By Michael Lindner, Jr. (Taken from Facebook)
Two nights ago, Pitman HS held an informational session to discuss the possibility of Pitman HS applying to be a Choice District. Over 50 parents attended, but many didn’t, possibly because they were unaware of the meeting, or more than likely, it didn’t fit into their hectic parent schedule. Dr. McAleer led the discussion, providing a lot of information, as well as handling numerous tough, and at times, emotional questions, with respect. For those who couldn’t attend, here is a summary of some of the information and issues, hopefully provided in an objective fashion, to help anyone who is interested in further understanding what School Choice would or could mean for our Schools.
As background, it was pointed out that in 2010 (the then Superintendent) and 2013 (the current Superintendent) recommended to the School Board to apply to be a School Choice district, which agreed with the recommend, and a formal application was filed, but in both years, the application was withdrawn at the “11th hour” for various reasons.
In 2010 and 2013, the decision to apply for Choice status was primarily financially driven – in short, the more students Pitman would bring in from out of District, the more Choice (student) aid Pitman would get from the State, and since the incremental cost to add a few students to each class year is almost zero then almost 100% of that additional Choice Aid would be “profit”. This potential profit would have been significant. Pitman would have received about $7,000 per Choice student, and at a proposed number of 150 additional Choice students in K-12 (a little over 10 students per class), it would have raised over a million dollars in additional choice aid for the school. Think of the budget cuts and what was taken away from our Pitman students over the last few years, and you could easily appreciate why the Superintendent in 2010 and in 2013 pushed for Choice status. Pitman would have added only 10 students per class year, and would have obtained the benefit of over a million dollars of additional aid per year.
Dr. McAleer explained that with further investigation and clarification, in 2010 and 2013, our administration found out that Pitman would have received zero in additional Choice school aid, and further, would lose their tuition income (around $100,000 per year) from the students (currently 37) who pay to attend Pitman, since you cannot charge (obviously) tuition to students if you are a Choice school and those same students would come here for free. Therefore in 2010 and 2013 (and in 2015 as well), Pitman stood and still stands, to potentially lose $100,000 per year in lost tuition income, as well as any smaller incremental costs related to the admission of upwards of 150 Choice students, if they chose to become a Choice District.
Why then (you would want to know) doesn’t Pitman get the Choice Aid from the State? It is because of the “adjustment aid” that Pitman already gets from the State, which in 2012, was about 1.8 million. This is how adjustment aid was explained:
Back in 2001, the State provided aid to our schools on a complicated formula, but essentially it came out to a certain amount of dollars per student in the school district. Let’s say that amounted to 10 million dollars. (I can’t recall the exact figure, but this is in the ballpark for discussion purposes). From 2001 until 2013, Pitman had a continual decline of its enrollment. In 2001, there were 1725 students and today in 2013, there are only 1506 students. Under a strict aid per student formula, Pitman would have received less student aid each year because there were less students, and by 2013, that total amount of reduction in aid would have been about 1.8 million dollars. Think of the detriment to our school, our budget and taxes, if Pitman had to raise 1.8 million in tax dollars to offset that reduction in State aid, or how many items would have had to be cut from Pitman’s programs.
However, Pitman was fortunate that the State decided during those years to, as Dr. McAleer pointed out, “hold the Pitman school harmless” and not reduce its State aid, even though the # of Pitman students kept falling, and instead kept the Aid consistent with prior years by using “adjustment aid” – which by 2012 needed to be about 1.8 million dollars. (this is according to the 2012 Pitman school budget online, though my notes had the Superintendent saying it was about 1.5 million, but my notes could be wrong). Regardless, it is a lot of adjustment aid.
So how is this connected? it turns out that the State, when enacting Choice aid laws, decided that for every dollar a school would receive in Choice aid, that school would receive one dollar less in adjustment aid. Just by running the numbers, the administration realized in 2010, and in 2013 (and most likely in 2015), that if they become a Choice district, that Pitman would get no choice aid because at $7,000 per choice student (say 150 students), that would generate a little over a million dollars, thereby reducing the adjustment aid by a little over a million dollars. Essentially a financial wash.
In sum, as long as the State adjustment aid remains coming to Pitman as Aid from the State, then it is virtually impossible for Pitman to bring in enough Choice students to ever get to the point that Pitman could actually collect Choice Aid money, and since Pitman would definitely lose around $100,000 in tuition aid money, it seems fair to say that assuming the status quo on school aid funding, School Choice will cost Pitman at least $100,000 each year.
