Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Getting Most Things Right

I wrote an earlier post which mentioned that Southwestern City Schools is considering the wisdom of taking on $250+ million in debt in order to capture another $200 million in funding from the State of Ohio for the purpose of refurbishing and replacing a number of their schools. It's going to be a daunting task to get voters to approve this, and here's why...

Southwestern has four high schools:

  • Franklin Heights, built in 1956, with additions in 1963, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1986 (Rec Center and ERC), 1992, and 1996
  • Grove City, built in 1970
  • Westland, built in 1970, additions in 1971, 1976.
  • Central Crossing, built 2002.

They are not the same. Here's what The Dispatch recently wrote:

Schools have been built in the district nearly every decade since the 1920s, each constructed in the design standard for its time.

Franklin Heights High School, built in 1955, is a 135,000-square-foot brick box with no air conditioning and inadequate wiring for technology. Even with six renovations and additions, the school barely handles its more than 1,200 students.

Hallways become packed when students change classes, and some students spend part of their lunch in the gym because there's no room in the cafeteria. Teachers use storage rooms and closets as office space to work individually with students.

By contrast, 6-year-old Central Crossing High School is a sprawling, 260,700-square-foot building that features security sensors at every exterior door, video projectors in some classrooms and a dozen computer labs.

Over the years, the leaders of Southwestern City Schools have allowed a great disparity to develop in the quality of their buildings. It happened at all levels, not just the high schools. There are below standard schools, like Franklin Heights, and schools which are palaces in comparison, like Central Crossing. And as I reported on the website last year, the demographics and the performance of the four high schools are strikingly different.

Grove City High School was designated Excellent by the State Board of Education, having met 12 of the 12 indicators, with an index of 101.3. Its student body is 93% white, with 14% of the kids classified as Economically Disadvantaged. 90% of the Grove City students take the ACT and receive an average score of 22. The graduation rate is 90%. Average family income is $60,000, and the average home value $138,000 (in 2000).

Franklin Heights High School is designated as in Continuous Improvement, and met only 5 of the 12 indicators. Its index rating is 86.9, and it did not meet Annual Yearly Improvement goals. The student body is 72% white with 45% of the kids classified as Economically Disadvantaged. While the average ACT score is 18.7, only 54% of the students take the test. The graduation rate is 80%. Average family income is $43,000 and the average home value is $85,000.

Central Crossing and Westland fall right in the middle.

So when it comes time to vote on a levy that would add $250 million to their community's indebtedness, it seems like you'll get one of two reactions:
  1. Levies are supported most by families with kids in school. In the Franklin Heights attendence area, 45% of those families are economically disadvantaged. Overall, that part of the community has more than 10% of its families living at or below the poverty level. I don't see a lot of votes to raise taxes coming from these neighborhoods, even though this is the area that needs new schools the most.
  2. The voters with kids in the other three high schools might decide that their school buildings are just fine and their kids are doing just fine as well. Why take on an increase in taxes when their kids aren't going to see much benefit?

As much as I have criticized the school leadership over the years, please note that it is not often about the decisions they make. As I have said many times, they are (and have been over the years) good, smart and wise people who make good decisions almost all the time. My beef is consistently about the lack of openness and the ineffective communications. The enemy is not school leadership, and certainly not the teachers and staff, but rather is those who put their selfish money motivations above the health of our schools and community. You decide who those might be...

One of the best policies our school board implemented over the past couple of decades is to build our facilities to standard plans, and to keep even our oldest schools updated and very functional. No other school district in central Ohio has three virtually identical and modern high schools. Not Dublin, not Westerville, not Pickerington, and centainly not Southwestern.

While the discussion surrounding our most recent redistricting effort was not our community's finest hour, in the end our high schools and middle schools will have similar demographics, and I'm sure will deliver similar results on the state report cards.

Southwestern City Schools has a real challenge before it. It has allowed the community to fragment, and it may be impossibly expensive to fix at this point. They need a new 6 mill operating levy just to stay solvent - and that's after laying off 100 teachers plus 150 other staff in 2006.

