All attendance areas are not created equal, but that doesn’t mean the school district unfairly favors Warren

Brian Ferry

Does the central attendance area receive unfair treatment at the hands of the school board?

At school board meetings in October and November, more than one member expressed concerns about “feeding” Warren Area High School, “concentrating on” the central attendance area, and that “everything STEM” is going to the central attendance area.

That was during discussions of purchasing $80,000 of equipment for a broadcast studio to fill a space built for that purpose at Warren Area High School.

Board member Elizabeth Huffman said, “it’s really hard for me to sit up here and feed WAHS… and know that there are three other schools. I want to know that those students have the same benefit.”

Board member Mary Passinger said she was concerned that the district was “concentrating on the central attendance area,” and “pulling from all of the other areas.”

The studio, as an example, could be located at any district high school. “The buses work both ways,” Passinger said. Students who do not attend Warren Area High School will have to be transported to Warren to use it. If a studio were outfitted at, say, Eisenhower High School, students could be bused there to use it.

Board member Paul Mangione disagreed that the central attendance area is fed or concentrated on. He said he was glad to see “resources being put into the infrastructure of the central attendance area” after having watched “the resources in the central attendance area dwindle because of the other attendance areas.”

According to district enrollment, staffing, and tax collection data, and information from internet mapping services, the central attendance area raises a higher percentage of the district’s taxes than it has percentage of enrollment, it is the site with the lowest travel time for the most students, and has the fewest regular education teachers compared to enrollment.

The district does not have identical situations for all of its students. The studio is far from the only example, but it is the one that generated the recent discussion.

There is bound to be disagreement. There are three board regions in Warren County School District. There are four attendance areas.

This column examines the distribution of some key resources.

Taxes

The current board members did not argue that tax dollars in one attendance area are subsidizing the rest of the district. But, that has been brought up in the past.

We are not aware of any past analysis of those claims.

Could one attendance area splinter off of the district — which the state Department of Education has clearly said it will not allow — and be better off because it is raising more tax money that it is using?

Local real estate taxes collected district wide in 2018 were $22,780,757.53, which represented more than 25 percent of the district’s $78.5 million in revenues.

The school district prepared information regarding local tax collections by municipality and attendance area in September.

The analysis was not as simple as adding up the revenue from each municipality and putting them in the right attendance area. Three municipalities are split among two or three attendance areas, so determining exactly how many dollars can be attributed from those is complicated. A sliver–we estimated at 10 percent–at the southern border is split off of Freehold Township. Even smaller pieces at the northwest and southeast corners of Pleasant Township are split from the rest. Limestone Township is split into three fairly equal parts.

The central attendance area generates about $12.5 million in property taxes — about 55 percent of the entire district. The northern attendance area generates about 17 percent, the western brings in about 18 percent, and the eastern has 10 percent.

Comparing those figures to the district’s enrollment, the central attendance area raises a higher percentage of the district’s local taxes (55) than it has percent of student enrollment (50).

The western attendance area raises a share of taxes (18 percent) that is essentially equal to its share of students (18).

The northern attendance area has 20 percent of students and 17 percent of the local taxes. The eastern attendance area has 12 percent of enrollment and represents 10 percent of taxes.

Location

Passinger expressed her concerns about “concentrating on” the central attendance area’s infrastructure despite admitting that “it does make sense” to put things there.

The central attendance area is at the center of the district. According to an internet mapping service, Warren Area High School is the closest high school to every other district high school. Youngsville and Eisenhower high schools are almost as close to each other–24 minutes–as they are to Warren–20 and 17 minutes, respectively, but students from Sheffield would have to bypass Warren to get to either of those. The travel times shown from Sheffield Area High School are 21 minutes to the Warren campus, 27 to Youngsville High School, and 34 to Eisenhower.

The ‘central’ argument is one that was used in passing the studio motion. For now, it is the only such facility approved by the board.

Approving broadcast studio equipment at all four high schools — or none — would satisfy Huffman’s concerns that all students/high schools have the same “benefit.”

Regarding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) programming at the elementary level, administrators said, yes, the pilot programs are in the central attendance area. The plan is to spread those programs out if the testing phase is successful.

Enrollment

The number of students likely to utilize a facility or program should be considered.

According to enrollment figures provided by Warren County School District, more of the district’s students attend central attendance area schools than all of the other schools combined.

The district’s official enrollment in October showed 4,219 students. There were 2,126 students in the central attendance area — 50.4 percent of all students.

In the northern attendance area, there were 832 students — 19.7 percent.

The 769 students in the western attendance area represent 18.2 percent of the student body.

The eastern attendance area, with 492 students, has 11.7 of the total enrollment.

If a facility is located at Warren Area High School, it is geographically close to half of the student population likely to use it. If it is the kind of facility or program that requires physical presence to utilize, it would be about 20 minutes from the remaining half of the students.

The “buses work both ways,” as Passinger said.

A singular facility or program offered at Eisenhower High School is close to 20 percent of the students, 17 to 24 minutes away from 68.2 percent of the population, and 34 minutes from the remaining 11.7 percent.

In arguing against equipping the studio at Warren Area High School, Passinger said Youngsville and Eisenhower already “have really active groups” and Warren does not.

On the other side, students had expressed interest in a broadcast program at Warren, according to administration. That led to the construction of a studio space during renovation. The if-you-build-it, they-will-come adage.

Teachers

The central attendance area, with just over 50 percent of the district’s student population, has 46 percent of the teaching staff, according to data prepared by district administration.

The eastern attendance area has 13 percent of the teaching staff for 12 percent of the students.

The northern attendance area has 18 percent of the teachers and 20 percent of the students.

The western attendance area has 22 percent of total teachers, and 18 percent of the students.

The staff percentages at Warren and Youngsville are inflated compared to the other areas because they include teachers in certain special education programs that typically have very small class sizes.

All students in the district who attend autistic support classes are enrolled in the western attendance area. Emotional support classes are offered only in the western and central attendance areas. Life skills classes and alternative education are only offered in the central attendance area schools.

So, while the central attendance area has 46 percent of the district’s teaching staff, some of those teachers are teaching students brought in from other schools. The western attendance area is even more inflated in that regard, according to district sources.

The northern and eastern attendance areas do not offer those programs and do not have the corresponding additional teachers for low numbers of students.

Conclusions

The district’s mission statement does not state that every opportunity will be offered at every location.

“The mission of the Warren County School District is to educationally empower all students to think critically and solve problems through a rigorous curriculum that will provide them with the skills necessary to graduate and pursue a career of their interest.”

Ideally, though not realistically, every amenity offered would be within walking distance of every student every day.

For budgetary reasons, unless every student were educated in the same facility, equal amenities could not happen without drastic, district-wide cuts, or vast increases in the district’s budget.

From an equality standpoint, the district would ideally provide equal class sizes for students in the same grades. Without hiring many more teachers or creating flexible attendance area lines that could shift some students from one school to another several times throughout their 13 years in the district, that is also impractical.

The district obviously has inequalities.

But, to suggest that Warren Area High School and the central attendance area fall on the winning side of all of those inequalities is, by the numbers, simply wrong.

The Times Observer requested, and was given, some data by Warren County School District for this analysis. Otherwise, district officials did not contribute to and declined comment on this column.

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