Friday, May 09, 2008

Poor Oil City Schools

(News-Herald, May 8) What does it mean to say that Oil City has the tenth poorest PA school district?

That statistic is based on a formula using property values and personal incomes. But there are certainly other ways to calculate the economic health of a school district. If we look at poverty rates, Oil City didn’t make the bottom ten on the last census. 2006 figures for the district show about 35% economically disadvantaged students (compared to over 42% for Franklin). The state figure is 31%, so Oil City is on the high side, but not spectacularly so.

And there are districts like Forest schools which have to figure out how to slice a million bucks from their budget while handling the rising costs of transporting students enough miles to make a trip to Mars and back—every single day.

But poor doesn’t equal stupid. The bottom-ten ranking has to do with the district’s ability to raise money, and that’s a factor that’s only partly quantifiable.

No area school district has suffered a larger identity crisis over the past several decades than Oil City. When the current high school opened in 1968, the district had over 4500 students. Today, enrollment is just over 2300. In other words, Oil City School District could absorb all of the students from Franklin Schools and still be smaller than it was a generation ago (with room left over for Valley Grove).

To lose the position of regional giant is not easy, particularly in an area where folks identify closely with their school of origin and maintain loyalties based the building in which they slept through class fifty years ago. That’s why the economic picture is not just a matter of simple numbers. Supporting a school system is also a matter of will, and in this respect we are strangely conflicted.

On the one hand, it’s not hard to find folks around here who will be Oilers or Knights till the day they die. On the other hand, if the state made it legal, I believe you could muster much support for a ballot item to close the local school district.

There are many voices to overcome in the battle to fund schools.

“Don’t nobody need that fancy schoolin’. I didn’t.” This generally from the person who either retired or was laid off from the industrial job that is now gone forever. The argument works if the plan is to transport graduates via time machine to the past. For students who live in the present, competing for jobs with sixty gazillion Chinese and Indian students requires a bit more

Then there’s the ever-popular, “I don’t have kids going to school here. Why should I pay school taxes?” Let me be clear as I can be—that attitude is just stupid.

Do you want to live in a world where people can get jobs that allow them to be solid, contributing taxpayers? Do you want votes cast by people smart enough not to fall for any stupid thing? Do you want your neighbors, co-workers, employees, and people who serve you to be, well, not unedumacated boneheads? I’ll bet you answered yes to at least one of these. And that’s why you pay school taxes.

That said, schools like Oil City must face economic reality. If you don’t have enough money for a Lexus, you may have to make do with a used Yugo. You can’t spend what you don’t have. Still, within that basic economic reality, there’s a lot of room to maneuver. Individuals, corporations, and governments often manage to find a way to get what they want—if they really, really want it. There’s the will.

If the people of Oil City want to maintain a top-notch school system, they’ll find a way. If all they want is to provide just enough school system to avoid getting sued, then that’s all they’ll get. If the schools are led by leaders with vision and determination to get the best they can out of the resources they have, then the schools will still be excellent. If they’d rather not work that hard, then the schools will drift and decay.

It’s a delicate balance. Oil City schools can’t tax property owners to death. But “to death” does not mean “at all.” And no community ever attracted new citizens with the slogan “Our schools—As Cheap as the Law Will Allow.”

What does Oil City’s place on the bottom ten list mean? It doesn’t have to mean a thing.

1 comment:

Dittman said...

Although I have no doubt that this will be an incredibly unpopular sentiment, I'd love to see the systems around here contract proactivly rather than waiting until there are 8 students in a class to realize that the number of schools we have in the region is unsupportable in the long term.

If Oil City School District could absorb all of the students from Franklin Schools and Valley Grove and still be smaller than it was a generation ago, then perhaps it should. (or rather, perhaps a brand new regional high school should be set up. And as long as I'm dreaming, how about some magnet schools as well? Last month, I did a guest gig at a 2 year old gleaming creative and performing arts high school ( in a former mill town that brought students (and their dollars) from three states and four PA counties. There's no reason that couldn't work here.

Not that it will ever happen, witness the silly hospital debacle, but some leaders with backbone and regional vision would go a long way to injecting some juice into the area.

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