So the question all the parents had was clear: Why then, if in 2010 Pitman decided against School choice because there was no financial benefit, and if in 2013, Pitman again decided against School Choice because there was no financial benefit, and presumably if in 2015, there will still be no financial benefit, is Pitman again considering School Choice??
Dr. McAleer explained that the primary reason was and is to remedy the problems that Pitman Schools would face and do face with declining enrollment, and there are a number of problems, some minor, some bigger, some hypothetical, and some precautionary.
First, Pitman runs the risk that if the State returns to per student funding, and stops the adjustment aid, then Pitman could lose that 1.8 million in adjustment aid funding in the coming year or years. Needless to say, that would devastate the school. Although the risk is real, since the impact would be so devastating, you would presume the State would phase in that reduction, but even a phased in reduction would still be there, and would hurt. However, by increasing Pitman’s student population by 125-175 Choice students (the exact number still to be decided) spread out over the 13 grades, it would eliminate the impact of that reduced aid, and would put Pitman in the best position to withstand that risk, if it were to occur. In essence, Dr. McAleer agreed with me that this was a conservative, cautious approach, taken now, before it is needed, to provide insurance against a potential future risk, which admittedly might never happen.
Second, Dr. McAleer gave us data that showed that competition is increasing each year for Pitman students from other Choice Districts. Other nearby schools, many of whom are not faced with the adjustment aid issue, have a huge financial incentive to go after Pitman’s students, and they have already been successful. In the current year 2013-2014, Pitman has a little over 70 students enrolled in the neighboring choice districts of Gateway, Glassboro (who markets a special STEM program with Rowan, as well as a Performing Arts Program), Paulsboro and South Harrison. In the coming two years, Clayton, Delsea, Deptford, Elk, Logan, Westville and Woodbury will become Choice schools, further increasing the competition for Pitman students. This isn’t a direct reason to consider Choice, but to the extent that declining enrollment has problems, then this increased competition will potentially increase the likelihood and extent of further enrollment decline.
Third, GCIT is competing for Pitman students, and hitting the school hard, not only by taking students away from Pitman – this year 55 HS age students from Pitman attend GCIT – but also in the town’s pockets – since Pitman has to pay a $2,000 per year per student surcharge to GCIT for Pitman students to attend GCIT. That is $110,000 of our tax money that Pitman sends to GCIT, which GCIT then uses to improve their school offerings, so as to attract more students from Pitman, that leads to more students leaving, which makes Pitman pay even more of our tax money to GCIT. Again, not a direct reason to consider Choice, but to the extent that declining enrollment has problems, then GCIT is a real risk for further student flight from our District. (and increased cost to taxpayers).
In response, a few parents suggested that, as an alternative to Choice as the means to combat declining enrollment, why doesn’t Pitman just try to market the benefits of Pitman schools to the town and families so as to keep those students here, instead of having them leave for GCIT and other schools.
Fourth, Dr. McAleer listed some of the concerns related to reduced enrollment.
(1) The potential (theoretical?) loss of state aid, discussed above.
(2) With less students, it would mean less need for some of our staff, so potentially a loss of teachers, and at some point, bigger class sizes.
(3) Continued reduction in elementary school enrollment might lead to the closing of one of the neighborhood schools, or maybe all of them, to be replaced by one new school.
(4) With less teachers, and students, certain higher level AP classes might not have the teachers to support them, or even the class size to justify them.
One parent raised the idea of “Brain drain”. (ok, it was me) The current freshman class at Pitman lost about 20 students to GCIT. For privacy reason, no one is entitled to know the academic skill set of those students, though it has been suggested that those 20 students were clearly from the upper tiers of the class academically. If Pitman loses the upper echelon of its students each year to GCIT (and maybe to other choice schools, say for example, Glassboro with its STEM program), then our school runs the risk of a brain drain spiral. Pitman’s scores will decrease. The number of students who go on to 4 yr colleges will decrease. The number of AP credits they can earn will decrease due to limited classes. The remaining higher tier students will not be pushed by others in those classes. As the quality of Pitman education goes down, more students might leave. As more leave, the quality further deteriorates, leading to more leaving.
