarian (and author!) Meredith Lesney, an advisor for the iTeam, accompanied the boys. What is iTeam? According to an email from Lesney, it’s “a group of students who participate in STEM-related projects such as 3D printing, video editing and photography. They also help around the school with any tech issues that arise.” We all marveled at the detail and ingenuity of the prints.
- Talk to us, please. School board meetings may not be as exciting these days with mask wars, election dramas and the Satan Club dust-up receding, but we arguably need to hear from you now more than ever. Whether it’s in person, via online stakeholder surveys or via email, I do believe our teachers, this board and the administration are especially receptive to feedback at the moment. I also see them striving very consciously hard to improve the district academically. I think there will be sharp disagreements about how that happens, but I think the goals are widely shared. There’s a fresh spirit of wanting to reach higher scholastically, of wanting to make sure the good isn’t the enemy of the best. We’re always hearing about big groups of citizens who are going to show up and speak out about this issue or that, but in truth, they rarely materialize. During this time of change, we really need people to get engaged in the process. For school board, it’s very easy to drop us a line. Please let us know what you’re thinking.
- The Budget Drops. January means the annual public unveiling of the next school budget proposal. Longtime district Business Manager David Bonenberger has proposed this year a slightly smaller, $54.4 million annual budget. It includes, were it to stand as is, a substantial increase in taxes of about 5 percent (the maximum allowed by the state) and a dipping into the district’s general reserves to the tune of nearly $800,000. No one who has seriously paid attention to district financing for the last decade should be remotely surprised by this. Saucon Valley has raised taxes twice in 12 years; far less than its neighbors and most school districts. We’ve eschewed the routine 2-3 percent annual tax increases that most districts do. Whether that’s good or bad is your call. Avoiding routine tax hikes wins you votes and love. It makes you look “fiscally disciplined.” It’s also risky, because reality eventually crashes in. Or perhaps, it’s incredibly wise and sensitive. Here’s my take: Over the years, things cost more. For now, here’s the reality: The status quo is going to cost Saucon Valley residents a significant tax increase. Or we can cut stuff, and we’ve already cut pretty much to bare bones. And, we’re slipping a bit, academically. So, the community needs to decide what it wants, and it needs to be vocal about it (see No. 2 above). This proposal has a long way to final approval, and much may change depending on how much Harrisburg sends public schools this year when the state’s budget drops in early February. The four newly-elected school board members played no role in creating this budget, nor indeed, from what I can see, did the other current school directors in any direct way other than by being deeply involved in the last budget cycle, for this is a similar budget, minus a couple capital projects, from last cycle. But we will all need to deal with it. As School Board President Shamim Pakzad has accurately described it, it’s essentially a “status quo budget.” It proposes no big spending or projects. It’s simply keeping up with gradually rising expenses.
- Organization Tensions. Much time at the last board meeting in January was absorbed by concerns about how the district regulates, or doesn’t regulate, organizations connected to the schools and district-recognized. In these relationships, certain things are non-negotiable. If an organization is running a game of chance for a fundraiser, for example, it must be licensed or the district can’t work with it. The district can’t be seen as enabling illegal behavior, obviously, no matter how de minimis. At the last meeting, I asked about what happened all the previous years where the district apparently wasn’t as demanding about vetting fundraisers and the like involving games of chance, and the best answer I got was this: That was then, and this is now. I don’t dismiss that. But I do think it’s understandable if some members of the community, used to a certain way of doing things, feel a sense of whiplash in how the district implements organizational policies. My general sense—and no matter what you say on this, you’re going to get on someone’s nerves—is that the district’s long-time more laissez faire approach with school orgs has recently grown more controlling—and in a somewhat uneven way. I do wonder why. I also feel like no one really wants to admit this, but that’s me. One flashpoint was the recent denial, by the administration, of a request for an April date for an important Family Fun Night event organized by the Saucon Valley Parent Teacher Organization (SVPTO). The PTO wanted April; the district admin wanted to combine its own “spring festival” with other organizations’ events. I myself don’t see why such a major booster as PTO, which has been doing these for years, should have their event sandwiched into some vague omnibus “festival.” The denial of an April date feels too arbitrary for the PTO, I gather. My take: Can we please not anger the PTO? I mean, it’s PTO. They’re volunteer parents involved in community education. We want to make them very, very happy. I do think that has to be acknowledged without either understating or overstating it, but we need to resolve this. Even mentioning it immediately draws out a huge amount of scrutiny and emotion, so there are really no winners here. I hope we come together and work out the tensions. We have math and reading scores to improve.