Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bold Action Needed

I sent the following message to the leaders of our school district today, with copies to the editors of the community newspapers. If you agree, please let them know.

To to the Leaders of the Hilliard City School District:*

Over the past several days, we have been watching a crisis developing in our economy while our national leaders do little to restore confidence. I grew up hearing stories about the Great Depression from my parents, who lived through it - as I suspect did most of yours. In retrospect, most students of the Depression have concluded that while a painful downturn might not have been avoided, the severity of the situation might have been substantially lessened had the Federal government reacted more quickly and decisively to protect the banking system. It wasn't the crash of the stock market that triggered the Depression, it was the failure of the Federal government to help the banking system restore confidence when a few banks collapsed.

I believe that you have a similar situation before you in regard to our school district.

I believe the turnout for this election will be on the order of 80%, or 33,000 voters, meaning it will take more than 16,500 votes in favor of the levy for it to pass. If the 26,810 voters in the March election vote exactly the same in this election (11,593 FOR, 15,217 AGAINST), the extra 6,000 voters in this election will have to vote nearly 4 to 1 in favor for passage. It's a formidable goal - all but impossible I fear.

I can think of one move you can make right now that might give this levy a chance of passage, one I suggested during Public Participation at the School Board meeting on August 11 -

- for all employees of the school district - Administrators, HEA and OAPSE, to put a one-year moratorium on salary increases for 2009.

For HEA and OAPSE members, this would mean using the 2008 salary grids for 2009, and the 2009 salary grids for 2010. Step increases would still be in effect; only the 3% base pay increases would be skipped. For Administrators, it would mean freezing salaries for 2009 at 2008 levels, and no more than 3% raises for 2010. I estimate that this move would reduce spending approximately $3 million/yr.

More importantly, it would signal to the people of the community that you understand their concerns and are willing to sacrifice a little for the good of all.

Otherwise I fear this levy has very little chance of passing. The consequence will be deep and destructive cutbacks in our district, followed by years of painful and divisive recovery.

You must act quickly. This is no time for 'business-as-usual' if you want to avoid this crisis.

Most sincerely,
Paul Lambert

* rick_strater@hboe.org; mailto:hboe.orgmary_kennedy@hboe.org; denise_bobbitt@hboe.org; andy_teater@hboe.org; david_lundregan@hboe.org; doug_maggied@hboe.org; lisa_whiting@hboe.org; dale_mcvey@hboe.org; brian_wilson@hboe.org; gary_heyder@hboe.org; mark_harrington@hboe.org

Thursday, September 25, 2008


In the September 24, 2008 issue of the Hilliard Northwest News, Hilliard Mayor Don Schonhardt is quoted as accusing someone – and I think it was me – of "'misinformation and outright distortion' concerning the annexation" of the Homewood and Hilliard School District property west of Alton-Darby Rd. The story reports the Mayor as saying:

"The annexation will not add to the number of students because the 494 acres to be annexed is already in the school district."

Yes, that's true. I never said it wasn't – I've been reporting just the opposite in fact. The question is how that land will be developed, and how that affects the economics of our school district.

The question the Mayor is ducking is this: If it is to be developed exactly as specified in the Big Darby Accord, how exactly does the City of Hilliard benefit from the annexation? This development just becomes more houses that have to be patrolled by Hilliard police officers and streets that have to be maintained. Why not just leave this land in the township and let someone else deal with those costs?

I suspect the answer is that the developers want a higher net density than the Big Darby Accord (BDA) allows, because there are subtle differences in the language the BDA uses versus what the mayor has proposed in his own development design. And the Mayor likes to please developers.

The Mayor is quoted as saying "Residential units, if any, built on the Homewood acreage … will be consistent with the Darby Accord plans that call for density of one unit per acre."

Take a look at the BDA Land Use Map. Notice that some of the parcels of land to be annexed (top center of the map - the blue block with the * in the middle is the Bradley site) are marked as "Residential Rural: 0.2 – 0.5 DU/ac." A "DU" is a dwelling unit, or a house in this case. Turned around, a density factor of 0.2 DU/ac is the same thing as one house every 5 acres, while 0.5 DU/ac means one house every two acres. None of this acreage is designated to have one unit per acre as the Mayor claims. In other words, on this basis alone, the Mayor intends to put double the number of houses on this parcel as is allowed by the BDA. That's one distortion.

About half of the annexation parcel (other than the school property), is designated as either "Protected" or "Tier 1" conservation zones. The BDA defines Tier 1 zones this way: "Land within Tier 1 is considered the primary priority for protection through land acquisition and other programs. Encompassing about 5,800 acres, resources within Tier 1 are significant in maintaining the overall health of the watershed. Resources in Tier 1 include the 100 year floodplain, wetlands, critical groundwater recharge and pollution potential zones."

In other words, a good deal of this parcel is not supposed to be developed at all, but rather is to be allowed to remain a zone in which Hamilton Run is left in - or restored to - a natural state.

Here's where a technicality comes into play – what acreage is counted in the denominator of this density ratio? Some would say it is the 'gross acreage' whether developable or not. In the Brown Township Comprehensive Plan, which serves as a basis for the BDA, another approach is used, and was spelled out clearly by saying "Maximum of 1.0 net DUs per acre" and an "Open Space ratio of at least 50% of the development tract after removal of floodplains and rights of way."

