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).


  1. "People have to remember"????? Remember what?! We haven't been TOLD anything, what are we supposed to remember? And I agree
    that 9.5 mills is more than what the community can afford, regardless if they have to come back with another request in a year or two. Too bad they did not think of that when they agreed to the HEA contract, which was not only fiscally irresponsible but politically unsound.

  2. Hilliard CSD has done quite well on the standardized tests for years, but (as you pointed out) the overall designation has suffered recently due to missing the AYP measure. In 2005/2006, Hilliard met 25/25 indicators and in 2006/2007, Hilliard met 28/30 indicators. Both years, the Performance Index was over 100. Normally, this would have been enough to get an 'Excellent' rating. However, Hilliard ended up with 'Continous Improvement'.

    This year, Hilliard CSD has met 22/23 of the indicators according to the preliminary results. Hilliard missed the other by less than 1%. When the final results are released, this is likely to shift upward enough to make it 23/23. I expect that when the Report Card is released that Hilliard will meet all 30 indicators. I will still be surprised if this nets an 'Excellent' rating, due to AYP again.

    Dublin school officials have already braced their community to expect a 'Continuous Improvement' (commonly referred to as a 'C') designation due to missing AYP for a third year in a row. This will happen despite meeting all 30 indicators.

    While I feel that it is important that ALL students are served by their respective school districts, I feel that the system Ohio employs is flawed at worst and confusing at best.

    According to Dublin's website, Dublin CSD is asking state legislators to look into this. I believe that Hilliard CSD has done the same.

    Aside from the observations above, I can understand the need for accountability. However, I have some concerns that these standardized tests are being overemphasized. I think they need to be put in perspective and considered as just one measure of district's effectiveness. Not to mention, the State needs to come up with a system that is less confusing and misleading (IMHO).

  3. Perhaps we should do something like this -

  4. Thanks for the link to the Worthington story, here it is again as a clickable link

    It's an interest notion - to ask the community what they think the sustainable levy rate should be. For example, are people willing to see their property tax bill increase say 10% every three years to cover the cost of ever-increasing school employee compensation?

    That's ballpark would it would cost in our district, given the 3% base plus 4.15% step deal just negotiated between the Board and the HEA (be happy to share my back-of-the-envelope analysis if you want).

    If the community is okay with that - great. Passing a 10 mill levy this fall should be a piece of cake, as should another one in three years.

    I wonder if anyone in the school leadership is brave enough to ask the question...


  5. Thanks for the thoughts on the report card. If you're correct and we don't get the "Excellent" rating, then it doesn't matter what the rest of the component scores look like. Few folks will read past the headline...

  6. Paul, the property tax rate is unimportant. You need to calculate the increase in school taxes since that's what we are discussing.

  7. I disagree - most people don't even know what percentage the school taxes are of their total property taxes (63%), and really only want to know how much more they're going to be asked to fork out.

    But the answer is that the school component of their property taxes would go up about 15% every three years in this scenario.


  8. The evaluation scheme, by the state dept of education, is another mandate to track with no increase in funding to cover.
    I have no issues insuring we are educating every student in every district as the payback is a positive one, versus those who fail and cost us all more dollars

    I do have an issue with a system set up where you are succeeding yet failing at the same time.
    More educational fog based communication to confuse everyone and justify someones job in Col. in the State Dept of Education.
    Unfortunatly the regular public does not go into the details,
    as posted here.

    I also dont see people voting a levy down because of missing supposedly a couple of standards.
    I think they vote no because of how money is distributed.

    As has been posted repeatedly, and I am a big offender, the issue with passage of the levy in Hilliard will be

    1. Economic uncertainty and pressures on the everyday family
    2. Compensation increases that cannot be paid for without a huge tax increase.
    3. Entitlement, that is the way it is ideology. Yes , we all agree some raises are necessary, and step raises are part of the deal
    4. Any questions raised are treated as they are totally negative just because the questioner may not be in lock step with the powers to be.

    I believe a contract reopener to adjust the 7% + figures combined with a 3 year 4.5 mill levy can work.

    My own thoughts are that it will be business as usual, cuts to busing, athletics, music, arts,
    increased fees. No mention of compensation adjustments which would be the best way to go Short term

  9. My concern about passing the levy is that if we do, it will be business as usual (big raises, bloated admin, etc.) for the next three years until the music starts up again.

    I would consider voting yes if I had confidence that the BOE and HEA had real plans to streamline things and get salaries under control. Given our economic situation as a district currently, they have the gaul to give 3% raises with 4% step and then the pettiness to cancel Camp Joy? I still don't think the board "gets it". For the long term sanity of our districts financing, I have no choice but to say NO to the levy.

  10. I think if you are going to ask the question in terms of "how much are you willing to pay?" the answer is "It depends". You have to factor in economic conditions. I think school systems are basically "not for profit" enterprises, or should be. Costs should be tied to student population and rate of inflation. If you agree to a specific cost growth, then the Board and Admin will spend that money regardless of the real costs. They will give it away in raises and hires even if conditions don't warrant it. Then in lean times they will cry they need more because they didn't save for a rainy day. They should have never agreed to 7% contract without an approved levy. I blame them for the cost cuts that will have to come. They should be ashamed if they make petty cuts that hurt students and frighten parents. I don't know what we can do other than to watch them very carefully and make sure they know that we do remember. We remember what they did in spite of a levy defeat.

  11. Two points...

    1) I don't understand when people say I have no choice but to vote "NO".

    The very act of voting is expressing your choice. You may disagree with district policies and may even feel it is best to cut 100-200 teachers from the payroll. The fact of the matter is you are still making a choice.

    2) I agree that costs should be tied to inflation and increases in student enrollment. However, I'm also curious as to whether the costs of education have gone up even apart from that. I'm curious how much the additional testing has added to costs as well as the increase in the cost of educating the rising number of ELL (English Language Learner) students.

  12. ELL and Title teachers are a huge part of the cost increase in this district in the past 5 to 8 years. When we talk about getting rid of the "extras" (and I've been known to be one of them) we are really calling for a reduction in ELL teachers, reading tutors, etc. Sure there are some admin fluff positions and some teaching positions that fall into that category. But the bulk of expansion in staff has been in the special teachers (non-classroom teachers) side of the house. Problem is if we don't teach non-english students to read, then they don't pass the test. And we all know how important the almighty test is. The state can, and will, make a negative impact if a district is considered failing to meet requirements.

    Someone said it earlier, but in a different way. But we are "failing" while actually achieving in large part because of the ELL needs in our district.

    I come from a very small town. The schools are nice but the caliber of education is nowhere near what my kids receive here in central ohio. Our kids are some much better prepared and the curriculum is so much more advanced, yet my alma mater is considered to be "excellent" while Hilliard, Dublin, and others are "achieving" or "failing to achieve". Not a true indication of the value of the school or the community.

    Anyway, unfunded mandates have caused an influx of special teachers to meet poorly developed and implemented standards. So, the "problem" is clear.... too many special needs teachers. But not having them creates new and different problems. Not an easy solution.

  13. KJ,

    Well said... And THAT is the direction my second point was headed.