We should be very thankful our school board had the wisdom to avoid this bear trap.


  1. As much as I have criticized the school leadership over the years, please note that it is not often about the decisions they make.

    That is rather surprising given that:

    a) They bought land before the voters approved the location for the 3rd high school.

    b) They sold the land to developers which only aggravates longterm funding problems.

    c) They failed to have foresight with respect to the 3rd high school - instead of building on to the 2nd school and saving $$ on land, administrators, and facilities, they elected to "go for it all" in a weak economy. You saw the "Perfect Storm" coming. Why didn't they?

    d) They failed to manage teacher expectations regarding payment of health care. Years ago there should've been initial preparation for this. Morale among teachers is extremely low post-contract.

    e) I'm told there's a "million dollar shed" that sits mostly empty.

    f) Look at the raises administrators get. The last one I checked, from the year 2004, they got across the board 4-7% raises, with very few on the low end. This is nearly unheard of in the private sector during the 2000s.

    g) No visible fiscal discipline. There's no creativity in looking after the taxpayer's dime.

    h) No concern about residential growth.

    I) With the latest cuts, instead of making athletic pgm cuts and administrator layoffs, they went after the teachers almost exclusively.

  2. Indeed the School Board has made some a few significant decisions which I think were strategically awful, notably the way they were played into abandoning the Grener property and buying the Emmelhainz land.

    In their own fields, each of our Board members are accomplished and respected professionals. They are also dedicated community servants with no agenda other than to make Hilliard schools great.

    Unfortunately, I think people run for School Board believing it is some kind of super PTO - as much social as political. It's clearly not. The Board is arguably the most important political entity in our community, with a larger budget, more employees, most land area, and most constituents of any municipality, save the City of Columbus.

    These good people just don't have the skills and experience to do business at that level (save perhaps Mr. Lundregan).

    Their biggest mistake is their bunker mentality. They should instead create ways to make use of the wealth of big business experience present in our community.

    ps - I'd like to hear more about that $million shed.

  3. Paul,

    While redistricting was a little bumpy, it went reasonably well with regard to the middle school and high school attendance areas. Could it have gone better? Yes. However, it could have gone much worse. South-Western CSD provides a clear example of that.

    Here are the numbers from last year's report card. Not much real difference between academic performance or other key indicators between Davidson and Darby. Also, it should be noted that both schools had nearly identical percentage of white students & non-white/multi-ethnic students (Davidson - 83.7%/16.3% & Darby - 83.6%/16.4%).

    Hilliard Davidson
    Performance Index = 105.3
    Economically Disadvantaged = 13.2%
    LEP/ELL = 4.3%

    Hilliard Darby
    Performance Index = 104.2
    Economically Disadvantaged = 10.8%
    LEP/ELL = 2.5%

    I agree with you that it seems like those numbers should remain reasonably in balance when (if?) Bradley comes on-line.

    I'd maintain that where the BOE didn't pay enough attention and dig in was at the elementary school level. JW Reason and Hilliard Horizon have a much different socio-economic mix than Darby Creek, Hoffman Trails, Scioto Darby, Norwich and some other schools.

    That all being said, I'm still a levy supporter and assert that operating money is needed. I've said several times before that the levy needs to be considered on its own merits and not used to communicate a 'message' to the BOE. With three spots up this fall, there should be an opportunity for change (if one so desires) at that level.

  4. I agree with you in regard to the socioeconomic balance of the elementary schools.

    There was a strong sentiment among the members of the redistricting team that elementary age kids should attend the school closest to their homes. That sounds like good policy, but "neighborhood schools" was the mechanism Columbus City Schools used for years to enact segregation, because neighborhoods weren't all that integrated either.

    We have that situation in Hilliard as well. As our school district continues to grow, we can't just say that significant socioeconomic imbalance is okay just because that's the way the neighborhoods are configured.

    In a very sly way, Americans have managed to substitute economic segregation for racial segregation. An affluent white family is quite accepting of an equally affluent black family next door these days (and visa versa!). But affluent folks don't want their kids going to school with poor kids.

