Monday, May 28, 2007

Executive Sessions, Part II

I spent some time today looking at the meeting minutes for the Upper Arlington Board of Education to see how often they entered Executive Session. For the 2006-2007 school year, they had these meetings:
  • 8/10/06: Executive session from 7:10pm to 7:35pm (25 mins)
  • 9/15/06: Executive session from 9:05am to 10:25am (1 hr 20 mins)
  • 10/9/06: no executive session
  • 11/13/06: Executive session from 7:20pm to 9:24pm (2 hrs 4 mins)
  • 12/4/06: no executive session
  • 12/11/06: no executive session
  • 1/10/07: Executive session from 7:10pm to 7:45pm (35 mins)
  • 2/12/07: no executive session
  • 3/5/07: Executive session from 8:10pm to 9pm (50 mins)
  • 3/12/07: no executive session
  • 4/9/07: no executive session (draft minutes)
  • 5/7/07: no executive session (draft minutes)

So in twelve Board meetings, the UA Board of Education entered Executive Session five times for a total of approximately five hours. In each case, they selected the specific section of the Ohio Revised Code which applied to their reason for Executive Session. They also post draft versions of their meeting minutes promptly, prior to formal approval by the Board.

Compare that to the record of the Hilliard Board of Education, which nearly always enters Executive Session typically for periods of two hours or more, and lists an Executive Session on the agenda for every single Board meeting, "just in case they need one." As of 5/28/07, the most recent minutes published on the Hilliard Schools website is for the 4/23/07 meeting.

It is the norm for the officials of this school district to keep critical information out of the public eye. I have long contended that the Board was maneuvered into selecting the site for Bradley High School by real estate development interests who own property in Brown Township. The consequence is that we end up with highly questionable business deals, such as the most recent easement agreement with Homewood Homes in which the School Board agreed to install a 16" water line to the schools, costing us taxpayers over $800,000, and letting Homewood tap off of it for free when they build hundreds if not thousands of new houses on their property adjacent to Bradley. When I formally asked for a copy of this agreement, I was told that the verbage of the easement was in the Board resolution published in the minutes. I knew this wasn't true, and pressed the issue, at which point the actual contract was provided to me.

Some good friends of mine recently felt they had to sue the Hilliard school district to get appropriate instructional service for one of their children. I find it very interesting that their settlement agreement with the District restricts these parents from telling anyone the specifics of the settlement. In fact, all they can say is that it was resolved to their satisfaction. Why should this be a big secret?

It's a shame the school district acts this way. At a time when our community is undergoing stress in so many dimensions, one would think that being more open would serve them better.

Dispatch on the School Funding Amendment

On Memorial Day, the Columbus Dispatch ran a brief article on the proposed school funding amendment. The focus of the story was whether Central Ohio school districts were supporting it. Districts named in the story were taking this position:

  1. Worthington: encouraging voters to sign the petition, but unwilling to endorse it
  2. Hilliard: endorses the amendment
  3. Southwestern: endorses the amendment
  4. Whitehall: endorses the amendment
  5. Bexley: tabled resolution to endorse without vote
  6. Westerville: tabled resolution to endorse without vote

In the typical shallow reporting we have seen from the Dispatch on this matter, the story fell short in several ways:

