Friday, August 31, 2007

Punishing Genius

Just for the record, I think the punishment given to Davidson senior Kyle Garchar for the now famous "WE SUCK" prank was a bit overboard. I for one am glad that we have kids with these kinds of smarts in our District. Note that both of our kids graduated from Darby. This is funny in the same way it was funny that MIT students figured out a way to make an MIT balloon pop up at mid-field during halftime of the Harvard-Yale game a few years back.

Does that mean young Mr. Garchar and his helpers should not be punished at all?

Certainly not. But the punishment needs to fit the injury and the intent.

Maybe you could sentence him to serve as a Darby cheerleader for a Darby home game. Or maybe as waterboy. Something faintly humiliating, but in the same spirit of fun.

That being said, my assessment is based on the assumption that this was a practical joke between student bodies that mutually respect each other as equals. However, if the intent by Mr. Garchar was to maliciously paint the Darby community as inferior to those from Davidson, then we need to pay attention.

Friday, August 24, 2007

District Finance Committees: Citizen's Finance Committee

This is one part of a two part post about the committees created by the School District to deal with strategic financial matters.

There exists two citizen committees which were formed by the leaders of the school district to deal with financial issues of strategic significance. According to the District's website, the Citizen's Finance Committee has this assignment:

To serve in partnership with the Hilliard City School District (HCSD) in communicating to the school community matters involving HCSD finances and assist with conducting research and gathering community feedback regarding the fiscal management of the district.

Its goals are listed below, with my comments in italics:

  • Provide regular financial status reports or updates for the Hilliard City School District to the community.

  • Build a greater understanding of school finance and school operations as it relates to the Hilliard City School District among the residents of our district.

    These two goals overlap with the purpose statement of the District's ACT for Schools commmittee. Neither team has accomplished either task in my opinion.

  • Keep apprised of the residential, commercial and industrial development in the district and educate the public about the specific finance issues surrounding the development as it pertains to school funding.

    No visible results on this task.

  • Encourage and actively pursue community feedback concerning financial issues facing the Hilliard City School District.

    Occasionally surveys are taken in our community, but the district's conclusions don't always jive with the data, in my opinion. In the case of the survey taken in January 2007, the Superintendent concluded (see Hilliard Northwest News, March 21, 07) "that the community feels the district does a competent job of keeping the community informed." In fact, while 70% of the survey respondents said they somewhat/very closely follow the school district, only 30% knew that our state funding was frozen - a crucial fact. The district leadership doesn't tell the community crucial information, and the community doesn't know what it doesn't know. That's neither competent nor productive in my view.

    Only 15% of the respondents gave the district an "A" in listening.

  • Serve as the district’s sounding board for new ideas and initiatives concerning district finances.

    This is an internal conversation between the district officials and the committee.

In the May 2007 issue of Passing Notes, the hardcopy newsletter of the District, the entire front page was devoted to "District Finances," yet not one word was said about the most basic financial truths of our district: a) 87% of the total cost of operating our district is the salaries and benefits of the faculty, staff and administration; and, b) because residential development has far outpaced commercial development, and because the State of Ohio is sending no incremental funding our way, the burden of funding our schools is steadily shifting to the existing homeowners and businesses of the District.

I am also disappointed that the Treasurer's Five Year Forecast was referenced without disclosing any of the numbers. It said:

"The five-year financial forecast for Hilliard City Schools presented to the Board of Education and the Finance Committee showed the district with a positive balance through 2008, just breaking even in 2009, expenditures exceeding revenues in 2010 and beyond... Treasurer Wilson reported a need to place an operating levy on the ballot in the spring of 2008"

How would the community have reacted had the actual numbers been disclosed, and the article read this way?

