Thursday, July 31, 2008

Step Increases and the Law

At the Community Conversation session held On July 23, Superintendent Dale McVey said something that I hadn't heard before. When asked about the salary increases received by teachers in their new contract, he gave the customary partial and misleading answer: 3%. Readers of this blog know that 70% of the teachers (those at 0-15, 20 and 23 years of service) also receive 'step increases,' which in both the prior and the current contract are set at 4.15%. Compounded, this works out to 7.27% annual raises.

Mr. McVey went on to say that this step increase approach is mandated by state law. That surprised me. While there is a step increase schedule in every single teachers' contract I've examined, I surmised that this structure is something championed by the Ohio Education Association (the state teachers' union, of our teachers' union, the Hilliard Education Association, is affiliated), and not a requirement set by law.

So I did a little research, and found Section 3317.13 of the Ohio Revised Code. This section contains the minimum salary structure for Ohio public school teachers. In paragraph (B), this section says: "No teacher shall be paid a salary less than that provided in the schedule set forth in division (C) of this section." That schedule looks very much like the salary grid used in the HEA contract.

But it says nothing about step increases – at least not the way I read it.

The way I would interpret the chart in the O.R.C. is that there is a minimum salary level for every combination of length of service and level of education, and that minimum for that service/degree has to be met. In other words, the minimum salary for a teacher with a Bachelors degree and 5 years of service is $23,800. Do we pay at least that for 5 years and a Bachelors degree? Yes, in fact we pay $47,009, or nearly double the state minimum.

How about a Bachelor's degree and 6 years of service? The state minimum is $24,560. We again pay double that: $48,961.

Here's the technicality I'm questioning: While the state schedule incorporates a 3.19% increase between Step 5 and Step 6 in column for teachers with a Bachelor's degree, I don't think the law says we have to meet or beat the percentage increase – we just have to meet or beat the dollar level for each service/education combination. In other words, I believe the size of the step increases in our salary structure isn't relevant in obeying the law; the question is whether we pay at least the minimum for each service/education combination. We pass that test with flying colors, paying about double the state minimum in every case.

Here's another interesting observation about the state-mandated salary minimums: the highest service/education combination on the state's minimum pay schedule is 11 years and a Masters degree. For that combination, the minimum salary is $32,460. Under the new HEA contract, the lowest service/education combination is zero years and no degree. We pay $33,371 for that combination, more than the highest minimum salary on the state grid.

If my understanding of these mechanics is correct, then it is not true that step schedules are state mandated. You just have to pay the minimums for each service/education combination. If true, it seems like we have room for a lot more creativity in our salary structure, including things like giving larger increases to young teachers and flattening out the salary growth curve a little. Or we could make the steps for teachers with Masters degrees larger than those with lesser educational credentials.

If any readers have expertise on this, please either comment on this post, or send me an email.

Please jump to this comment for additional information.

Teacher Merit Pay

Across the nation, as the public becomes aware that 90% of all school expenditures goes for the compensation and benefits of the teachers, staff members and administrators, and that it is the increases in the costs of the compensation and benefits that drives need for ever-increasing funding, the notion of performance-based pay – for teachers in particular – is getting more and more attention.

One reason is that most of us in the private sector live in such a compensation regime every day. Our bosses evaluate our performance and make decisions about our compensation all the time. Business owners have their value judged every day by their customers. Competition, innovation and being rewarded for results are seen by many to be the foundation of the American economic system. Even one of the largest of American government institutions – the United States Postal Service – has learned how to live in, and even embrace the competitive world (note the FedEx and UPS pick up boxes in front of the local post office).

So it is with some dismay that we come to realize that the largest component of our property taxes goes to pay for the compensation and benefits of folks who work in a system where only length of service and education level determine compensation – not actual performance. Surely, many say, one thing we need to address in this school funding crisis is to connect teacher pay to teacher performance.

From a theoretical perspective, I agree. But as is usually the case, the devil is in the details.

The first problem is determining how to measure the performance of a particular teacher. The most common answer is to tie teacher compensation to standardized test scores. Just to simplify things, let's say we're talking about a 5th grade teacher who has the same classroom of kids for the whole day, all year. How much of the performance of those kids on standardized tests can you attribute to that one 5th grade teacher, versus the kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade teachers that had the same kids in earlier years? And hasn't research shown that one of the best predictors of a kid's performance in school, especially in the early years, is the degree in which that kid's parents get involved – reinforcing and tutoring at home? Should teachers be rewarded for teaching in neighborhoods where there are many such parents? Should teachers in different settings be penalized?

Some school districts have experimented with performance pay for teachers. One of the most-observed examples is Denver Schools, which instituted a system they call ProComp. The system was developed as a joint effort by the School Board and the teachers' union. Teachers on board when the program was instituted were given the option to join or stay on the old system (50% switched), while all newly hired teachers are automatically enrolled in the program. Denver voters approved $25 million/year in new taxes to fund the system.

So how is it working?

Everyone seems to agree that it needs some tweaks, and leaders of both the district and the union say they knew this would be the case. School officials want to make some changes now, including increasing starting salaries and giving additional incentives for teachers willing to work at "hard to staff" schools, and to teach science and math. The principals in the district seem to think this is working.