    Hilliard City Schools is way more diverse today than it was 30 years ago when my wife and I moved out here. It's also much larger and still growing. In managing that growth, we can't allow economic segregationalists to let it go the way of South Western City Schools.


  5. By the way, those three Board seats don't come up for election until next year, Nov 2009.


  6. Paul,

    Thanks for the correction about the BOE seats! I thought it was THIS November.

  7. I believe the "million dollar shed" to which anonymous was referring is the Support Services Facility off of Nike Drive.

  8. According to the County Auditor's website, the value of the SSF is $5 million. I've been there a number of times to visit the Ops department. It's a functional and certainly not opulent facility. I don't know enough about construction to have an opinion about whether $5 million is a good price, but it doesn't surprise me that the district needs such a facility as a logistics hub and operations center.

    In business, the decision to expend money to build a facility like the SSF would be based on an evaluation of whether such an investment would improve cash flow sufficiently to offset the cost of capital.

    We have a cost of capital too. There's the financial cost of capital, which is the interest rate we need to pay on bonds sold to raise the cash to build the facility. We should be able to answer a number of quantitative questions, such as: what would it cost to perform the same - presumably necessary - functions without the SSF (e.g. in rented space). If the answer is that building the SSF saves money, then it should be built.

    But there's also an emotional cost of capital when we're talking about spending public money. The district leaderhship has to make its case to the tens of thousands of people who are effectively the owners of the school district, most of whom aren't trained to do this kind of analysis on their own. Nonetheless, they need to feel that the decision is a wise one, well conceived and analyzed. Failure to build that understanding fosters doubt and distrust. That makes it very tough to pass levies.

    ... back to the communications issue.

  9. Why are all the white Hilliard School vehicles necessary? I see them parked all the time at stores. They're there when I go in and there when I leave. One guy was yakking so much about personal business with a salesperson he knew I had to interrupt them to check out. ACCOUNTABILITY. Everyone employed by the HCSD should account for every minute of their time on the clock like the rest of us. Cut more asst principal jobs and let the kids help out for school credit. There are more options then taxing and cutting. If what you're doing doesn't work, change it.

  10. Paul,

    We're nearly complete with redistricting, with just the graduating senior classes at Davidson & Darby left over from the "pre-redistricting" days. What is your opinion of the results at the MS/HS level?

  11. STJ:

    Since the middle school attendance boundaries were aligned with the high schools, it's easy to project student populations for next year by using the 8-11 number for this year. Those show that the projected student population for the three high schools will be:

    Bradley: 1,434
    Darby: 1,404
    Davidson: 1,755

    This makes sense as the Davidson attendance area is largely built out, while the Darby and Davidson attendance areas have substantial amounts of buildable space left.

    I know less about the demographic breakdowns, as my source is the State Report Cards published by the Ohio Dept of Ed, and the newest of those are for 2008-2009, when attendance boundaries were still in the process of shifting.

    We're eager to see the 2009-2010 numbers.

  12. By the way, those high school numbers mean the net change from this year to next will be:

    Bradley: +340
    Darby: -180
    Davidson: -81

  13. One last thing:

    The sale of the property on Cosgray Rd that was originally purchased for the 3rd high school fell through, although it was never announced by the school leadership. In other words, the school district still owns that land.

  14. I think the Bradley attendance zone obviously has a lot of buildable space left (and apparently is targeted for some specific developments). However, the Darby attendance zone doesn't cover a lot of territory and the only open space left would seem to be northern Brown Township, which I don't think is in line to see any large scale development. The Ballantrae development in the Davidson attendance zone hasn't been completely built out, so the gains from that development would seem to offset (or increase) any enrollment fall-off from the more established neighborhoods in that attendance zone.

    I actually think Darby's enrollment is likely to remain well under capacity for the forseeable future. I'm curious to see if it increases much, if at all. Bradley's enrollment is probably only likely to increase. Davidson seems likely to have an enrollment at or near capacity, but it seems like the number could be fairly stable.