"The five-year financial forecast ... showed the district with a positive balance of $7 million through 2008, expenditures exceeding revenues in 2009 by $16 million, in 2010 by $29 million, and by $38 million in 2011, creating an accumulated deficit of $75 million, which is what we'll be asking you to cover, including an annual burn rate approaching $4o million going forward... Treasurer Wilson reported a need to place an operating levy of approximately 16 mills on the ballot in the spring of 2008"

The Board should have put this levy on the ballot this November so our community can think about these numbers at the same time they are voting for members of the School Board and the Hilliard City Council. Unfortunately, the Mayor of Hilliard is running unopposed.

You can rest assured we'll be talking about this during this election.

District Finance Committees: ACT FOR SCHOOLS

This is one part of a two part post about the committees created by the School District to deal with strategic financial matters.

There exists two citizen committees which were formed by the leaders of the school district to deal with financial issues of strategic significance. One is called ACT for Schools. ACT is an acronym which stands for Advocate, Collaborate and Teach. The other is the Finance Committee. I served on both in their formative days.

This is the assignment of the ACT committee: "[the] ACT for Schools community committee has been charged with educating and informing the community about school funding in Ohio and serving as advocates of the district to state and local legislators."

The list below are the "Issues of Concern" published on the ACT for Schools page in the District website. My comments on each point are in italics:

  1. The unconstitutionality of school funding in Ohio;

    I am not trained in the law, and therefore am quite sure that I don't understand the legal nuances of the several Ohio Supreme Court rulings. But it seems to me that the Supreme Court was less concerned about the mechanism for funding than the fact that many school systems in our state are legitimately underfunded. The Court was concerned about the role property taxes play in school funding, and the truth is that for districts with low property values, this a problem.

    But this is the reason there exists a mechanism for the State of Ohio to augment the funding generated by local property taxes. The problem has never been that this algorithm is flawed, it is that the Governor and General Assembly fail to fully fund it. Therefore the districts least able to operate solely on local funds are shortchanged. How is the Supreme Court to deal with this? What happens if the Supreme Court orders the Governor and the General Assembly to fully fund school districts as prescribed by the existing formula - and the General Assembly refuses?

    Supporters of a proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution say an amendment is the only way to force the Governor and General Assembly to make school funding have top priority in our allocation of resources. I think they have other motives, and have already written extensively on this subject.

  2. Establishing a per-pupil cost for adequately educating a child;

    How do you actually figure that out? Well it turns out that the current funding process does exactly that. This is how Robert Stabile describes it in his "Ohio School Finance Handbook:"

    The Legislature uses an inferential approach to determining base cost. The process is to to select high performing districts, determine their base cost, and then infer that all districts in Ohio could be high performing districts if they had the same amount of money to spend for base costs.
    Seems like a valid process to me.

  3. The “Robin Hood” method of funding that is currently in use;

    What a strange thing to say! This is exactly the purpose of the State being involved in school funding - to allow districts without adequate local resources get funding help from the wealthier districts (see the Dispatch editorial on this). Where else do State tax revenues come from?

    And why would anyone think that any solution to the state's school funding problem would result in wealthy districts like Hilliard getting more money? Wouldn't you think it likely that we could get less money if others are getting more? The State has already taken a step in that direction by freezing our funding - we get no more funding from the State this year than we did last year, even though there has been growth of a few hundred students.

  4. The current unfair practice of reducing state aid to school districts after property reappraisals, resulting in lost revenue based on inaccurate tax accounting -- commonly known as “phantom revenue”;

    This point has some merit. Due to a supposedly unintended interaction between two separate laws, the amount of state funding a district receives is reduced slightly when local property is appraised to higher values. However you would that this is the problem based on how often the Superintendent talks about it. It's not.

  5. House Bill 920, which unilaterally rolls back all taxes instead of allowing tax revenue to increase with growth in a community;

    This was the law sponsored by then State Senator George Voinovich and passed in 1976 in response to rapidly escalating property values in the Cleveland area. This law says that when a piece of property is appraised to a higher value, the millage rates of all levies associated with that property will be adjusted so that the dollar amount of property taxes paid by the homeowner remains the same.