The teachers' union wants to wait for an external evaluation of ProComp, scheduled for next year. What would motivate the teachers' union to wait?

One is that the money to increase starting salaries would be freed up by putting a cap on the upper end of the salary scale. School officials point out that a teacher with less than 12 years experience is twenty times more likely to quit than a teacher with more than 12 years experience. Therefore, it made sense to them to shift salary dollars from the top of the payscale to the bottom. I think the leaders of the teachers' union, themselves likely to be senior teachers, want to put off any such radical changes until the external review is completed – hoping it won't support this approach.

The teachers' union preferred an across-the-board 3.5% increase for everyone – business as normal.

The real issue is a big, irresistible plum sitting out there for everyone to see. It turns out that very little of the incentive money has been paid out. For the school year just ended, only $7 million of the $25 million was awarded. The ProComp fund now holds an $86 million surplus. One evaluation of the system, which looked back at 2 years worth of data, stated that there was only a slight difference in the test scores of the students of teachers who participated in the program versus those who did not.

I suspect that there are some, notably the teachers' union, who say the system is flawed because it failed to pay out that $86 million that they may view as rightfully theirs. On the other hand, taxpayers might be very happy that, since there was little difference in the test scores between the participants and non-participants, not much money was paid out, and therefore demonstrating a faithful adherence to the plan they voted for. Presumably, the taxpayers would like it even more if test scores rose dramatically and there was cause to pay out the bonuses.

Who can say whether a merit pay system will ever be seriously discussed in Hilliard Schools? I've been involved in the design and administration of incentive compensation plans for many years. Even in a dollars-and-sense business environment, it's not simple to design a plan that actually achieves the results one desires. There are lots of bad things which can happen: a) the plan fails to connect incentive goals to organization results, raising expense (the reward payout) and lowering profits (because the overall business results, e.g. higher revenue or lower costs were not achieved); b) the plan fails to recognize paths to success outside the incentive goals, which can lead to organizational profit, but no reward to the team; and, c) the incentive goals unintentionally pits one part of the team against another, allowing one team to be rewarded while the others – and the organization – lose. There are many more. Designing an effective plan has to be at least as difficult in a school district.

Lastly, one thing I learned from the compensation experts is that not everyone is motivated by money. Some are – they often go into a sales role where compensation is very directly tied to measurable performance. Others are motivated by freedom, or by working with inspiring leaders and colleagues. It would be a mistake for those of us who are not teachers to believe we understand what motivates someone who chooses teaching as a profession, and it would also be a mistake to treat all teachers as a homogenous group, motivated by exactly the same thing.

Our goal has to be a common understanding. People of the community – respect the difficult task teachers have today. It's not the same profession it was when we were in school. And teachers, please realize that the rest of us don't understand why you expect us to make sacrifices to increase your compensation just because you put in another year of service.

This kind of common understanding takes a long time to develop. Unfortunately, it is only 61 days until early/absentee voting begins on our operating levy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

10TV on Credit Card Spending

Comments have begun accumulating on another post in regard to the recent report by WBNS-10TV about the use of credit cards by Hilliard City School officials, so I thought it would be better to start a post on just this topic. I'll copy the comments over as well.

My own reaction to this is that it is a symptom of a management that has not been held sufficiently accountable for its actions. The Board of Education is elected by the public not to rubber stamp the wishes of the administration, but rather to guide and monitor the performance of the management it hires to run the organization on behalf of the public. The Treasurer has a special role in this, as the Treasurer reports directly to the Board – not the Superintendent – and has a duty to the Board to monitor and question the spending of the rest of the Administration.

All kinds of questions are raised by this story. Why did both of our public relations people (one of whom has since been laid off) need to attend a conference in Arizona? Why was a staff meeting held at Dave & Busters, which I find to be one of the more expensive food places in our area? Mr. Wilson said, "I'm sure Dave & Busters has a room - a conference room off to the side - where they could meet uninterrupted and have their professional development." I've been to Dave & Busters many times, including business celebrations, and know of no such conference facilities, nor is it mentioned on their website. Anyone know for sure?

At the very least, it's another case of bad optics. I understand the need to keep team spirits up, especially in time of adversity, and especially when you have a great team that has taken years to assemble. But this is a tricky art. Special rewards can quickly turn into expected benefits, and the negative feelings created when they must be suspended might do more harm than granting the reward in the first place.

This funding crisis is something that has been looming for a long time – I've been writing about it for a couple of years now. Somewhere along the way, an effective leadership would have said, "sometime soon, we're going to have a very tough levy campaign on our hands, and we'd better be sure we've got our house in order when the scrutiny gets intense." At that point, the finances should have been inspected with a critical eye, and this kind of stuff put in abeyance until better times. Had that been done, it could have made for a positive public relations event - a demonstration of good stewardship and fiscal restraint.

Instead, it is a public relations disaster with just over 90 days from the election (60 days until early/absentee voting begins).

Has this changed the way you're leaning on the levy vote?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Does Money Buy Results?

