Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I've just spent an evening and a day observing the annual Hilliard City School District Board of Education retreat, which was held this year at the Central Office Annex. The only other observer was reporter Cathy Wogan from This Week Hilliard, who was also there for the whole session.

The various department heads gave presentations on the achievements and plans for their area of responsibility, and the Board members asked questions and sometimes commented on what they heard. But there was not much in the way of discussion among Board members or direction from the Board to the Administration. In reality it was just a two-day briefing session for the Board members. That's not to say it wasn't valuable. At the end of the retreat, Lisa Whiting commented that as a new Board member, it was very effective as a way for her to get a picture of the whole district. Regardless of what it is called, this kind of review is something we would expect the Board to demand on at least an annual basis.

Terry Timlin from the Transportation Dept spoke first, giving a report about fuel usage, fuel costs, and what they were doing to save money. Our bus fleet drives 8,257 miles/day, which works out to 1,486,260 miles/year. During that period, the buses consumed 226,606 gallons of diesel fuel, meaning the fleet averages 6.6 mpg. The district spent $731,057 to buy fuel for the 2007-08 school year, making the cost $3.23/gal. As I mentioned in the earlier post titled "Triage," we can't ignore the ever-increasing price of diesel fuel, but we also need to remember that for each $1/gal the fuel price goes up, the impact to the district is about a quarter-million dollars, which represents less than 0.2% of the operating budget. It merits our attention, but not our focus.

Mr. Timlin's report elicited a number of responses from the Board members. It's just one of those things where everyone thinks they have an idea worth implementing, even if it saves only pennies. Asst Superintendent Tim Hamilton reminded the Board that the "District is not run by Operations," meaning bus routes are determined by safety considerations and school schedules, not cost optimization, even though some building schedules have been adjusted when possible.

The next presentation was on the uses of the Permanent Improvement funds, which are used to keep our buildings in good shape (unlike South Western City Schools for example). After a few minutes of discussion about the district's smoking policy, the Board adjourned to Executive Session, ending the public part of the meeting for the evening.

Wednesday morning kicked off with a discussion of the Superintendent's recommendation that participation fees be raised for the 2008-2009 school year. Andy Teater spoke of concern that fees might be becoming high enough to prevent some kids from participating in extra-curricular activities. While our fees are among the lowest in central Ohio, our District does not impose individual or family limits for cases when one or more kids in a family participate in multiple activities. The Superintendent recommended that the activity fees be raised a little every year instead of occasionally asking for a large increase. Denise Bobbitt asked the appropriate question – what are the District's actual costs per kid for participation in these activities? This becomes one of those fixed/variable cost questions. Seems to me that participation fees – if they must exist – should attempt to cover only variable costs. By definition the fix costs are going to exist anyway.

Then the meeting moved to the true purpose of a school district – the education of the kids. Dr. Andy Riggle and his team spoke about curriculum, State Report Cards, Improvement Programs and the English Language Learner (ELL) programming. Did you know that we now have over 900 ELL kids in the district? The Instructional Department also presented an overview of High School 2020, a comprehensive plan for updating the district's curriculum for the environment our graduates are expected to encounter in the next decade. Not being an educator, I didn't understand the theory behind much of what the various members of the HS2020 team reported, but their professionalism and enthusiasm was quite evident.

Hilliard City Schools has built a partnership with ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit two-year technical college with a campus in Mill Run, which allows Hilliard students to attend classes at ITT at no charge to the district or to the student, as long as the student continues his/her education at ITT following graduation.

Representatives of the Planning Departments of Franklin County and the City of Columbus gave a briefing on the status of the Big Darby Accord. There has apparently been much concerned expressed in the Hilliard community about the impact of the high-density Town Center planned in the Accord territory. While the planner answered that there are 5,000 housing units planned for the Town Center, Tim Hamilton pointed out that only a fraction of the Town Center will be in the Hilliard school district (the remainder will be in South Western City Schools).

The Superintendent reminded the participants and observers that for planning purposes, a ratio of 0.8 new students per new dwelling has held up for a number of years. I'll accept that as historical fact, but there have been some noticeable demographic trend shifts in our district in the past few years, notably the high concentration of immigrant kids in apartment complexes, a type of dwelling which normally houses very few kids. The profile of the Town Center will depend on the kind of high-density housing which is constructed there. I suspect the hope is to build something like Crocker Park, near Cleveland. If so, there could be a fair number of kids living there.