    That seems like a good idea to me. The Superintendent says it prevents School District revenue from increasing with inflation. The trouble is that property values are not an indicator of inflation. Nor is inflation the reason the District needs more money every year. The need for more money is driven by the huge and growing amount of money needed to pay the salaries and benefits of the faculty, staff and administrators in our District.

    I like the idea that the School Board and administrators have to convince us every once in a while that they need more tax dollars from us. It doesn't have to be painful. They just have to be more open, and communicate better -- which is what this committee was supposed to be about.

  6. Unfunded mandates;

    This is talking primarily about the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program.

    Okay, but every school district in the country is subject to this law. If we expect more Federal money to fund this mandate, where does it come from? Other states? Other programs? The answer is that it just comes out of our own pockets as federal taxpayers, so at best it is a wash to send it to Washington DC first.

    However, there is one nuance worth mentioning: to the extent that our school district is being unusually (compared to other districts) stressed by the presence of immigrants absorbed as the result of federal policies, there should be some additional federal funding, or a relaxation of the NCLB requirements. According to one report, we do receive some funding of this kind today.

  7. The state budget passed in July, 2005 decreases funding from the state, further shifting the burden of school funding onto local taxpayers.

    This is a fact. The Governor and the General Assembly have a tough problem - between the requirements for school funding and health care funding, the bulk of the state budget is spoken for, and the demands increase every year. Do they raise taxes, or cut programs? The answer is a little of both. From our perspective as a school district, we should expect we will collectively pay more taxes and our school district will receive less unless we make our voice heard.
So how is the ACT team doing on its assignment? I don't know how well it has done in its role as an advocate to the state legislature. I suspect that the development of the proposed funding amendment rendered any such effort unneeded.

How about the mission of educating the community? One set of Powerpoint slides was produced and perhaps a few sparsely attended public presentations were held (I attended one), but that was a couple of years ago. The job is most definitely not finished.

It has barely begun.

The Race is On

This week, I filed Form 3-T Nominating Petitions with the Franklin County Board of Elections, indicating my desire to be a candidate for a seat on the Board of Education of the Hilliard City School District.

Our district falls in the size range which requires at least 150 signatures of registered voters on the petitions. With the help of several friends, a total of 243 signatures were collected for my petitions. The next step is for the petitions to be certified by the Board of Elections.

I was surprised to get a call already from a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch yesterday afternoon, wanting to talk to me about running for the Board of Education. We spoke for several minutes about why I was running, but the only thing that made it into today's paper was a couple of facts.

One of those facts is incorrect: I am not currently serving on the Board of The Hilliard Education Foundation; my term of service ended in 2003. This was a wonderful experience, and the reason I became interested in the governance of our school district. In 2000, I had the opportunity to serve as chairperson of the Evening for Excellence, the primary fundraiser of the organization.

The HEF is an entirely volunteer organization. The members I served with were, and are, dedicated and accomplished community servants from whom I learned a great deal. One of those is Dave Lundregan, who is also running for a seat on the School Board in this election. Dave is a good man, and I look forward to the dialog that will be generated during this campaign.

I was asked to serve as one of the initial members of the team now called Act for Schools , which was created in 2004 to educate the community on school funding and to mount a lobbying effort aimed at the state legislature. My belief then was that community education had much higher priority than lobbying, and was vocal about it, so I was asked to instead serve on the Citizens' Finance Commmittee, which I did through April of 2005.

At some point, the community newspapers will likely do stories about the four candidates for the two seats available. In the meantime, you are invited to read the substantial amount of research, analysis and opinion I have posted over the last year and a half on this blog and on the companion website.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Annual Report Card – What does it mean to Hilliard?

The Ohio Department of Education has published the 2006-2007 School Year Report Cards. You can view the one for Hilliard City Schools here. Soon thereafter, the Columbus Dispatch ran a story summarizing the performance of the many districts in our area.