  15. There's still a pretty good sized chunk of developable land west of Cosgray that's in the Darby attendance area.

    Interesting that the Darby/Davidson boundary in that area seems to run down the "Rails to Trails" corridor, which leaves the parcel of land owned by Norwich Twp Trustee and for Hilliard School Board member Chuck Buck in the Davidson attendance area.

    Mr. Buck has plans to develop that hunk of property. It has long been true that there are those who believe it is more desirable to send their kids to Davidson that Darby. Could that have had any influence on where this boundary line was drawn (vs just using Hayden Run as the boundary)?

  16. The area which I spoke of (northern Brown Twp) is what you alluded to in your post (west of Cosgray). I'll be curious to see what happens with this possible development. The parcel is adjacent to the Darby attendance zone (near Estates at Hoffman Farms), so it could potentially be shifted from Davidson to Darby. It all just depends on how "spot-redistricting" happens over the next few years. I know I will be watching closely to see what happens with not just future, but existing developments and complexes. As a parent in the Darby/Heritage zone, I'll admit that I'm a bit wary of how this will all unfold.

  17. Here are the numbers from the most recent report card. Academic performance on the OGT appears to be well-balanced across all three high schools in Hilliard CSD. This is certainly much different than what you see in South-Western (for example), where Grove City has a Performance Index of 101.2, whereas the other three schools are well under 100.0. Central Crossing's PI is 93.9, Franklin Heights' PI is 88.6 and Westland's PI is 88.0.

    Hilliard Davidson
    Performance Index = 104.8
    Graduation Rate = 94.4%
    Economically Disadvantaged = 15.5%
    LEP/ELL = 4.8%

    Hilliard Darby
    Performance Index = 104.2
    Graduation Rate = 96.3%
    Economically Disadvantaged = 16.3%
    LEP/ELL = 3.5%

    Hilliard Bradley
    Performance Index = 103.6
    Graduation Rate = N/A
    Economically Disadvantaged = 22.9%
    LEP/ELL = 6.9%

  18. stj:

    Indeed, our three high schools seem to be reasonably well balanced in terms of performance, regardless of the slight differences in their socioeconomic profiles.

    I don't know how the South-Western folks can accept how different their schools are. During their last levy campaigns, they had a very vocal group pushing the idea of splitting their district into a wealthy district and a poor district. One argument was that it would be a benefit to the poorer part of the district, as they would qualify for more State Aid which would reduce their taxes. Meanwhile, the wealthy part of the district would shed this burden, and be free to tax themselves whatever it took to restore the extracurriculars.

    Hope it never comes to that around here.

  19. stj:

    By the way, Homewood Homes has been working with the City of Dublin to gain approval to developed a large tract of land north of Davidson High School, which is in our school district, and the Weaver/Davidson attendance areas. It is 130 single-family homes and 230 multiple family units. Who knows how many school-age kids we're talking about - maybe 200+?

  20. Paul,

    I agree wholeheartedly with the observation you made in the above post. My biggest concern for HCSD remains with the elementary schools. If/when the next round of redistricting comes, careful deliberation needs to be pursued when it comes to drawing the elementary school boundaries. I realize that due to the nature of ES boundaries, differences are inevitable. That is fine. However, with some very hard work and tough decision-making, HCSD could strike a better balance at the ES level than currently exists. Each school needs to have a certain amount of stable neighborhood families in its attendance zone.

  21. stj:

    There's a dynamic which I don't fully understand yet which plays into this. Apparently, there is such a thing as a "Title 1 School," and to be classified as one, there has to be a certain minimum proportion of kids in that school who are economically disadvantaged.

    Title 1 schools get a little kick of federal money, primarily for reading teachers as I understand it. It's money to be had, and we don't want to just leave it on the table.

    But if a school is one student under that threshold - no Title 1 money. So it may be the case that if our economically disadvantaged students were equally distributed among all the elementary schools, we'd miss the chance to get any of this Title 1 money. So in a bizarre way, it's wise to make sure some of the school have the socioeconomic makeup so as to get this money.

