Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More Join the Choir

Whether because of or in spite of our education effort here, it was refreshing to see two Letters to the Editor published in the Hilliard Northwest News from people who 'get it':

Turning over funding to the State isn't a good thing (see also)

Impact Fees are the solution (see also)


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Executive Sessions, Part III

Garth Bishop, the Commentary Editor for SNP, the publisher of Hilliard Northwest News, wrote a very interesting editorial in the May 21, 2008 edition. It was titled "The long and short of school board meetings," and can be read in its entirety here.

He made two points which I feel are particularly important:
  1. "There are plenty of legitimate reasons for boards to hold closed sessions. But when all one knows is that the board's been spending an awful lot of time behind closed doors lately, the public starts to wonder if the board doesn't know what it's doing or, worse, if something sinister is afoot."

    Actually, there is a fairly short list of reasons why a public body such as a School Board can go into Executive Session. The idea is that outside those few exceptions, a public body is to perform all of its business in the bright light in the full view of the public, hence the name "Sunshine Laws."

    However, Mr. Bishop hit the nail on the head in regard to public perception - not something to be taken lightly given the high level of emotion surrounding school finances right now.

  2. "If you've got suspicions about your local school board, its members won't know if you're not there to tell them..."


Thanks Mr. Bishop. It's good to hear another voice in the choir.


The Board of Education of Olentangy Local Schools makes it a practice to post on their website audio recordings of their meetings. This post on Jim Fedako's blog, Anti-Positivist, caused me to listen to the first few minutes of their April 8, 2008 meeting.

One of the first things on a School Board's agenda is the approval of the agenda itself. At this meeting, Board member Jennifer Smith asked that an item to approve the contracts for certain administrators be removed from the agenda until the Board had a chance to review the actual contracts.

Superintendent Scott Davis answered her request by saying that it has been the practice of the Board to approve employment contract terms in advance of the preparation of the actual contracts, basing that approval on knowing only the name of the employee, proposed compensation, and term of the contract. Mr. Davis went on to say that he had sought advice from their attorney, and was told that it would be inappropriate to ignore approved Board policy to accomodate Ms. Smith's request. He went on to say that if Ms. Smith wanted to initiate the process of changing Board policy, she could do so - a process which includes drafting the new policies, and having readings of the proposed new policies at three separate Board meetings before a vote can be taken. Sounds like a daunting task for someone in the minority.

Furthermore, Mr. Davis recommended to the Board President that there was full agenda that night, and that the vote to approve the agenda be taken and that they move on. The President did so, and the agenda was passed unanimously. Too bad Ms. Smith caved - it would have been good to see a dissenting vote.

This whole exchange was eye-opening to me. School Boards around the state tend to operate in much the same way, taking guidance from the Ohio School Boards Association and the State Board of Education. I now understand that there is a whole body of policies which govern the way our School Board does its business, and those policies carry much more weight than the intentions of a new Board member seeking to reform things.

I wonder how often it is the case that our Board members read contracts before voting to authorize the Superintendent and Board President to sign the agreements. Did the Board members understand all the implications of the easement agreement with Homewood Homes for example?

How about the agreement to sell 90 acres of land on Cosgray Rd to real estate developers SC Interests, LLC? At the May 12, 2008 Board meeting where the vote was taken to authorize the signing of the contract, one of the Board members - Doug Maggied I believe - said that this contract gives the School District some say into how the property is developed. I requested a copy of the actual contract, and found it to say this (section 4.2.4):

Buyer shall deliver the Master Plan to Seller on or before the date on which it is required to deliver the Survey as provided above, and Seller and Seller’s board members shall have such time as may be necessary in order to review, comment and approve or disapprove of the Master Plan; provided, however that Seller shall have no right to terminate this Agreement on the basis that Seller does not approve the Master Plan.

I'm not an attorney, but doesn't this say that it doesn't matter whether or not the Board likes what SC Interests intends to do with the land, the sale must take place anyway? Further, it seems like it could be argued that once the sale takes place, the Board has no further right to "review, comment and approve or disapprove of the Master Plan." If there any attorneys out there who would like to comment, here is the full text of the agreement.

So little discussion takes place at our Board meetings that I'm not sure how much of this stuff the Board digs into and tries to understand before taking their votes.

One thing that is clear is that the voice of a reformer can be effectively squelched by rules, procedures and policies which are the legacy of all the Boards which have come before. True change can happen only when the reformers have a majority on the Board. In the next election (Nov 09), three of the five seats are up for grabs - that opportunity cannot be allowed to slip by.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No Poke

I have been notified by a school official that the Board will not be holding their scheduled retreat at Northpointe after all.