This is clearly speculative, but I did raise the concern that with GCIT, and other choice schools competing against Pitman, if they grab our top flight students because they can provide more opportunities elsewhere, will that lessen the quality of education at Pitman? (and I should add that as a parent of a HS student who went through the GCIT recruitment process, that the programs at GCIT are hard to turn down)
(5) Although not mentioned directly at the meeting (maybe because the mentioning of sports as it pertains to school education is a no-no), smaller enrollment will have a clear and direct impact on our sports programs (which Pitman is already feeling now as class size have shrunk over the last 10-15 years).
Freshman programs are non-existent in girl’s basketball, no freshman or JV teams in girl’s field hockey, and dangerously close to losing the field hockey program completely, a football team that is undersized and young boys being forced to play before they are ready, and at risk for injuries, because of lack of numbers, a school marching band that is nationally ranked, but is incredibly small. Even in programs that have enough players, many varsity programs are forced to play freshman and sophomores against juniors and seniors, which for most schools is the exception but for the extremely talented athlete, whereas for Pitman, it is often the rule. It is amazing how well Pitman sports have continued to perform despite these reducing numbers, but at some point, things could get too far.
Back at the meeting, based on projections from the Superintendent, it is predicted that by the 2020 school year (just 7 years away), the average size of a class in the HS will be under 100 students. In 2000, the average class size was about 125, and today, it is currently at about 110, and that is already low. To help appreciate how small this is, in the surrounding counties of Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland, a class size of under 100 would make Pitman HS smaller than every other high school in those counties expect Salem and Paulsboro, and comparable in size to Haddon Heights. People may want Pitman to remain small, but do we want it to be tiny?
So those were some of the concerns raised because of the declining enrollment.
What were some of the concerns expressed against?
Many parents had a concern that opening the doors to Choice would change the small school environment of Pitman; they explained that they either chose to move to Pitman because of the small school environment, or they grew up here and wanted their kids to have the same small school experience as they did. Although this is a legitimate concern, the most likely result is that School Choice wouldn’t change this at all, and in fact, even with school choice in 2015, that if Pitman filled all 150 seats (assuming that is the # chosen), then Pitman would still have a school size smaller than what existed in 2001-2002. Remember that in 2001-2002, there were 1725 students in K-12. Currently we have 1506 students. If Pitman added 150 students, the size of the school would become 1656, almost 75 students smaller than in 2001. In short, even with a full complement of 150 Student Choice seats, Pitman will still be a small school, and even smaller than we remember.
Another concern expressed was the unknown of what type of student Pitman would get; what if we get a number of students whose academic abilities were low, what if Pitman gets a number of students with behavioral issues, what if Pitman gets a number of students who don’t have the same attachment to the school because they don’t live here, what if this reduces Pitman Pride? Dr. McAleer recognized these were all legitimate concerns because under School Choice there is no application or weeding out process – if there is “slot” made available for a Choice student, and someone from Clayton, Glassboro, Clearview, etc., wants to come here, then Pitman must allow them in. (albeit with some restrictions).
One of the main rationales for School Choice is that it gives students, and parents, the freedom to choose a better school environment; to take away the inequality that exists because you are constrained with your educational opportunities simply based on the town that you were born in. In essence, it is for those parents who are searching out better opportunities for their kids, and the reality is that to do this, it adds significant burdens on the family and the student. A few parents offered up the idea that it would seem likely that Pitman might be more apt to attract the better students away from other schools, than likely to attract a poor performing student, because the better performing student is the one searching for even more stringent academic opportunities.
Another concern expressed was the possibility that students might use School Choice as the vehicle to recruit athletes, and that some local Pitman students would lose out on the chance to play sports on the varsity level because a better athlete came in and took their spot. The makeup of the current Pitman boy’s basketball team was the example being muttered on everyone’s lips. Dr. McAleer explained that there were even more stringent rules in place to limit this.
What he didn’t explain is that though counter-intuitive, School Choice, for some districts, especially those with a demand for admission because of high quality academics, could actually make it more difficult to recruit, though for other schools, especially those with a very low demand for admission because their school performs poorly academically, it would make it significantly easier to recruit.
For example, let’s assume you a school become a choice school, that is perennially one of the sports program in the State for a certain sport. You have a son whose life is wrestling, football, basketball and you want him to play for the best, and increase his chance for college scholarship. You want him to play for a specific school which happens to have opened up 10 Choice slots per class year, but very few people want to go out of their current district to go to that school for academics, so each year 8-9 slots remain unfilled. You simply tell that school you want to exercise your school choice, and you son is in. Free. With transportation aid provided to get him to school each day. Couldn’t get any easier to recruit an athlete, or for an athlete to choose to go a school for athletics.