I subscribe to the electronic newsletters of Education Week, a periodical targeted to teachers and others interested in education. An article this week caught my eye, and I wanted to pass it on to you.

One reason is to once again make the point that although I frequently write about the fact that employee compensation and benefits represent nearly 90% of the cost of running our schools, and it is this cost which is driving the need for additional operating levies every 2-3 years (not the cost of diesel fuel), I do not have a problem with compensating highly effective teachers competitively. But what does 'highly effective' and 'competitively' mean? What does 'compensation' mean?

It means that once you define the qualifications and performance expectations of a teacher, you need to be prepared to create a environment that attracts such teachers. If the qualifications and performance expectations are on par with what private industry expects of an engineer or a lawyer, then you need to create compensation structure and environment will motivate such individuals to seek employment as a teacher.

Note that I didn't just say 'competitive salary.' High performing individuals don't do it just for the money. They also want to be part of a high-performance organization that does interesting stuff. They want to be around inspiring leaders and contribute to efforts bigger than themselves. And they want access to sufficient resources so that their dreams and ambitions can be developed into reality (which for the geeks like me, means getting to play with cool toys). Lastly, they want to work around colleagues who share their passion, intensity, and level of performance.

A charter school in New York City is trying a radical experiment in regard to building its team of teachers. Their attention grabber is that they're going to offer a starting salary of $125,000. Some will say, "oh, that's NYC – it's crazy expensive, and you have to pay everyone more to work there." There is some truth to that. I've done business in NYC for many years, and currently sit on the Board of Directors of a non-profit based there, so I have some knowledge of the differences. In the case of public school teachers, the starting salary for a teacher with only a Bachelor's degree and no experience in Columbus City Schools is $29,313. In the NYC public school system, the starting salary is $45,430. The max salary for a Columbus City School teacher is $72,013 ($85,175 in our district). In New York City schools, it is $100,049.

So even though salaries might generally be higher in NYC, setting the starting salary for teachers at $125,000 is a big deal. It's 2.75 times the starting salary for teachers in NYC public schools, and it's 25% more than the maximum salary.

This charter school is in Washington Heights, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan (the opposite end from Wall Street, and north of Harlem), occupied primarily by immigrants from the Dominican Republic. It's a tough neighborhood, and the schools aren't known for their quality or performance. So it takes some guts to start a charter school there. "The Equity Project Charter School" (TEP) receives no private funding or funding above the level of any charter school in NYC, so how does it pay the $125,000+ to hire teachers?

First let's look at their three-pronged philosophy:

  • Rigorous Qualifications: Teachers are expected to be subject matter experts with outstanding verbal ability and teaching expertise.
  • Redefined Expectations: TEP teachers "work professional hours" typically from 8am to 6pm, which includes four hours teaching in the classroom, three hours of collaborative prep time, and one hour of observing. One some days they lead their students in school-wide service projects. They teach only one subject to one grade level. During the summer, TEP teachers get a two-week vacation in July and one week in August, but spend the rest of the summer in their Summer Development Institute. Even more radical is a mandatory one year sabbatical each five years. The teachers are not paid during this sabbatical by the way, so you could argue that this makes their $125,000/yr more like $100,000/yr. It's still good money.
  • Revolutionary Compensation: In addition to the $125,000 base salary, TEP teachers can earn annual bonuses, which can be as high as $25,000 in the first year of teaching and it goes up from there.

I think we should also note what is not said: I don't believe the TEP teachers will be unionized, and expect that teachers who fail to continue to live up to these expectations will be shown the door without a lot of complicated administrative procedures. You don't pay a teacher $125,000 and then accept results below your standards.

So where does the money come from to pay this kind of compensation? Here's what they say:

TEP has created a sustainable and conservative financial model that allows the school to compensate its teachers appropriately without relying on outside private funding. It accomplishes this primarily through cost savings that result directly from the tremendous quality and productivity of its teachers. In short, hiring and paying master teachers what they are worth is a cost-effective mechanism for boosting student achievement. TEP does NOT fundraise to support its investment in teacher compensation. This is because a central feature of TEP's mission is to demonstrate that schools can make a radical investment in teacher equity by reallocating existing public funding.

I like the sound of this, and I bet many of the people in our community do too. The orthodox approach to public school education in our country is not working so well, and I think part of the problem is that the public is objecting to what they perceive to be the decoupling of compensation and performance. The orthodox approach ties compensation to longevity. The TEP approach rewards performance, and in doing so will attract strong performers who not only want to be paid well, but also work with and for other strong performers who achieve extraordinary results.

I wish them great success.

Monday, July 28, 2008

State Funding – How it Really Works

Thanks to a tip from the Education Bloggers at The Columbus Dispatch, I found the blog of two members of the State Board of Education, Colleen Grady and Susan Haverkos.

One of their recent posts describes the processes used to develop the education portion of the State's biennial budget, the next of which is scheduled to be put into law by June 30, 2009. Their article is both enlightening and alarming. It's good to understand the process, but alarming that our state leaders appear prepared to enter it with a target of reducing education spending 5%-10%. This suggests that instead of our state funding staying constant from year to year, it is likely to diminish.

