Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ryan Resignation

It was announced this week that Hilliard School Board member Cheryl Ryan has resigned from the Board to take a position with the the Ohio School Boards Association, which prohibits its employees from also being school board members.

This gives our school board the opportunity to appoint an individual to serve the remainder her term - two more years. Applications are now being accepted.

My Reaction

A friend called me suggesting that I apply. It's an interesting thought, and I've been weighing the reasons to do so, and the reasons why not.

I've decided not to apply, and will continue the campaign to be elected to the School Board in November.

The reason is this: If elected, my intention is to drive for radical change in the way things get done in our community, and to do so I think it is important to have been elected by the people, not appointed by the very Board whose behavior I intend to change. I hope the community will lend me its backing in that mission.

Another friend said I should apply just to find out what the current School Board members think of me. If they turn me down, he says, it tells the community that the incumbents don't want me on the Board, which might further motivate the community to vote for me in November.

That kind of cloak-and-dagger, back room maneuvering is exactly what I think is wrong with the way our community is being led. I prefer to present my positions to the people of the community, let folks compare what I propose to that of the other candidates, and allow them to select, in a General Election, the two of us they think can best do the job that needs to be done.

The Appointment Process

The public may never know who the list of people are who apply for Ms. Ryan's seat, or how the Board goes about making its decision. It is not clear to me how the Sunshine Laws apply in this situation, or how much the Board has to disclose about its process and deliberations (but I will find out).

Here's what I found out about the appointment process, according to the Ohio School Boards Association website:
  • The Board must fill the vacancy at its first regular meeting or special meeting no less than 10 days after the vacancy is effective. Ms Ryan's resignation is effective Sept 30, 2007, which means the Board must make its decision at its regularly scheduled meeting on October 15, or at a special meeting it calls between October 10 and October 15.
  • The interviews with candidates and the deliberation about the candidates can take place in Executive Session. However the actual vote must take place in public.
  • To appoint a candidate, the candidate must receive at least 3 votes of the remaining 4 Board members.
  • The appointee will in this case, as I understand it, serve the remaining two years of Ms. Ryan's term.

    The only thing we can be sure of is that it will be a new face, and one that is friendly to the current Board. It will also be someone who gets a seat without going to the effort of collecting 150 signatures on their nominating petitions, or running for office in the General Election, meaning the person will take office without having to reveal anything about their agenda to the public.

    This selection will be very interesting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Big Darby Accord and Hilliard

The September 19, 2007 issue of the Hilliard Northwest News published an article titled "Hilliard, Columbus grapple over water, sewer for sites" in which it is reported that the City of Hilliard continues to be a holdout on signing the Accord. Several reasons are given for Mayor Schonhardt's opposition to signing the Accord as is, and with some of them I agree.

A key factor of the Accord is a radical new position being taken by the City of Columbus in regard to water/sewer service. For decades, going back to when James Rhodes was the Mayor of Columbus, the big city has used its exclusive control over the regional water/sewer system to influence development policy county wide. Each suburb has a contract with Columbus which specifies the boundaries where the suburb can annex and be provided water/sewer service by Columbus, provided Columbus agrees it has the capacity to provide the water/sewer service or can construct new capacity at a reasonable cost.

In the case of Hilliard, the most significant parcel of unannexed land remaining in its water/sewer agreement is the several thousand acres bounded by Alton-Darby Rd, Roberts Rd, and a sawtoothed line running generally north from the site of Bradley High School. A good deal of this land is already owned by developers, such as Homewood Homes and Planned Development. Much of the rest is owned by individuals and families hope to soon sell to developers.

The land use plan for this acreage as defined in the Big Darby Accord is for Tier 1 conservation zones and conservation style development. What this means is that the creeks that drain the area would be preserved or restored to a natural state, and that homes would have to be constructed on 2-5 acre lots. This reflects the role this acreage plays in protecting the environment, and in particular the Big Darby River. Clearly this is an undesirable state of affairs for the developers accustomed to placing 4-5 homes per acre.

Alternatively, according to Accord policies, a developer can build to a density of one house per acre, as long as 50% open space is preserved. This means that on 100 acres, a total of 100 homes can be built, but those houses need to sit on only 50 of the acres, and the other 50 acres must be left as common open space. This is still an uncomfortable scenario for developers.

Mayor Schonhardt subsequently announced his own development scheme for this area - from the Conference Room of our school district's central office building no less - stating that he also supports the 50% open space requirement. However, the mayor's definition of 50% open space is that for each acre developed, a half-acre is reserved as open space. This means that on 100 acres, the Mayor's scheme would allow 66 houses rather than 50. The Mayor's definition also, I believe, allows unusable creek paths and flood plains to be counted as open space in his formula. Overall, the housing density for this area under the Mayor's plan would be at least 33% higher than that allowed by the Big Darby Accord. The language sounds the same, but means something different. The Mayor's language is more developer-friendly that the Big Darby Accord, which is I believe to be his primary motivation, but it is still an improvement over the 4-5 homes/acre density the developers typically use.