Once again, Hilliard City Schools was evaluated at the "Continuous Improvement" level. The local news establishment has a habit of equating the performance ratings with the letter grades we all brought home on our own report cards. So "Excellent," "Effective," "Continuous Improvement," "Academic Watch," and "Academic Emergency" are described as "A" to "E" respectively. In the words of The Dispatch, we earned a "C" on our report card. For most of us, that sounds pretty unacceptable.

However, there are problems with this evaluation system, brought about mostly because of our state government's attempt to meld our state evaluation system with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. The part of this that trips us up is the requirement that all significant, or "official" subgroups must also meet the federal reading and math levels, otherwise "Continuous Improvement" is the highest level that can be awarded.

It takes only 35 kids to make up an official subgroup. In a district like ours where a few dozen languages are spoken, it's not hard to have a number of these subgroups. I can appreciate the frustration on the part of Andy Riggle's curriculum team, who must design approaches for addressing the needs for all these groups, and of the classroom teachers who are the front lines of the battle.

I also understand the concerns of parents who feel the amount of attention their kids receive from teachers is diminished by the additional effort required to address the needs of these immigrant kids.

One response to this situation has been for school districts to appeal to their state legislators for help in getting this subgroup rule modified so that otherwise high performing districts aren't so severely penalized. Appropriately, our administrators have made that appeal to state Rep. Larry Wolpert and Sen. Steve Stivers.

But the real question is, what do these rating really mean, and what are the consequences of a lower rating?

Part of the answer is that there's an economic driver – the underlying theme in so many aspects of our school system and the community.

There is some justified fear on the part of the school board and school administrators that a low ranking sends a signal to the public that we aren't getting good value for our tax dollars, which means having a tougher time getting new levies passed when needed.

However, that can be easily overcome with an effective communications program within our community, my beef for a couple of years. We have smart people living here. Just tell us the facts with an appropriate amount of analysis, describe what the district intends to do in response, and trust our folks to make a valid determination of the quality of our schools. Our leadership team actually does a pretty good job with this, relative to the report cards at least.

Who else cares about these report cards? The residential real estate industry: developers, home builders and real estate agents. Why? Because folks who are moving into an area often make their decisions about where to buy a house based on the perceived quality of the local school system. So Hilliard's "Continuous Improvement" would scare away many potential homebuyers. Those potential buyers who dig deep enough to find out why our schools got this rating might not be comforted to learn that it is due to the problems serving immigrant subgroups.

For those folks trying to sell existing homes in our school district, I have sympathy for their plight. It is tough enough to sell a house right now, and negative news about the school district is never helpful.

Could this lower rating slow down our student growth rate? While it is true that it might slow down the construction of new single family homes in our school district, the demand for new housing is extremely soft right now anyway. However, the influx of immigrant families may not slow at all. Many live in multi-family housing, and the lower report card rating may not be the same disincentive for folks struggling to make a fresh start. Besides, the case may be that these kids are benefitting from a level of attention not available in many school districts.

There is no question that this rating system has some flaws, and adjustments are needed. But some kind of evaluation system is essential if we want to have high quality education for our kids. The schools grade the kids so parents know how their kids are doing, but grading is relative to the standards of the school district. We also need the school district to be evaluated against some broader standard so we get a sense whether the grades our kids receive are valid. That is measured through standardized testing and state/national standards.

So do I have confidence that our administrators and teachers are doing a good job? I like the answer the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave when asked his opinion of the United States: "It's seems like there's more people trying to get in than to get out."

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Who Pays for Educating Immigrant Kids?

The Hilliard ThisWeek newspaper published an article today about the challenge of educating the many immigrant kids who have come to the Hilliard community in recent years. Andy Riggle, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, reported that there are now over 800 kids in our district who are ELL (English Language Learners), up from about 750 last year. That's a decrease front recent annual rates, reports Dr. Riggle, but growth continues.

It is clear that educating these students costs our district more than it does to educate a kid with English fluency. A less obvious truth is that most of these kids live in multi-family apartment complexes that generates much less tax income per student than does a single family home.