    It's one of those tough questions: is it better to concentrate the kids who need extra attention (economic status and reading levels are unfortunately related) so we can get Fed money to fund teachers who can help those very kids, or is it better to distribute those kids with the hope that being with more advanced kids will improve the performance of the kids who are more challenged?

    I'm not an education professional, but I suspect that there an answer in the middle somewhere: it's a good thing to get the Fed funding for the extra reading teachers, but we don't want the ED kids so concentrated that it creates a real or perceived case of haves and haves-not within our own district, as seems to be the case in South Western.


  22. Here is a link to a FAQ page from the ODE which answers many of the questions about the Title 1 funding process.

  23. Paul,

    I'll be curious to see how the situation in the City of Dublin unfolds. Weaver's enrollment was significantly higher than that at either Memorial or Heritage last year. Unless there is a slow drift-down in enrollment in the other Weaver/Davidson neighborhoods, this new development has the potential to add to an already overcrowded situation at Weaver.

    Has the BOE been provided any early enrollment figures at each of the high schools and middle schools this fall?

  24. Yes, we do have the day 1 enrollment figures for all the schools.

    Weaver: 874
    Heritage: 741
    Memorial: 784

    Davidson: 1,827 (39%)
    Darby: 1,449 (31%)
    Bradley: 1,453 (31%)

    If we ignore new kids and kids who leave the district, we can estimate the student population at the high schools by looking at the size of the middle school classes. Doing so shows the following:

    Davidson: 1,758 (37%)
    Darby: 1,463 (31%)
    Bradley: 1,520 (32%)

    Davidson: 1,783 (37%)
    Darby: 1,523 (32%)
    Bradley: 1,513 (31)

    So Davidson currently has 370 more kids than either Darby or Bradley, the gap will close a little over the next couple of years as larger classes enter Darby and Bradley.

    However, Weaver/Davidson will continue to operate around capacity while the other two high schools have room for growth. So while Memorial/Bradley may have the capacity to handle the middle/high kids which will come from the new Schottenstein and Homewood developments, the elementary schools which feed them are already pretty much packed.

    And there's simply no room at Weaver/Davidson to handle an influx of kids from the Homewood development on Avery. The least disuptive solution would be to take the new Homewood/Avery kids to Memorial/Darby, but that would mean driving right past Weaver/Davidson.

  25. As a parent whose son went to Weaver last year and Davidson this year, these numbers are upsetting! Weaver was very crowded last year, and it doesn't seem fair that Davidson has 25% more kids than Darby or Bradley in the same space.

    IF a development occurs in the area proposed without more rapid growth in Darby/Bradley, I certainly hope the district would consider re-districting Middle and High Schools again.

  26. Paul,

    This is where I feel the BOE missed the boat in 2007 with some (IMHO) shortsighted decisions. Even though the middle schools and high schools have a fairly decent socio-economic balance, there are now enrollment disparities. The growth that is on the horizon looks like it will occur in Memorial/Bradley (to no one's surprise) and Weaver/Davidson. The tricky thing now is that Weaver/Davidson really can't easily absorb the new students headed their way. However, then you run into the sticky wicket of spot-redistricting. True, it would be easier to do with a new neighborhood than an established neighborhood. I'm sure Weaver/Davidson parents would have very specific ideas on what this would look like. And my guess is that Heritage/Darby parents are wary that the district leadership will look out first and foremost for the interests of the Weaver/Davidson parents.

  27. Mark: Of course the solution everyone offers to the crowded situation at Weaver/Davidson is to have someone else's kids transferred to one of the other schools. I've yet to hear any Davidson parents offer to have their neighborhood redistricted to one of the other schools.

    STJ: I agree.

  28. Paul,

    Mark isn't the first Weaver/Davidson person that I've heard complain about the enrollment imbalance. However, your response to him was spot-on. If there WAS any attempt to do some minor redistricting at the MS/HS level to reduce the crowding at Weaver/Davidson, it is my hope that the BOE would do so in a manner that would keep an eye to socioeconomic balance.