It seems like this would have been a good thing for the Board to report in their announcement of the cutbacks.

A Poke in the Eye

Among the $4.5 million in spending cuts for the 2008-2009 school year, the School Board decided to drop the Camp Joy program for 6th Graders.

The Camp Joy program is a three day, two night event during which our kids are exposed to many outdoor education opportunities, including a reenactment of the Underground Railroad. Thousands of Hilliard kids have attended Camp Joy over the years (including mine in the mid-1990s). The very first testimonial on their website is by the Assistant Principal at Tharp Sixth Grade School here in Hilliard.

Camp Joy is not free for the 1,000+ kids who attend. This year they will contribute $140 each to the cost, while the school district provides less than $50. The total expense to the district this year is only $50,763, according to Treasurer Brian Wilson.

Nonetheless, it has been cancelled for next year.

Meanwhile, the School Board continues with plans for its own two-day retreat on June 17-18 at the Northpointe Conference Center, a luxury facility in Delaware County. Apparently none of our own school facilities are adequate for this meeting.

Is it appropriate for our School Board to hold working meetings, where they discuss matters beyond the scope of their regular meeting? Of course - one could argue that such meetings are necessary. Some School Board invite members of the community to be active participants in their planning sessions.

But why at a luxury conference center that is not only outside the school district, but also in a different county? This kind of meeting must, by State Law, be open to the public, and that means accessible to the public.

Aren't there facilities within the school district appropriate for such meetings? I can think of three: a) the Four Seasons on Trueman Blvd; b) the Makoy Center in Olde Hilliard; and, c) the Hampton Inn on Cemetery Rd. All three of these establishments pay property taxes that support our schools. Why is the Board giving the business to their competition? Isn't that a poke-in-the-eye to the businesses of our community?

I also know that the Verizon facility on Britton Rd has extremely nice conference facilities, which I suspect the Board could have used for free had they only asked. I bet other businesses in the School District would have been happy to host the Board meeting if the members felt it was necessary to get 'off campus' to get into the right frame of mind for these discussions.

Why do the five members of our Board and some number of the Administrators have to stay overnight, incurring charges for rooms? If it's too far for them to drive home and back, isn't it too far for community members to go to observe?

Doesn't that make this retreat just one long Executive Session (see below)? Another poke-in-the-eye I believe, this time for the people of the community.

And what about the kids who are being denied their experience at Camp Joy?

Seems like a poke in their eye too.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Teacher Contract Approved

Many important things happened at the School Board meeting tonight, but clearly the news we were all waiting on was the status of the labor agreement with the Hilliard Education Association (HEA), the teachers' union.

Little was said about the specifics of the agreement. Only one Board member, President Denise Bobbitt had any comments at all. She said she was disappointed that the process was so painful, especially since the final agreement is substantially the same as the one offered in January (prior to the levy vote). Mrs. Bobbitt also said she is philosophically opposed to putting 'caps' in the agreement, and her subsequent comments clarified that she was talking about the structure of the algorithm in which the teachers contribute to health insurance costs.

The resolution passed unanimously with no further comment.

I'll ask for a copy of the new agreement, and do a complete analysis of the differences between the new contract and the last one.

I'll post a couple more things tomorrow about other aspects of the meeting.

Disposition of Property - Budget Savior?

Several years ago, the Hilliard Board of Education purchased 122 acres of farmland between Leppert and Consgray Rds for the purpose of building a third high school. This purchase was supported by officials of the City of Hilliard (including then Councilman Don Schonhardt), and the land was annexed into Hilliard in order to gain access to water/sewer service, as is required under the contract with the City of Columbus.

However, when it came time to pass a levy for the construction of the school, the community declined to do so multiple times. The public rhetoric was that placing a high school at this site would cause unbearable traffic problems in the area, since all three high schools would have been within a mile of each other. Newly elected Mayor Schonhardt agreed and said he had a solution - a hunk of land on Davis Rd. owned by developer Dan O'Brien (I have seen Mr. O'Brien's plat map with the school sited on it). That deal fell through, eventually leading to the purchase of the Emmelhainz property, where Bradley High School is now being erected.

That leaves the question of what to do with the 122 acres on Cosgray Rd?