Now before we freak out about that, this is a political process, which means all kinds of wheeling and dealing is going to take place between now and next June. Whatever the State Board of Education comes up with, the Governor, the Senators and the State Representatives will tweak it to take care of their home districts, to repay political debts, punish politicians who they think deserve it, and protect those whose seats may be in jeopardy.

I haven't a clue where our representatives stand in that pecking order. Rep. Larry Wolpert is in his last year due to term limitations, and has not indicated any interest in other political office as of yet. Sen. Steve Stivers is running for the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives being vacated by Deborah Pryce, and may not be seated in the Ohio Senate when this budget comes up for vote.

My gut tells me we aren't going to see any windfalls in the next budget. We may be lucky to hang in where we are.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Popular Guy

Today I was called by not just one, but two research firms performing surveys regarding our community.

The first one was by Burges & Burges, a firm out of Cleveland who is often hired by candidates for office to develop campaign strategy. The 2007 Bond Levy Campaign also used Burges & Burges as advisors (and Burges and Burges made a contribution to the campaign fund…). The interviewer said my name was given to them as someone who should be interviewed, and I'm honored by that. I was asked a number of good questions about our school district, and I did my best to answer consistently with what I've written here.

When it was all over, I asked if they would tell me who commissioned the survey, and they said no, but gave me a name to call.

Then this evening, I was called by an interviewer from Saperstein & Associates, a Columbus-based public opinion research firm. Again, the 2007 Bond Levy Campaign used Saperstein, spending about $18,000 for the survey and analysis. I don't know whether I was selected randomly, or am on some hit list.

I didn't like the Saperstein questions so well. Many seemed more loaded, like the "head I win, tails you lose" gambit. Don't miss this point - it is possible to construct questions such that the question itself alters your perception of the issue. Some of my best teachers could do this, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes questions are really directives, like when Mom says "Have you taken the trash out yet?" She's not really concerned about the answer, only the outcome.

Anyway, I refused to answer some of these questions because the premise of the question wasn't valid.

Before the survey started, I asked the interviewer, "who commissioned the survey?" They said answering that might influence my answers, and that we could come back to my question at the end of the survey. So when the interview was over, I asked again. The interviewer gave me the number of the Saperstein home office and said I would have to speak with Mr. Saperstein.

I don't need to. I'm sure the Saperstein survey was commissioned by the Levy Campaign Committee, and suspect the Burges survey was as well. Perhaps the School Board funded one directly.

So the next question is whether the public will ever see the results of these surveys.

If the surveys are funded by the Levy Committee, then they are private documents, and not subject to the Sunshine Laws. One would hope that they would share the survey results anyway, but I can understand a fear that disclosure of the results could further jeopardize the passage of the levy.

But on the other hand, any survey paid for directly by the School Board is a public document, and must be disclosed.

Furthermore, I believe that any briefing, in any form made by the Levy Committee to the School Board must be done in a public meeting of the School Board, and the material presented to the School Board becomes public domain as a consequence. There are no 'whisper numbers' permitted by the Sunshine Laws: what the Board knows, the public is entitled to know. This is not the kind of information which can be protected by Executive Session.

I've been through this drill before - in 2006, and came to an impasse with the Board. Short of filing and winning a lawsuit, there is no way to force them to disclose this information. But maybe the weight of your insistence can change their thinking this time.

The Disappearing Personal Property Tax

As much as I harp on the fact that the expense side of our school operations is dominated by compensation and benefits, there is a dynamic on the revenue side which I've not addressed: the phase-out of the Ohio Tangible Personal Property Tax.

This is a tax levied on the value of manufacturing equipment and inventory owned by businesses. The Taft Administration decided to restructure the business tax rules in Ohio, and the most significant of those changes was to phase out the Tangible Personal Property Tax and the Corporate Franchise Tax and replace them with a single Commercial Activity Tax.

The trouble is, some or all of the Tangible Personal Property Tax was channeled directly to local school districts, while there is no such provision in the Commercial Activity Tax system. In other words, the State of Ohio is taking money away from us – permanently.

This is different from the state funding component which is variously called "State Aid" or "State Grants-in-Aid." Our school leaders have been saying for quite a while that this component has remained virtually unchanged while our enrollment has continued to grow. In 2005, this revenue source amounted to $37.6 million, and dropped slightly to $37.4 million in 2008. In 2012, State Aid is projected to be $43.7 million.

How significant is the revenue from the Tangible Personal Property Tax? According to our Treasurer's revised Five Year Forecast, it was $16.6 million in 2005. For the year ending June 30, 2008, we received $9.3 million. By 2012, it will have dropped to $2.9 million, and then will disappear altogether.

Not all districts are affected the same way by this change. For example, rural districts with little industry will see almost no impact. The big urban districts have sufficient political power that we can feel assured that their State Aid will be adjusted to offset the loss of the Tangible Personal Property Tax income. As always when it comes to school funding, the suburban districts get the brunt of it. That means we'll need to replace this revenue with money from our own pockets.

