Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ignore Friction

I have always enjoyed science, and after a rough start back in the 8th grade, came to enjoy math as well. As an engineering major at Ohio State, I had the chance to marry the two in the study of physics.

In the first physics course, the focus was on motion. The basis for the study was Newton's Three Laws of Motion:

  • A body at rest will stay at rest, or continue to move in a straight line at a constant velocity unless an external force is applied.
  • The rate of change of momentum is influenced by the quantity of force applied and the direction in which the force is applied
  • For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
The basic rules are really that simple. Yet we used them to figure out how to land people on the Moon.
Of course, when trying to apply them in the real world, other factors come into play. In the case of motion, one of the primary factors is friction. But to help students understand the basics before getting things complicated with the details, those first homework problems at the end of the chapter would always contain the instruction: "Ignore friction." Only after we had mastered the basic concepts and calculations was friction introduced to the mix. In the many math, physics, and later economics and finance classes I took, that's the way we were taught. Simple basics first, add the details later.

I don't know why we don't use this method in trying to teach the public about school funding. Instead, you always hear people say "school funding is complicated, I don't understand it." Often that phrase comes from the very people assigned the task to teach us, such as the ACT Committee.
By the way, I've never understood why our school leadership - leaders of an organization whose mission and expertise is teaching - turns over the crucial task of educating the community about school funding to a citizen's committee who are neither financial experts nor educators. There's probably a reason that JFK didn't put the IRS in charge of the space program.

So here's my Principles of School Funding in Ohio:

  • The amount of property tax generated by a residence is not enough to pay for the cost of educating the kids who live there. It's surprising how few people know that.
  • The money to run our schools comes from three sources: residential/agricultural landowners, commercial landowners, and the State of Ohio. The less of one you get, the more you need of the others. In our district, the funding load is increasingly shifting to the residential homeowners.
  • That money goes to pay for two primary things: the compensation and benefits of the district employees, and the construction and maintenance of the buildings.
I really think that's it. Everything else is like friction in a physics problem. Important details, but not the core concepts. Once these are understood and internalized by the whole of the community, we can move on to the more advanced stuff.


  1. Good points, Paul.

    I hate to be nit-picking, but I think you mean "principles" instead of "principals". :-)

  2. Thanks for the correction!

    "the Principal is my pal"

  3. I've never understood why our school leadership - leaders of an organization whose mission and expertise is teaching - turns over the crucial task of educating the community about school funding to a citizen's committee who are neither financial experts nor educators.

    Are there financial experts in our school leadership? I've seen no evidence of this.

  4. No, but they (the administrators that is) are educators and should understand how to develop a training class by drawing on financial experts.

  5. At the risk of redundancy, we do not have a school funding problem in Ohio, we have an expense problem. It doesn't matter how you tax or what you tax, the incomes in the state cannot keep up with school district expenses in the state. There is a systemic problem that must be addressed. We can no longer afford the retirement programs, health care, sick leave and so on.

    Training the public in school finance is a worthy goal, but I can be as educated as the treasurer and still be unable to afford additional taxes.

  6. Valid points, but the value of the public education is to get the people motivated and engaged in solutions.

    Just voting NO doesn't help. Vote NO if you wish, but do so prepared to offer a reasonable, implementable, alternative approach.

    Here's my agenda, published a year ago. I'm working on ideas relative to the spending side - which will necessarily be about personnel costs - and hope to publish soon.

    Your ideas on this topic would be much appreciated.

  7. Paul, your agenda would not address the big picture. I doubt enough would be raised in impact fees to make a difference.

    What needs to be changed is the paradigm for teaching in Ohio. It would be difficult to do this in any one school district. We need to treat teachers as professionals, not as assembly line workers with a blue collar contract. We need to expect a certain amount of professionalism and for them to take responsibility for their own collaboration time and professional development. We need to be able to pay market rates for white collar professionals. We need merit pay and the ability to get rid of bad teachers. Ultimately, we need to consolidate school districts to get the economy of scale. We need inflationary increases, not 3x inflationary increases. We need to move towards private sector benefits. We need to get rid of severance, separation and other types of expense that people won't see in the newspaper reports. We also have to keep our side of treating teachers as professionals. We need to eliminate duty periods, we need to allow collobation during the day rather than watching the lunch room.

    Eventually, as more and more districts respond to status quo levy requests with no votes, the state will step in and mandate reform. A no vote in Hilliard, Columbus, New Albany and so forth gets us to that day a little sooner.

  8. Paul, in response to your revenue/expense idea comment

    1. We need to elect to the board
    and to our city council, eventually the mayoral post, regular everyday people making just a average wage with little insider connections.
    Unfortunatly this takes money to get elected. We have too much hand holding, explaining away,and a loyal inner circle who will just make the regular taxpayer pay more and more. Vote for no incumbents if necessary
    2. Economic uncertainity will be with us for at least the next two years and perhaps beyond with the
    energy issue. It fuels (sorry bad joke) increases in our everyday lives. We need compensation adjustments in th education system
    3. Every school system needs to go on a diet and exercise program meaning cost control (diet) and communication and respect to the electorate (exercise)
    4. The first question any office holder should hear is, are you going to vote no on any more unfunded school mandates for the next 10 years. If they wont commit
    tell them to take themselves off the ballot, and be rude if necessary and tell them you will recall them if they dont !
    5. Compensation increases including the dreaded step should be limited
    to 2.5% increases max.for the next
    5 years or until we get a better method. You will hear we will lose the best, garbage ! Private sector deals with it everyday, and ALL
    district employees should perform
    not just be protected.
    6.Administration reduced by 15%tommorrow
    7. Start a Hilliard Taxpayer PAC
    of independent everyday people
    Question every expenditure. It is the peoples money at township,
    city and school levels.
    8 Get a new Supt. of schools
    9.Eliminate immediatly all admin.
    who are retired and are double dipping. Give someone else a job !
    10. Zero tolerance for job actions in the school buildings. Parents have the right to ask questions professionally.

    I have about 60 more but wontbore anyone anymore. The alternative is to maintain the status quo, give out unrealistic compensation and
    let the HEA run the school district
    We need to pass about 4.5 mills and make budget cuts. Reopen the
    HEA agreement, if they go on strike so be it, and hire new staff.
    NOt easy, but who is in charge?
    I am not one to enjoy paying 10 mill increases every 3 years to
    fatten the "for the kids" group wallets any longer
    It is not for the kids when you threaten their programs, but give out raises that are out of step
    (sorry should have not used the word step )