While a stated objective of the Big Darby Accord is "development that pays its own way," it was noted that there is no mechanism in the Accord to ensure that the schools are appropriately funded. That's because there is no representation by the two school boards on the governing committees, observed Doug Maggied, and he's right (and that's because developers are in control of development! – pl). The municipal officials say they don't want to interfere with school levies (that's a crock - they just don't want to share the new revenue stream! – pl).

Technology Director Gary Orr and his team gave an impressive presentation of their plans for the many IT demands in the district. This being my field of expertise, I was impressed to hear them talking about plans to put well-proven commercial platforms into place, such as a VMWARE-based central server pool replacing discrete servers scattered all over the district.

The day and the retreat closed with the heads of supply and maintenance talking a little about cost trends in their areas. As one can imagine, two of the primary consumables are trash can liners and toilet paper. By taking advantage of the storage space at the Support Service Facility, the district has been able to buy both items in very large quantities at a price well below current market rates.

I came away from this meeting with same high regard for the professionals in the Instructional and Operations departments of our District that I've always had. That's not to say they're perfect, or always make decisions I would agree with, but they are a high-quality team who truly care about the quality of service delivered to our kids.

But I was disappointed that there was no time committed to a discussion of the significant financial issues facing the District. I recommend reading through the new Five Year Forecast, published by District Treasurer Brian Wilson this May. On page 2, he states that to avoid a deficit (running out of money), a total of $57 million would need to be cut from the 2009-2011 budgets.

The financial discussion can be wrapped around two core elements:

  • Ohio's school funding system proscribes three funding sources: a) local residential/agricultural property taxes; b) local business property taxes; and, c) the State of Ohio. The balance of these three has changed radically in the past decade, transferring more and more of the incremental funding burden to the homeowners of the District.
  • More than 90% of the spending growth each year is attributable to the compensation of our teachers, staff and Administration. In the past three years, our compensation costs have increased 6% per year, from $125 million in 2005 to $138 million in 2007.

It is clear that a levy will need to be placed on the ballot in November of this year, and paperwork must be filed with the Franklin County Board of Elections in just 63 days. I don't understand why this wasn't a significant topic of discussion.


  1. The district is banking on the taxpayer to "buckle". Historically levies haven't passed the first time, but eventually pass before the "pain" happens.

    I, for one, have told several district officials about the pulse of the community. I see it, I hear it. And I think this levy wil go down in flames. I have to agree with most on here that the district has taken a "cross-our fingers" approach to the funding problem.

    I wouldn't know what they think as they never share it. but their actions (or lack of) tell me they don't really know the pulse of the community or they are ignoring it and hoping the taxpayers flinch first.

    I will vote yes for this levy. But I'm not foolish enough to believe it can pass. Why is our district?

  2. It is appalling that the main focus of the retreat was NOT on the upcoming levy. The BOE has their heads firmly planted in the sand; as a previous comment said, they are operating under the assumption that eventually the taxpayers will cave so just keep putting the levy on the ballot until it passes. There should be a law that says once it is voted down, it can't appear again for at least a year. The taxpayers have spoken, there has been no new information from the board, and nothing new from the campaign committee. And on top of all that, the HEA got pretty much what they wanted even though the budget has to be slashed elsewhere.
    The Dispatch reports that median income is down in Hilliard - must be nice for the teachers to get a 7% increase! Arrogance at it's worst!
    If that is not arrogance on the part of the board, I don't know what it is.

  3. Just read Cathy Wogans article in This Week and she mentioned that one of our Board members was absent for the retreat, without any mention of "why". Comments?

  4. As Cathy reported, the missing Board member was Dave Lundregan, who was on a long-planned family vacation.

    I understand that - we had only one week this entire summer when we could get our kids and spouses together for a family vacation, and we put our money down on the beach house the first week of January to lock it in. Dave's family vacation was even longer in the planning. He made the right decision to put his family first.

    What I do question is why the other Board members didn't adjust the schedule so that Dave could attend. They had plenty of time to work out an mutually acceptable date. The retreat required only one day away from their jobs after all.

    Sadly, the truth is that Dave didn't miss much - there was minimal discussion and no important decisions made. It was truly little more than a management briefing.