So let's do some math: if a 9.5 mill levy would generate $21.9 million/yr in revenue (per the March campaign brochure), that means 1 mill raises $2.3 million/yr. So:

Just replacing the $16.6 million/yr in Tangible Personal Property Tax revenue requires 7.2 mills – forever.

One could argue that it would make sense to put a 7.2 mill levy on the ballot and call it the "Bob Taft Sends His Love" levy – just to make the point that the levy was not due to increases in compensation and benefits.

The Treasurer's Forecast takes the phase-out of the Tangible Personal Property Tax into account when he states the magnitude of the cutbacks necessary should we not get a levy passed in time for the 2009-2010 budget approval. As a reminder, those numbers are $18 million in 2009-2010 and $8 million more the following year.

So when the Board meets to decide on the size of the next levy, they have to figure out how much money to ask for to cover both the increase in personnel costs and the phase-out of the Tangible Personal Property Tax.This isn't quite correct, please read through the attached comments for additional information -- pl

This is just one more moving part in the school's economic engine that the public doesn't understand. It should have been part of the comprehensive community education program I've been advocating for years. This would have been a good thing for the ACT Committee to talk about.

Now the whole information/education burden is likely going to get dumped on the campaign committee, and they haven't even been told by the Board what the levy amount will be yet.

It is now 70 days until Early/Absentee voting begins.

Monday, July 21, 2008

July 2008 Survey Results

Here is the report I sent to the School Board regarding the results of the most recent survey. I closed the survey earlier than I said I would because: a) the number of respondents had dropped to one or two a day; and, b) I thought it might be helpful for the Board to have a couple of days to digest the results prior to their meeting this Weds night.

I'm looking forward to hearing your reactions to the results. Thanks for participating!

Hope to see you Wednesday.


If you are having trouble with the PDF version of the report, try this HTML version.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

HEA Contract Changes

I've made an eyeball comparison between the 2005-2007 HEA contract, and the one just signed.

During the negotiations process, statements were made that the agreement proposed by the Board had substantial changes outside the realm of compensation and benefits. If that were the case, they didn't make it to the final agreement as all the material changes appeared to be about money.

A better set of eyes may detect things I missed, but here's what I found:

  • Article 7, Paragraph A, item 1 (which I will signify as "7/A/1" in the rest of this post): adds one day to the working year, from 183 to 184 for returning teachers and 184 to 185 for new teachers
  • 7/B: Preschool teachers included in the definition of "Teacher Work Day"
  • 9/B:
    Unpaid holidays tweaked so that Thanksgiving is always a 5-day weekend (Weds-Sun); Spring Break decoupled from the OSU schedule
  • 9/C:
    A number of changes to Professional Development Days, but nothing of significance that I could see
  • 12/D/5:
    The definition of "building" expanded (via Appendix K) to include facilities like Sunrise Academy and St Brenden's, where apparently HCSD employees must be posted to provide some services.
  • 13/A/4:
    removed the restriction that no more than 5 union members could inspect their personnel files in one day
  • 13/A/6:
    requires union members to acknowledge, by signature, of receipt of disciplinary communications
  • 13/C:
    adds section on "Conduct Unbecoming"
  • 14/A/8:
    any changes to the evaluation procedure must now be agreed upon by Board and union
  • 16:
    Reduction in Force (Layoff) process: definition of seniority moved to new Article 40
  • 16/B/7:
    If a member has been laid off, and a position comes open, and the member is given an offer for reinstatement, the member has until the end of the following business day to accept the offer. In the old contract, the member had three weeks to accept.
  • 28 is the Article about insurance – the center of all the controversy:
  • 28/B/1: for the remainder of 2008, a fulltime member pays 6% of the premium, not to exceed $24.44/mo (single) or $65.99/mo (family); 2009 – 8% to a max of $36.17/mo (single) or $97.67/mo (family); 2010 – 10% to a max of $50.19/mo (single) or $135.52/mo (family).
  • 28/H:
    Provides for stoploss coverage of $2,500 (single) and $4,000 (family). This serves as an overall cap, regardless of the coverage in the group policy. This can be particularly significant in the rare occasions when an individual consumes their maximum lifetime benefit, in which case, the District essentially agrees to provide coverage anyway. The more likely application would be if the District purchases a group health insurance policy that has deductibles higher than these limits. Again the District would assume the risk.
  • 29:
    Salaries go up 3%/yr, with no change to the 4.15% step structure
  • 34:
    Tutors get a 3%/yr increase as well
  • 40:
    Is the new article describing seniority rules. They don't seem that different than the rules that were in Article 16 of the previous contract, but they specify that tutors are on a separate seniority schedule than everyone else. I suspect this provision was put in to prevent senior tutors from being able to bump junior teachers, but would appreciate any insights.
That's it. Seems like it was all about raises and insurance.

Friday, July 18, 2008

HEA Agreement

Finally -- after two months of waiting, here is a copy of the new HEA Agreement. I haven't been able to convince the Admin folks to give me the source Word document file yet, but I've got a PDF converter around here somewhere, and will make a doc file myself, which will facilitate doing a file comparison between this contract and the previous one. I'll post that comparison soon, but here's something to chew on for now...