When a school district has land to sell, it much first offer it at public auction. According to the agenda for tonight's school board meeting, that auction was held but the land did not sell - the reason was not disclosed. Subsequently, a private offer was received from "SC Interest, LLC" to buy 90 acres for $4.5 million, and tonight the Board intends to accept that offer. It's probably a fair price for the land - I seem to remember that the Board paid between $2 million and $3 million for it. (my memory was wrong: the school board paid $4.5 million for the whole 122 acres, which effectively means the 32 acres we kept is free, other than the interest on the debt)

That $4.5 million has a familiar ring - it's exactly the same amount of money that the school board cut from the operating budget for next year, resulting in the layoff of a number of teachers and staff members. Can we now restore that funding and bring back all those employees for next year?

Not to my knowledge. Capital funds (for buildings and other tangible assets) and operating funds are two different kinds of money which cannot be mixed. I don't know how exactly the $4.5 million will be used, and the Board has not said yet.

So who is "SC Interest, LLC" and what do they intend to do with the land? They are undoubtedly land speculators or land developers, and must have a pretty good idea what they're going to do with the land given that many homebuilders are trying to dispose of excess real estate holdings these days.

And if SC Interest purchased only 90 acres, what happens with the other 30 or so remaining of the original 122 acres purchased? School Board member Doug Maggied has long said that he thought we should hang on to a portion of that land, so we have a place to build the next school - the need for which will be accelerated by this sale.

I wonder if in the end, the people of the neighborhoods around there will wish they had let the high school be built on that land. We'd be in it by now instead of waiting another year for Bradley to be completed....

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Agreement Reached, Up To Teachers Now

Members of the Hilliard Education Association - the teachers' union - will get to see a new proposed contract today, according to a report from the Hilliard Northwest News. If accepted by the HEA, the School Board may vote to ratify the agreement at their Monday, May 12 meeting.

Remember that if the HEA contact has better terms than those negotiated last fall by the OAPSE members, the OAPSE contract automatically adjusts to match the teachers' deal.

Breakfast with The Board

From the district website:

The Hilliard City School District Board of Education will be holding a “Breakfast with the Board” open house, 9:00 - 10:30 a.m., Saturday, May 17, in the Media Center of Hilliard Memorial Middle School, 5600 Scioto Darby Road.

Community members are invited to sit down with board members in a casual setting to share ideas, express concerns or ask questions concerning the school district. Coffee, juice and donuts will be served.

I won't be able to attend as I have a prior commitment. If you attend, please leave comments here to let the rest of us know what happened.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Emergency medicine has developed a process called triage - the sorting of patients into three groups: 1) those which need immediate attention; 2) those who are in trouble but can wait; and, 3) those with minor complaints who can be mostly ignored until everyone else is taken care of.

Medical professionals take this attitude because you can't let the people with the little scrapes and bruises distract you from the folks who will die in minutes without your care. And often it is the patients who scream the loudest who can be ignored the longest.

What does that have to do with Hilliard City Schools?

Here's an example: Every time I go to a public meeting about our schools, someone brings up the cost of diesel fuel. It is as likely to be a district official as it is a member of the public.

Here's the facts: We have 141 school buses in our fleet which are on the road for 8,700 miles per day, according to the district's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (page 101). If average fleet fuel usage is 7 miles-per-gallon (source, p3), then our consumption would be about 1,250 gallons per day. With 180 days in the school year, that's about 225,000 gallons. At $4.10/gallon, this would cost $922,500 per year. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.

How have we been impacted by the dramatic increase in fuel prices? In 2006, diesel fuel was about $2.49/gallon. At this price, our annual fuel costs would have been $560,000. That means that from 2006 to now, our annual fuel costs have increased roughly $360,000.

Compare that to the fact that we spend just short of $200 million per year to run our schools: Our diesel fuel costs represent only one-half of one percent of our total expenditures! The change in fuel costs from 2006 to now consumes only 0.2% of our budget.

In other words, it's not a critical problem demanding our immediate attention. Don't bother bringing it up any more - it doesn't make that much of a difference in the big picture.

The only cost number we really need to be spending any time talking about is personnel. Currently, 85% of the cost of running our district is the salaries and benefits of its employees. That being the case, then a 5% per year increase in employee costs (not counting growth), causes the total budget to increase by 4.25%. Against a $200 million annual budget, this is $8.5 million per year! This is the critical need!

So let's concentrate on the urgent questions:
  • In the near future, are there going to be any new revenue sources other than an additional property tax levy?