  • There was no comment from Columbus Public Schools, the largest school district in Ohio. One would think they would have a position on this subject, although it would be interesting to learn what that is. Columbus Public Schools current spends $11,364 per student, of which half comes from local property taxes. That puts them in the 75th percentile in local per-student funding (about 25% collect more locally, 75% collect less). Could it be that CPS officials fear that the new amendment could actually provide them with less?
  • Once again the story blames the supposed failure of the current school funding system on its reliance on local property taxes. This is not true! The problem with current school funding is that the General Assembly does not allocate enough money in the State Budget to fully the fund the existing formula. If it did, there would be no call for an amendment. So the big question is: if this amendment were passed, would the General Assembly allocate enough money to fund it? If so, where would that money come from? If not, what recourse is there other than to tie up the courts for years?
  • Officials of high growth districts like Southwestern and Hilliard support the amendment because they believe it allows revenue to grow with student population. I think this is a naive analysis. The amendment language has a provision which allows the State Board of Education to cap the amount of money a district receives if the State Board thinks a district would otherwise get more than it needs. Southwestern, which currently generates $4,589 per student (49% of its total funding) with local property taxes, might benefit from greater reliance on state funding, but this is less likely to be true for Hilliard, for which local property taxes generate $6,266 (63%) of its per pupil funding could be one of those districts that gets capped, just like New Albany, Dublin, Upper Arlington and Bexley.
  • The main beneficiaries of this amendment are the teachers, whose salaries and benefits consume 85%+ of the operating budget of school systems. They want to break the protections of HB920 which keep property taxes from increasing due to reassessments of home values. The teacher's unions make the claim that changes in home values are reflective of 'inflation', which is bunk. The primary cause of the increase in operating costs in our schools are the automatic increases embedded in the teacher's collective bargain agreement. I don't fault the teachers for their agreement -- I disagree with the district leadership for wanting my taxes to go up automatically just so they don't have to put a levy on the ballot every once in a while and ask those of us in the community if we're still happy with the deal.

One of the selling points of the new amendment is that is supposedly ends the "Robin Hood" approach to school funding in Ohio. Actually it promotes it. The poorer districts still don't get enough money, and they want more from the richest. Hilliard is in the 80th percentile in local per-student funding. Do you think we will have a net gain or a net loss in a new allocation system?

Once again, I don't have a problem saying that there are districts in Ohio that are underfunded, or that the richer districts will have to contribute to fix this, even if it means my taxes will go up.

I'm just tired of the hidden agendas and political maneuvering.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

District Communications: A Good Start

The Hilliard City School District publishes a newletter called 'Passing Notes.' The May 2007 issue has a cover story on school finance which is a very broad and very shallow cut on the issue, but nonetheless a good place to start. Here is what I sent to the Citizens' Finance Committee in response:

The article “District Finances” in the May 07 Passing Notes is a great opening step in the process of educating our community about the fiscal dimension of our school district.

My recommendation is that you continue with a series of articles, but don’t be afraid to put real numbers in there. It is a bit of a cop-out to tell people to go read the forecast for themselves. We know many won’t, and the spirit of this effort is to facilitate communications. As was noted in the ‘Community Survey’ article in the same issue, folks don’t know basic information, like how many kids are served by the school system, even though this number is easy to find on the website. Don’t you see the incongruence in the survey results? People say they are well informed, then can’t recite basic facts. You just have to tell them in a well-crafted communication if you want them to know. Pictures are good.

The next article should talk about where the money comes from today, and the impact of residential development outpacing commercial development. You should also address the Win-Win Agreement and be clear about whether the revenue collected from properties in the Win-Win areas fully offset the cost of educating the kids in those same areas. Don’t forget to include the nearly $1 million ‘ransom’ to Columbus Public Schools in the analysis.

Without question, the State of Ohio is sending less and less of our tax money back to us. The State money isn’t charity – it comes from the sales taxes, income taxes et al that we all pay. We only get about 59% back (see Rep. Larry Wolpert’s report), and that number is going down (and I believe the proposed amendment won’t improve this trend). At least we’re not New Albany – they get only 9% back!

The article after that should talk about where the money goes. Again, don’t be afraid to say that 89% of the operating expenses in the district go to pay salaries and benefits for the employees, or that salaries and benefits represent over 90% of the incremental dollars needed each year, nearly $9million. This isn’t a criticism, but rather just a fact, just as important as the student population growth. This P&L looks like any professional services organization, and if I were managing it, the dynamics of personnel costs would be something I’d want to understand very well. You should review the collective bargaining agreement with the Hilliard Education Association as part of your research. It’s very informative.

This is a time for truth telling. You can let people draw their own conclusions if you wish, but you have to give them the facts. Perhaps the most important number of all is how large you project the next levy will be. I think it will have to be at least 16 mills, and will increase property taxes about 40% in our community. You can’t let people be surprised with this next spring. I’ve made this appeal in person to the Board, in letters to the editor, on my website, and now to you. You should also ask why this levy isn’t on the Nov ballot this year. The sooner the better from a millage standpoint. But maybe the Board wants to wait and see how the union negotiations come out. Folks should know that as well, as it will help them make the connection that employee compensation is what drives the need for more money.