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Talk With The Board

Official announcement from the School District...

Hilliard City School District
Community Conversation
July 23, 2008
7:00 p.m.
Annex Building behind District's Central Office
5323 Cemetery Road

Please join us for this "Community Conversation" concerning the school operating levy to be placed on the upcoming November ballot. This is a great opportunity to hear the latest information concerning our school finances and share your thoughts with school officials as we move forward with levy decisions in the coming month.

... and please take my survey if you haven't already!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Please Take the Survey


While I said in the survey that I would keep it open until July 23, there have been few responses over the weekend, and I wanted to get the results out before the community meeting on July 23. Watch for a posting with a link to the report...

If you have a couple of minutes, please complete the online survey I've just posted (you will also receive an email invitation if you subscribe to my e-newsletter).

The hope is to provide meaningful insight to the School Board as they try to figure out what to put on the ballot for the November election, so the more responses the better.

The results of the survey we did last spring ended up matching the outcome of the election pretty closely, although once again I'll caution folks that unless we get hundreds of responses to the survey, it will not be a reliable predictive tool. Nonetheless, we had as many respondants to that survey as I've seen at any events sponsored by the School Board...

When you complete the survey, you'll be brought back here to tell us what you think.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

T Minus 82 Days and Counting

The upcoming General Election will take place on November 4, 2008, one hundred and seventeen days from now. So what's the significance of the 82 days referenced in the title of this article?

Answer: Early/Absentee voting in Franklin County begins 35 days before the General Election, which means people may start casting votes on our school levy on October 1. That's 82 days from now - and counting.

There are estimates that 25% or more of all votes in Franklin County will be cast by Absentee Ballot or via the in-person early voting program. I believe this estimate, given that early/absentee voting grants folks a chance to avoid what is likely to be a repeat of the November 2004 election, with monstrous lines at every polling place. From a practical standpoint, it means that the levy campaign effort needs to be completed by that date. It's astonishing to me that we've heard not a peep from the campaign committee yet.

But they have a good excuse: the School Board hasn't yet decided how large the levy needs to be. In fact, they haven't even been looking at any data to help them decide. In fact, they haven't even decided on a general strategy: will they go for a big levy and plan to stay off the ballot for three years or more, or will they pick a lower levy amount and expect to ask for more in a year or two?

Or will they decide to make major cutbacks now?

It seems to me that this discussion should have been the primary topic of the retreat the Board held in June. But they squandered that opportunity, and now another month has been lost.

I thought tonight's Board meeting would have a significant amount of time devoted to the levy, and indeed it did.

President Denise Bobbitt asked the Superintendent and Treasurer to come to the meeting prepared to talk about how much has already been cut from the budget in the past four years. The answer is about $4 million – nothing to sneeze at – about 3% of the budget. I know her reason for wanting these numbers is so that she, the other Board members, and the campaign committee could better defend whatever levy amount they decide to ask for. They rejoiced in the story of a staff member figuring out how to save $20,000/yr in postage. That's good stuff, but it's only a little more than 1/100th of one percent of the budget.

The elephant in the room is, and will always be, personnel costs. Indeed, the latest state-required Five Year Forecast from Treasurer Brian Wilson projects that if no operating levies are passed in the next three years, all of the cost reductions will be in personnel costs. All of the other $20,000 savings found here and there won't make a material difference in the levy amount required.

Nor will individual employee salaries. Both the teachers' and staff members' union contracts have just been renegotiated for a three year term. The price for labor has been set.

The only knobs the Board has left are the number of people on the payroll and the expected time span until the next levy. The other stuff might affect what's to the right of the decimal point, but that's about it.

So here we are, 82 days before voting begins, and I don't think all the Board members understand all this yet. They asked the Treasurer to prepare some scenarios for their special August 4 Board Meeting, but I'm sure that after days of number crunching by the Treasurer and his team, the Board will finally realize that these two knobs are the only ones that matter. Meanwhile, another 25 days will have gone by without any decisions.

If the Board were to make their final decision on August 4, it would give the campaign committee 57 days to complete their mission before early voting begins – and it's unlikely that the Board will actually make their decision on that day, but will instead require yet another special meeting (or two) between August 4 and August 21, the deadline for filing the levy resolution with the Board of Elections. They're really putting the campaign committee in a tough spot.

Some highlights from the Board's discussion:

  • Dave Lundregan recommended that the Board commission a team of 10-12 people with financial savvy to look over the scenarios and make recommendations to the Board. I have a ton of respect for Dave, and would gladly serve on such a team if asked, but I cringed when he made the suggestion. Our district has both a Finance Committee and an ACT Committee, and it seems like such an analysis should be within the purview of one or the other. At a minimum, Dave will need to explain to the members of these committees why they didn't get the assignment. And I think this special committee would quickly find that the decisions are pretty much what I said above – how much and for how long. Those decisions have to be made by the Board, not this committee.
  • Doug Maggied said many things which started with the phrase "People have to remember…" Actually, they don't have to remember anything – we have to tell them – every time.
  • Denise Bobbitt said that we have the lowest administrative cost of any school district in Franklin County. That's not quite the whole picture, as I wrote back in March. We may have the lowest cost per-student, but we are also one of the largest districts in the county. We spend about the same amount on "Supplies and Material" ($4.5 million/year) as New Albany spends for its whole Administrative department. Our Administrative costs are on the order of $14 million/yr. It's a trap to think administrative costs should go up at the same rate as the growth of students, and it allows the district leadership to think it's okay to create positions that may not be necessary.
  • Lisa Whiting said the size of the levy we need is more than the community will bear. I agree with her. Our community should be so well informed about the basic mechanics of school funding that they understand that the larger the levy we absorb now, the longer we can wait until another levy is needed. But there are a couple of problems: not only are most voters ignorant about how school funding works, many have also lost faith that the school leadership is using their hard-earned tax money well. There is little chance that the community will sacrifice now to give the District the surplus needed in the early years to stretch out the levy as expenses grow.
  • Andy Teater was absent from the meeting. That's too bad – Andy has a good grasp of economics (his major in college) as well as the politics of public perception.
  • Superintendent Dale McVey gave a teaser about the latest State Report Cards, saying that he felt the Board would be very pleased with the assessment of our District. I took that to mean that our academic team has been able to solve the problem of the several subgroups of students who failed to meet Annual Yearly Progress goals last year, and that our District will receive the Excellent rating we deserve. If so, that will certainly squelch the criticism that the District keeps spending more money, but getting lower State Report Card scores (see my earlier article on this).

The Board plans to host a Community Conversations session on Wednesday, July 23 at 7pm at the Central Office Annex in order to hear from the public. I encourage you to attend (watch for official announcements – the date may change).

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Roots of the Revolution

A few months ago, I became pretty impressed with what I observed about the way the Olentangy School Board was run. They are prompt about publishing the minutes of their meetings on their website, and even include audio recordings. Unlike our Board, their meetings often last an hour or more, with a good deal of discussion.

But as time has gone by, I've become less impressed and more disgusted with these folks. Last November, Jennifer Smith was elected to the Board for her first term. Her official bio on their web site says "Ms. Smith has a bachelor's degree in Political Science with a minor in Organizational Communication from The Ohio State University. Prior to her election on the school board she served as a Finance Counselor for Consumer Credit Counseling Service. She and her husband, Matt, have five children." These sound like good credentials for a Board member.

I don't know Ms. Smith, but perceive that she intends to be a voice of change and accountability. There are no other first term Board members, so she appears to starting with a 4-1 disadvantage against the incumbents. At an earlier meeting (April 8, 2008, audio at the 1:00 mark), she dared to suggest that Board members should actually read administrative contracts prior to approving them. She was chastised by Superintendent Scott Davis for seeking to change long standing Board policy.

Superintendent Davis recently resigned for health reasons, so the Board is now engaged in a search for a new Superintendent. An executive session was called to invite a search firm to make a presentation. That use of executive session certainly seems to be a violation of the Sunshine Laws, and they were called on it by resident Jay Siefring, who went so far as to file a complaint with the Ohio Attorney General's office. Board President Scott Galloway consulted with the district's attorney, who said this was a 'grey area' of the law. Appropriately, the Board decided to resolve this by repeating the executive session in a public meeting. Mr. Siefring seems to be a kindred spirit, and I hope to make contact with him. His comments at their April 11 meeting inspired a little déjà vu on my part (at the 2:50 mark).

In May, the Olentangy School Board enacted a new policy that would prohibit the possession – not just use – of recording devices in Executive Sessions, and part of the enforcement would be a requirement that Board members shall leave all electronic communication devices and all personal effects or accessories that could be used to conceal such devices, such as brief cases, purses, backpacks, book bags and overcoats, in the secure possession of the treasurer or designee before entering into executive session." Doesn't that sound a wee bit paranoid? (text provided at Jim Fedalo's blog, audio at 1:50:00)

The latest episode appears to deal with the fact that some of their own students have been declared ineligible for sports next year because those students asked to be allowed to remain at Liberty High School rather than shifting per the redistricting plan to Orange High School, which will open in the fall. The parents of these students have apparently been trying without much success to appeal the decision of the Administration, and so brought their case to the School Board at their June 24th meeting.

Ms. Smith tried to get a discussion of this situation on the Board's agenda for that night, and contacted President Scott Galloway on June 16th (eight days before this meeting) with that request. Mr. Galloway refused to amend the agenda, reportedly saying that Ms. Smith had no second for this agenda item. Doesn't this ignore the fact that the Board votes on the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, giving the Board the chance to remove the requested item if there is really no support?

So when the time for public participation came in the meeting, Ms. Smith stepped down from the Board table and stood to address the Board as a member of the public. President Galloway then asserted that "being a Board Member precludes you from acting in Public Participation." Ms. Smith disagreed – she claimed that a Board member is also a member of the public and very much has a right to address the Board during the public participation time. Mr. Galloway asked for a recess to consult the Board's attorney (audio at 18:16). The Board's attorney agreed with Ms. Smith, and she was given her 5 minutes, just as would any member of the public.