  • If we don't pass an additional property tax levy, what will need to be cut?

    Personnel - nothing else is significant.
  • How many people will we need to lay off for the 2009-2010 school year if the levy doesn't pass?

    I did this calculation in an earlier entry - the answer is over 200 people.
  • How big does the next levy need to be?

    It depends on how long we want to be able to wait before stacking on yet another levy. The larger the levy now, the longer we can wait. At 9.5 mills - the size of the levy our community just voted down - it's likely that we'll need another levy of about the same size in 2-3 years.
  • How did we get into this jam?

    We allowed thousands of new houses to be built in the last decade, and they don't generate enough in property taxes to educate the kids who live there. This is the big gushing wound!

    Our other two primary funding sources, local commercial property taxes and State Aid, have not grown much at all. That means the only way to raise new revenue is with an additional property tax levy.
  • How do we get out of it?

    The very best tool for getting funding aligned with growth would be Impact Fees. But we need the General Assembly to give us the authority to use them.

    Beyond that, we may need to recalibrate our expectations to our willingness to pay taxes. We may also need to radically renegotiate the employment arragement with our team of teachers, administrators and staff.

    And we may need the state and federal governments to scale back their expectations of us as well.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

More Evidence that We're On Our Own

At the ACT Committee presentation on school funding last night, the committee members once again put the blame for our funding woes on the state government. Readers of this blog know that I disagree with that assessment.

But let's say that it's true. The next question we have to ask is how likely it is that the state is going to ride to our rescue any time soon. We already know that our state funding has been frozen for three years while at the same time state funding to other districts has increased dramatically. There's a connection: the money we would have / should have received from the state is being diverted to other school districts.

I'm an avid motorcyclist, and have spent many days traveling all over Ohio alone and with friends. One thing I notice is how many communities seem to have shiny new school buildings. Just cross the Big Darby to US42 and check out the new Jonathan Alder High School that was built there a couple of years ago. Recently, a few of us rode up to New Bremen, a pretty little town in Auglaize County near the Indiana border. Looks like they have a new high school as well.

Where are all these districts getting the money for the new schools?

Answer: From the Ohio Schools Facilities Commission. Here's an excerpt from their website:

Established in 1997, the Classroom Facilities Assistance Program is the oldest state-funded OSFC program. From a fiscal standpoint, CFAP is the second largest of the Commission’s building programs, encompassing $5.4 billion in projects in 154 active or completed school district projects. Over $4.39 billion in state funding has been committed to this program alone.

Unlike previous building programs, CFAP funding and the priority for inclusion in the program is based directly on the property wealth of the district. CFAP also addresses the entire facility needs of a district from Kindergarten through 12th grade in contrast to previous programs, which were on a building-by-building basis.

Okay, so it's a building program (lobbied for by the construction industry no doubt) to help the districts in the poor areas of the state right? That's seems like a good thing. Still, $4.4 billion is a lot of money. It would build 68 Bradley High Schools, or 440 Washington Elementary Schools.

We don't seem to qualify.

So why does Southwestern City Schools qualify?

That's right. Southwestern City Schools - our immediate neighbor to the south and the school district in central Ohio most like us - is lining up to get $200 million in building funds granted from the from the Building Commission. They are number 324 on the priority list, which is ranked by average property value per student in the district. I guess that's high enough. They're even higher than Columbus City Schools (#428). The highest priority district in Franklin County is Hamilton Local at #156, and they are participating in the program. So is Reynoldsburg (#266) and Canal Winchester (#355). We're at #485, right in the middle of Franklin County districts.

But the money is not without strings - the Building Commission provides 47% of the funding and the school district must come up with the rest - another $200+ million.

Southwestern has old buildings. Hilliard had old buildings. Southwestern let their old ones get worse, while building new ones (e.g. Central Crossing High School). We updated and replaced ours so that none of them are in bad shape.

This is not so much a complaint as is it is an example. We are not perceived as a school district that needs any increase in financial help from the State. To the contrary, we appear to be seen by the State officials as a district that can take even more responsibility for funding ourselves so that more State money can go to other districts.

Maybe we can change that. But not any time soon. The financial issues we're facing in the next few years will have to be solved by us. It will take a combination of painful belt-tightening by the school leadership and employees, and a generous opening of the wallets on the part of the residents of the community. There's really no choice.

And we need the General Assembly to give us Impact Fees as a funding tool for when the housing market takes off again.

Of course the other alternative is to let the school go to ruin. That's another way to stop growth.