However, we must remember that this plan the Mayor has revealed is not cast in stone, and that if the developers request annexation to Hilliard (which incredibly forces the school district to request annexation of its land to Hilliard as well), the City of Hilliard can enact zoning policy which makes this land developable at whatever density it wants. After all, one of the demands the Mayor makes relative to the Big Darby Accord is that he wants to retain control of land use policy in Accord areas within the boundaries of the City of Hilliard - in other words this hunk of land west of Alton-Darby Rd. I don't understand how a municipality can be part of the Accord and retain control of land use within the Accord boundaries.

One consequence of Columbus' new water/sewer policy is that it neutralizes a key provision of the Win-Win Agreement, which governs how annexations and school boundaries relate. The Win-Win says that if undeveloped land is annexed into Columbus, the resulting houses would be assigned to Columbus Public Schools. This is a big negative if you are a home builder, which is the reason folks like Homewood and Dominion prefer to build houses in suburban school districts where they can demand higher prices.

Mayor Schonhardt rightly points out that if Columbus provides water/sewer without annexation, any resulting land stays in the suburban school district. This is a big win for the developers, but a big problem for the suburban schools like ours, who would like to see population growth slow down. I'm not sure why Columbus would suddenly make this radical policy change, but would have to observe that it's good the developers, and that seems to be the answer to a lot of questions.

After all, Hilliard is just one piece of the pie - there are many many square miles of land still ripe for development around central Ohio, and the developers are more interested in the upside from the new water-without-annexation policy than they are what happens in the few thousand acres annexable by Hilliard.

And now Columbus is asserting its power by refusing, until Hilliard signs onto the Big Darby Accord, to provide water/sewer service to the 125 acre site near the intersection of Alton-Darby and Scioto-Darby Rds that will be soon annexed into the City of Hilliard at the request of Skilken Development.

I am a supporter of the Big Darby Accord as a land use strategy. As part of the team that updated the Brown Township Comprehensive Plan, I learned about conservation style development, and how it can allow residential housing construction to take place while preserving an open and natural setting.

I also recognize that the ten political entities which make up the Accord group have objectives which are sometimes in the conflict, and that even the landowners are not in agreement. Some landowners want to sell out to developers and leave (indeed, many are absentee landowners now), while others, such as me, want to stay in the Hilliard community without having my current rural setting converted into high density housing and shopping centers.

So while I believe Mayor Schonhardt is fighting the Big Darby Accord primarily as an ally of the developers, I do agree with his position that the neutralizing of the Win-Win Agreement through the new water-without-annexation policy is a bad thing for our school district, and for all suburban school districts.

What happens if the City of Hilliard never signs the Big Darby Accord agreement? The obvious impact would be that Columbus could choose to never provide any additional water service for Hilliard expansion. The land west of Alton-Darby Rd would remain in Brown Township, and developers would have to live under the rules of the Big Darby Accord. Hilliard City Schools would get lots of new kids, but not as many as would be the case in typical residential development.

This would also mean that Bradley High School would remain in Brown Twp and the City of Hilliard would lose all the income taxes that would be paid by the faculty and staff if the land were annexed. Lest we forget, the school district is the largest employer in the City of Hilliard, and income taxes are the way the City gets funded. The placement of Bradley High School on the Emmelhainz property, versus land south of Roberts Rd, was significantly influenced by this fact, in my opinion.

Tough spot for Mayor Schonhardt and our school district. The City of Hilliard needs the income taxes generated by the Bradley High School staff and the folks who will work in the Skilken development, and therefore needs water/sewer service from Columbus. The school district needs the property taxes that would be paid by the Skilken development and other new businesses the Mayor and his team can recruit into the district. Meanwhile the City of Columbus has signaled that it doesn't care if Hilliard expands and develops - Columbus has its own agenda and is willing to use its control over water/sewer services to get what it wants.

What do I think is best?

For me personally, I'd like to see Hilliard sign on to the Accord and get on with seeing if we can make this progressive land use plan work for everyone.

For the school district, I think it doesn't make much difference what the City of Hilliard does. Through its control of the water/sewer system, Columbus will dictate development policy in the township land within the school district anyway. I'd much rather see this accomplished under the principles of the Big Darby Accord than have western Franklin County become another sea of houses with hordes of kids to house and educate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Still Not Communicating

The Hilliard Northwest News gives space each week for a column titled "Superintendent's Desk." This is a powerful vehicle for Superintendent Dale McVey to convey information of importance to the Hilliard Schools community.