Ms. Smith is trying to bring change to the Olentangy Board, but is finding it all but impossible because she is a minority of one against the other four long-serving members. Meanwhile, I'm cheering Ms. Smith's persistence and inventiveness. I hope she's getting support from the Olentangy community.

School Boards have a personality. It's one part a function of the people currently sitting on the Board and one part the sum of its traditions – practices that are carried forward without question because "it's always been done that way." Tradition vs. Progress: It's a point of conflict in many organizations: commercial, civic and even churches. The initial cries for change come from the minority, who are squelched by a majority which is invested in the status quo. There are only a few ways out of this situation: a) the minority capitulates to the majority, nothing changes, and the minority withdraws – maybe even leaving the organization; b) the majority truly listens to the minority and works with it to find a new way of doing things; or, c) the minority grows impatient and seizes power.

Right now the Hilliard School Board is of the first type (as is the Olentangy School Board). While there are radical changes going on all around them – changes which demand radical thinking – they are hanging on to tradition and past models. The Hilliard School Board is going to get another shot of reality in November, when the levy comes up for vote. They should have been using the months since the March levy defeat to become a majority of the second kind: listening and changing. Sadly, there is no evidence of this happening. The November levy vote could well be the opening battle of our own revolution. Early/absentee voting begins in 88 days.

In November 2009, three Board seats – a majority – are up for election. It will the only opportunity until 2013 to seat a new majority and declare our independence from the past.

Happy 4th!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

If a Tree Falls at Camp Joy…

… will anyone care?

An article in this week's Northwest News reports that the general reaction to the effort to preserve the Camp Joy program for Hilliard 6th graders is being met with thunderous apathy.

It's not that no one cares. There is a group of parents who are working hard to keep the program alive for next year, after the School Board cut the program from 2008-2009 budget in response to the failure of the operating levy last March. To do so, the parents must raise the $50,000 which was the School District's contribution to the $220,000 total cost of the program (the rest is paid through the $140 registration fee required of each camper). They have a fundraiser scheduled for July 12, 11am to 1pm at Carrabba's on Trueman Blvd. No information was released as to how much of the $50,000 has been raised to date. I suspect they still have a long way to go.

They also need the parents of the 1,200 6th graders to submit their registration forms along with the $140 registration fee. So far they have just 75. With school out for the summer, it will be very tough to get the word out to all the parents, much less collect the money. Information sessions will be held at the Hilliard Branch of the Columbus Metro Library at 7pm on July 7 and July 14. Parents are being told to bring their checkbooks. District officials have set July 14 as the deadline for raising the money and receiving the registrations.

This will be interesting to observe. The most likely outcome is that insufficient numbers of parents and community members will care enough to allow the committee to reach the registration and fundraising goals, and the program will be cancelled. What happens next?

The School Board will feel vindicated in their decision. We can expect them to use this approach to test other cost-cutting decisions they'll have to make in the future. Pay-to-Play thinking will begin to encroach into academic areas as more and more programming takes on the appearance of being optional in the face of funding shortfalls.

We're caught in a political and economic Twilight Zone, and it seems clear that fundamental changes need to occur in the way our schools are organized and funded.

The folks of one extreme already have an answer: Turn it all over to the State of Ohio. Let state-level officials make decisions about how much tax Ohioans are going to pay, how that money gets distributed, and how it gets spent. I can get behind such a notion in principle, but in practice don't trust the politicians not to muck it up. As with so much of American politics, the agenda will be set by the lobbyists, not the people. The big winners would be the teachers' union and the construction industry.

My preference is to go to the other extreme: privatize our schools completely, but use tax money to ensure that every kid can attend an effective school, as defined by state standards. I liken this to the way food stamps work, and wrote a post on this back in January 2007, but here's the idea:

If food distribution worked like public schools, we would all be required to obtain our food at the closest neighborhood commissary. We wouldn't pay directly for the food – it would be paid for via property taxes. Regardless of the amount of property taxes we paid, we would each get a pre-loaded credit card which holds exactly the same amount of 'food credits.' When we get to the commissary, we have to use most of the credits for a basic food list deemed by the government to be appropriate for our healthy nutrition. We would have a few credits to spend on stuff we really like.

Of course, a black market would develop, and the folks with money would buy whatever food they like without regard to the fact that their government food credit card would go to waste.

Sounds stupid right? But it's exactly the way our public school system works.

What if we said that there are no more public schools, and parents are required to fund their kid's education directly? How apathetic would the parents be if they were writing checks for $1,000 per month per child to send their kids to school? Would all schools look the same, or might the school specialize – some for arts, some for science/math, some for athletics, etc. How much would they invest in buildings versus staff? I bet there would be a lot of creative variety, just as we see at the college level.

What about the families who can't afford $1,000/mo/child? As is the case with food stamps, each family's resources would be supplemented by public funding as needed.

I suspect School Boards (local and State) use the Pay-to-Play approach because they feel it's a way to imprint their will on the district: "We'll tell you what your tax money pays for, and you have to fund the rest with your own money." But maybe it's actually increasing the possibility that the public will cease being apathetic and instead engage in creating a more efficient and responsive school system.

Or not.