I recommend that you develop a communications program which feeds regular doses of facts and analysis to the community, backed up by a website that can serve as a self-learning tutorial for anyone interested in more, or who comes to the community in the middle of the series.

Looking forward to your next communication.

Thanks for serving on this committee. Let me know if I can help.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Political Strategy

A few local school districts asked their voters to approve new levies yesterday. It is interesting that the levies were defeated in New Albany and Pickerington, affluent suburban districts much like Hilliard. In both cases the votes were very close, but turnout was slim. The New Albany vote total was 3,134 and for Pickerington, it was 6,488 -- a small fraction of their registered voters I would think. The margin of defeat was just 134 in New Albany and 116 in Pickerington.

School officials have to develop political strategy when contemplating levies, and one of the things they need to decide is when to put a levy on the ballot. If they decide to offer the levy during the primary election, voter turnout is often pretty low. When you have a primary like this one when there are no national or statewide offices on the ballot, almost no one shows up. So the thought can be that all you have to do is get a few people in favor of the levy to have it pass. I guess that didn't work out for New Albany or Pickerington this time.

I've worked as an election official since the 2004 Presidential Election, when the Franklin County Board of Elections put out a plea for workers to handle what they anticipated would be record voter turnout (they were right!). Since then I've worked at all of the primary and general elections. An observation I've made is that the less interesting the races on the ballot, the fewer voters show up, and the more likely that those voters will be senior citizens (who show up faithfully for every election). I would think those senior citizens are likely to vote against school levies for two reasons: a) they don't have kids in school; and, b) they don't want their property taxes to go up. The conclusion is that you don't want to put a school levy on a ballot unless it includes races of general interest, like President or Governor.

Hilliard Schools officials have said that they need to have a levy on the ballot no later than May 2008. As I've written before, it is unlikely to appear on the November 2007 ballot because Mayor Schonhardt and his cronies are running for election, and it would be a bad thing for them politically to have this huge levy request on the same ballot, even though the Mayor is running unopposed at this point. It's much better for the Mayor to get to pick sides on the levy when he's not running and can choose to be for it or against it based on the prevailing political winds.

The May 2008 election should attract a decent amount of turnout since it will be a Presidential primary, and a number of national and statewide offices will be on the ballot. But I don't expect it will be like much like the 2004 Presidential election, when voters showed up in record numbers because each side had so much fear the other side would win. It didn't feel friendly at all -- it was a war at the polls. Many people showed up just to make the Bush vs Kerry choice and didn't care what else was on the ballot.

The May 2008 Primary won't have that kind of air, since the vote isn't about Red vs Blue, but instead Which Red and Which Blue will be on the November 2008 ballot. Did you know there is an interesting strategy available under Ohio voter law however? A voter can change their party at the poll on election day, and get to vote in the 'other' primary. Why would you do that? Well, if you trust your party to pick the right candidate, some feel it is beneficial to vote in the opposite party primary and select the candidate which is most easily defeated! I very much doubt that this has any appreciable effect, because if it did, we'd see a massive switching of parties for the primary, and the result would be the selection of the two weakest candidates.

All that aside, I feel the lesson for our School Board is the same as I have been saying for many months now. They need to be talking to the public now about this next levy; starting the process of educating us on why it will be so huge. The most reliable voters are the seniors who, as I said above, have a natural adversion to more levies. If the proposed amendment makes it to the ballot, I think those seniors will be further demotivated to vote for a new levy when the promise of the amendment is to give them a property tax exemption. People in general will be confused why they just passed an amendment to lower their property taxes yet are being asked by the school officials to raise them a ton.

Our school officials have led us to the brink of disaster. If the amendment passes (and I hope it doesn't), it won't help us in time. If the May 2008 levy doesn't pass, the cutbacks required for the 2008-2009 school year will be severe, and perhaps cause a delay in opening Bradley High School in 2010 (because opening it requires $4 million in new payroll costs alone).

By the way, if you want to see a nice graphic image of school tax trends in Franklin County, check out this chart in Bonobo's blog, Blue Bexley