Let’s now look at Pitman. Pitman also opens up 10 slots per class year. Once those slots are filled, there is zero chance for an athlete to come to Pitman to play on the basketball team or any team because there are no choice slots left, and since Pitman would no longer be a tuition school that could accept students from out of district, there would be no way to get that student into the school.
Further, Dr McAleer explained that once a student was in the district, the student who chose to come to Pitman gets to stay in Pitman – that slot remains taken by that student as long as that student stays in Pitman. (and yes, if that student is a problem, that student remains Pitman’s problem, there is no process to remove the student from the choice program). So, let’s say in elementary school, there are ten slots open for 1st grade in 2015. Ten parents choose in 2015 to send their students to Pitman for 1st grade. That cohort of ten “choice” students, assuming they never leave, means that as that group makes its way through the school system, and gets into their freshman year, there will not be a slot available for an athlete to get recruited to come here their freshman year because all ten choice slots remain filled.
If this is true, then ironically, had Pitman decided in 2010 to be a Choice District, instead of withdrawing the application, there is a good chance that if any student tried to come in 2011, or 2012 or this year, they wouldn’t have been able to because there were no slots. Assume that in 2010, the application for School Choice was not withdrawn, and Pitman opened up 12 slots for each grade K-12 (which is about what was considered). If the concern about School Choice is that Pitman will get a huge influx of students, then presumably in 2010, Pitman would have filled those slots, and there would not have been any slots left for tuition students.
If that was the case, then in the 2011-2012 school year, if a student decided pay tuition to come to Pitman, there might not have been a slot available. And even if there were 2 slots still available, and 4 students expressed interest that year, it would have been a lottery to decide who gets in (as Dr McAleer explained) – and there would have been a 50% chance, that the student would not have been picked. If that student didnt come here in 2011-2012, then maybe other students would not have chosen to pay tuition to come here in 2012-2013, and even if he wanted to, there might not have been a choice slot available, or if there was still one or two left, and 4 or 5 students applied, then again a lottery would have determined who got in, and not athletic ability.
So in short, as long as Pitman continues to provide quality academics, so that out of town students apply to come here for academics, then School Choice actually could inhibit athletic recruiting, and even if no recruiting is going on (which I don’t think there is), it could inhibit students from choosing and transferring to Pitman solely for athletics because there is no slot available.
Another concern expressed was the lack of Pitman Pride, if a student comes in from out of town, they won’t care as much about the school, that won’t be as invested in the school, they won’t make as much effort. From someone who left Clayton to go to Gloucester Catholic (my own school choice, albeit paid for by my parents), and who has attended college, I can give the personal experience that very soon after attending either school, you as a student, develop school pride. It may not be Pitman town pride, but it will be Pitman School pride.
Another concern was a belief that the reduced enrollment flowed in part from the economy. That there are 70 vacant homes in Pitman, and the loss of those families has contributed to the reduced enrollment. Related to this was a belief that possibly Pitman was just experiencing a changeover of the makeup of the community, and that as older couples, whose children have all graduated, then move out, they will be replaced by families with younger school age children. More than likely these beliefs have some validity, and as the economy turns around, and those houses will sell, new families will move in, and some of them will have school age children. If that happens, the concern about lower school enrollment wouldn’t be as strong, and if anything there was a concern that with Choice slots already being made available, that the school could get too large. On the flip side, just by looking at enrollment numbers, even with those 70 houses being bought and filled by families, all with school age children, the size of Pitman would still remain smaller than it has historically.
Lastly, there clearly was an undercut of apprehension, tension and emotion in the room. There was concern that Pitman schools would lose what makes Pitman Schools the Pitman Schools we have pride in. There was fear(?)/concern of change, fear/concern of the unknown, fear/concern of uncertainty. All understandable. The group was asking questions from the head, but were impacted by what they felt in their hearts.
Which was consistent with how Dr. McAleer responded when directly asked how he would vote, he stated that “you pay me to make decisions with my head, but I can’t take my heart out of it”. Although by this answer, he didn’t directly state how he would vote, I think the impression was that Dr. McAleer intends to recommend to the School Board for Pitman to apply for Choice.
On that note, the deadline is the end of this month, though even if Pitman applies, then can always withdraw the application (as they did in 2010 and 2013) up until July. The School Board meets this coming Wednesday, and I am sure this issue will be front and center.