As detailed in my SaveHilliardSchools website, we already have huge funding problem caused by the fact that residential housing growth creates more cost than revenue for the schools. Having to also provide special instruction for the ELL kids just exacerbates the problem.

But let's not overreact to this.

If I've distilled the correct numbers from this article, Dr. Riggle says we have 41 people working with the ELL kids, of which 17.5 are tutors. I will assume that it means the other 23.5 are teachers. Maybe these are incremental teachers, or perhaps they represent the same number of teachers we would have employed for this many kids anyway (about one teacher for every 30 kids).

I spent my career in a business which had an economic structure not unlike a school district. Our primary costs were facilities and personnel, and everything else was almost insignificant. That doesn't mean you ignore the other cost components, but it means you had better understand completely how activity levels change costs, and which factors are the key drivers of cost. It's not always as obvious as it seems.

The tendency can be to divide this number by that number and come up with some important-sounding ratio. For example, the Big Number often used (including by me), is the Per Pupil Spending. Our district officials report that number to be $9,860 per year. With 14,949 students, you would expect our total annual spending to be about $147 million. While you will not find that exact number on the district's financial reports, the projected number for FY2008 is $148 million. Close enough.

But if one kid moves into the district, do our costs immediately go up by $9,860? Of course not. Nor does it go down that much if a kid moves out. This overall average cost is an important number to know, but you also have to know what happens if you change things just a little. That's called a marginal analysis.

In the case of the ELL program, there can be a temptation to say that since 41 people work with the ELL kids, the cost is the $315,000 for the tutors (calculated above), plus another $1.4 million for the 23.5 teachers making on average $60,000/yr. That adds up to about $1.7 million, and against the $250,000 of state and federal support the Superintendent says we receive, it doesn't seem like much. I could understand his being alarmed by these numbers.

But what if there was a miracle and those 800 ELL kids came to school one morning with perfect English fluency? Would we still need some or all of those 23.5 teachers? If you feel we don't, then it implies two other things: a) we can absorb 800 more kids into the system without any incremental teachers; or, b) there's a bunch of teachers sitting on their hands for the time the ELL kids are in their immersion programs.

Our other primary cost is facilities: have we built special facilities for ELL instruction? If those 800 kids were English fluent, would we have empty space?

I think the tutors might be the primary incremental cost. They are paid around $25/hr, according to School Board minutes. The question is how many hours they work, but let's assume 4 hours/day for 180 days. That works out to be about $18,000/yr per tutor. For all 17.5 tutors, that adds up to $315,000 or so.

Sounds to me like the local burden (i.e. net of the state/federal support) for these ELL kids is something on the order of $65,000, or probably less than the cost of one incremental teacher (avg salary $59,650 + benefits).

When an organization's cost structure is mostly fixed costs, these kinds of incremental analyses are tricky. One must know that neither the gross average, nor the marginal cost is the right number all by itself. You have to build scenarios and gain a feel for how things change.

The fundamental funding issue in our community has been, and continues to be, the fact that we have had an explosion in residential housing in our community without commensurate growth in commercial development. For decades, the Hilliard community has enjoyed the benefits of a small community with significant commercial tax revenue sources. Over the past few years, the residential population has exploded and the commercial successes of late have mainly been replacements for businesses lost in the last decade (remember Dana, Gates-McDonald, and CompuServe?).

That means more kids, more cost, and no incremental help from business growth. Nor is the State of Ohio helping us out. While our increased population means more state income tax is being generated in our community, most of it is being redirected to urban and rural school districts.

That means the homeowners in our community must bear the entire burden of growth. I came to realize this a couple of years ago, and have been pleading since with the School Board to educate the community on this crucial fact.

Instead the Board and the Superintendent have spent their time complaining about less important issues, such as the burden of ELL students, and campaigning for an ill-conceived new funding approach.

As a result, our community is going to be stunned by the next levy request, to be put on the ballot in May 08.

Help me inform our community about what's going on by directing folks to