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.

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