In his August 29, 2007 column, headlined "District is primed and ready for 2007-08 academic year," the Superintendent devoted several paragraphs to discussing the performance of the school district on the Ohio Department of Education local report cards. While Mr. McVey's discussion was factually correct, it left out a crucial detail – our overall grade. Our school district was given a designation of Continuous Improvement, the middle ranking, below Excellent and Effective, and above Academic Watch and Academic Emergency. We received this designation because there are some groups of kids – primarily recent immigrants who speak English as a second language – who are not showing adequate year-to-year progress.

Please understand me on this: I think the scoring system used by the Ohio DOE is flawed, and that the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are not being served by this scoring system. It should be possible to create a scoring vocabulary that communicates that a district is performing very well overall, yet acknowledges that there ARE kids being left behind, and therefore is still work to be done. By the way, Larry Wolpert, our representative in the Ohio General Assembly, has introduced House Bill 27, which provides for exactly this. Why has our district leadership not gotten behind Rep. Wolpert in support of this bill? Rep. Wolpert also co-sponsored HB299, which would have allowed school districts to levy Impact Fees on new residents - a powerful growth control and funding tool - and our district leadership failed to engage the community in support then as well.

The Superintendent makes no mention of the Continuous Improvement designation in his column, what caused it, or what he thinks should be done in response. The point of this note is not to complain about our designation, or the scoring system, but rather to wonder how the Superintendent can write so many words about the ODOE scores without addressing our overall score of Continuous Improvement.

The tendency of the current district leadership is to avoid talking about bad news. The consequence is that the community is kept in the dark on important matters. The most important of these is funding, and I fear the community will be shocked when the next levy millage rate is announced (presumably after the November election) because we haven't been educated and prepared by the district leadership.

I'd like to change that. If you do too, I would very much appreciate your vote on November 6th.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Levy Estimates – Making the Problem Worse

In this week's edition of the Hilliard Northwest News, an article was published titled "School Board takes a close look at finances," which reported on Treasurer Brian Wilson's presentation of his proposed Fiscal Year 2008 Budget to the Board of Education.

Finally school officials are saying out loud what I've been reporting for months – that personnel costs represent nearly 90% of the operating costs of the district, and are the primary cause of the increase in expenditures from year to year. This is neither good nor bad. It's simply the truth. A school system is a professional services organization, and that means the bulk of its cost is going to be the salaries and benefits of its professional team.

Until now, the Treasurer has been reluctant to make estimates of how large the next levy would need to be, and School Board members have been seemingly uninterested in pressing the question, not even to the point of getting estimates. I have been writing to the Board, appearing before the Board, and even writing Letters to the Editor of our community newspapers for many months saying that the next operating levy will need to be substantial, and that Board needs to start talking to the community about this.

This time when the Board asked the Treasurer how large the levy will need to be, Wilson answered that it will be less than 10 mills. "There's no way we will deal with double digits," he said.

But he also warned that this levy would last no longer than 3 years. What does this mean?

Take a look at the My Taxes page on my SaveHilliardSchools website for a little explanation of the way levy funding works. The general idea is that the millage rate is set so that a surplus is generated in the first years and then the surplus is drawn down over time. So when Treasurer Wilson says that a less than 10 mill levy will last less than 3 years, he's means that whatever surplus might be generated in the first year would be gone in three years.

Then what? Another levy needs to be passed of course. The significance of this three year time span is that by then Bradley High School will be online and there will be a significant step up in expenditures, mostly due to salaries and benefits. Notice that the Treasurer didn't say that he's changed his Five Year Forecast. The money will still be needed. This talk of a sub-10 mill levy lasting for three years is just a way to put off the problem until another day.

It is also a hope that some miracle will happen and the State of Ohio will decide to substantially increase funding to our District. The Superintendent has been a vocal supporter of the Getting It Right For Ohio's Future amendment, thinking it might be that miracle I suppose. I disagree with his position on this.

There are a lot of moving parts in the school funding machine, but the basic mechanism is not that hard to understand. As professional educators, you would think the school officials could create a lesson plan to teach the people of our community how things work, and trust these smart people to react appropriately. I've made this recommendation to the Board, but they don't seem to like the idea.

Our funding situation will not get better by sweeping it under the rug. Please make me your representative on the School Board and we'll start working on this together.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Why Not Tell the Truth?

An editorial was published in the Columbus Dispatch today regarding the need for school boards in Ohio to be more open in their release of information. I couldn't agree more.

I have written on this topic before, and believe that creating this openness of communications between the school board and the Hilliard community is the key to straightening out the fiscal mess which looms over our district. The first two points of my agenda are all about better communications.

If you agree, please help me change things from the inside by casting your vote for me on November 6th. And please tell your friends.