For example, if you have a 100 acre parcel, but 20 acres of it is a floodplain, you have only 80 acres which enters into the density calculation. On those 80 acres, you can build to an average density of one house per acre, or 80 houses, but you have to leave 50%, or 40 acres as open space. So the houses, and all the streets and utilities have to sit on 40 acres, meaning the average lot size will be less than a half-acre. Overall, you can put 80 houses on the 100 acre parcel, and they have to be clustered into 40 of those acres, away from the conservation zones.

There's one more technicality. Both the Brown Twp plan and the BDA plans define "50% open space" to mean that half of a parcel must be left undeveloped. Mayor Schonhardt uses different arithmetic. To him it means that for every acre that is developed, one-half acre is left open: develop two acres, leave one open. On a 100 acre parcel, the Mayor's arithmetic leads to 100 dwellings on 66 acres with 33 acres of open space. If 20 of those acres are floodplain as in the example above, he would have them included in the 33 acres of open space. In the end, his way results in 20% more houses (100 vs 80), and 18% less open space.

Second distortion.

The Mayor goes on to take credit that there were only 17 residential building permits issued in Hilliard this year, due to his administration's diligent control of residential growth. I guess the nationwide collapse of the housing market has nothing to do with it. Then he dumped blame on the 'previous administration' by noting that in 2002, Hilliard issued 324 permits, leaving out the fact that he was the President of City Council at the time, and was fighting then-Mayor Tim Ward, who was truly trying to bring residential growth under control.

The Mayor is not to blame for the housing crisis, but the drop off in residential building permits isn't his doing either. I'd bet the City approved each and every residential building permit brought to it by a developer. Third distortion.

His parting shot was this: "Had some other communities in the school district, like Columbus, followed our lead, we might not have needed a third high school."

Let's bring some other facts to bear on this one as well. First of all, residential development is not necessarily a bad thing for our schools, but it has to be balanced with a corresponding amount of commercial development, otherwise an ever-increasing fraction of the cost of running our schools transfers to the existing property owners in the district – both homeowners and businesses. This has been my primary message since the beginning of SaveHilliardSchools.org.

Indeed, there have been lots of dwelling units built within the part of the school district which lies within the city limits of Columbus. The question is whether there has been commensurate commercial development to share the school funding burden created by those new homes. So I went to the Franklin County Auditor's website, and compiled a list of the Hilliard school tax paid by just the Columbus businesses along Rome-Hilliard Rd between Roberts and I-70, which is also where most of the residential expansion in question took place.

What I found is that of the 54 businesses I looked up, a total of $2.4 million per year is paid to Hilliard Schools, with seven of those businesses paying over $100,000/yr each.

The average Hilliard homeowner pays about $3,500/yr in school property tax, so these businesses pay about the same as nearly 700 homes. Given that, I'd have to say that Columbus is doing a pretty good job of backing up residential development with commercial development. I don't know how well managed or controlled it is, but the point is that I don't think it's been harmful to our school district, and may in fact have produced positive financial impact.

Will the Mayor produce the same kind of balance when developers are allowed to start building house on this annexed land? If the Mayor intends to allow 500 houses to be built there, then he needs to recruit businesses that will pay about $1.75 million/yr in school tax. To do so, they will need to construct new buildings valued at more than $125 million. The new Verizon building gets us maybe 20% of the way there. Those kinds of deals are few and far between.

But we need those first – before more houses are built.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Buying Influence

Someone recently pointed me to a website called OpenSecrets. It's a wealth of information about campaign finance at the national level (I wish we had something like that for state and local elections!). One interesting item is the list of "Heavy Hitters" – the organizations which contribute the most to political campaigns and issues.

Note that the #7 contributor is the National Education Association, giving more than $28 million over the past 10 years, and over $1 million for the 2008 election cycle. In the 2008 election cycle, 86% went to Democrats and 15% to Republicans.

The teachers and other certified employees of the Hilliard School District are nearly all members of the Hilliard Education Association, which is affiliated with both the Ohio Education Association and the National Education Association.

Other breakdowns:

In Congressional races, $671,000 of NEA money has gone to incumbents, and $146,000 to newcomers. In House races, 167 Democrats got an average of $2,900 each, while 23 Republicans received $2,300 each. For Senate seats, 20 Democrats received $6,000 each and 3 Republicans received $2,000 each. Interestingly, one of those Republicans was John McCain, who received $4,550 – as a hedge I'm guessing since they placed much larger bets on Hillary Clinton, who received $22,000, and on Barak Obama at $21,000.

At a more local level, we have race for the US House seat representing Ohio's 15th District (including Hilliard), which is currently held by the retiring Deborah Pryce. The candidates are Steve Stivers (R), Mary Jo Kilroy (D), and Don Eckhart. On their list of top contributors, I found it interesting that the Ohio State University PAC was a top contributor to Ms. Kilroy, at $17,300.

Note that a "PAC" or Political Action Committee is not the organization itself – OSU in this case – but rather a group made up of employees and immediate families. When my company was purchased by Worldcom in 1998, I quickly found that all executives were expected to contribute, via payroll deductions no less, to the Worldcom PAC, which was of course controlled by the CEO, Bernie Ebbers (whose current address is a federal prison, so I guess it didn't help that much). It would be interesting to know whether the contributors to the OSU PAC are the university executives or faculty members.

Many of Ms. Kilroy's other large contributors are labor unions, as would be expected for a Democratic candidate.

Mr. Stivers' largest contributors are corporations – again no surprise for a Republican candidate. They include American Electric Power, Limited Brands, Huntington Bancshares, Nationwide, Scotts, Worthington Industries, National City, Children's Hospital and Wendy's.

These aren't final numbers. Most big contributors dole out their money over the course of the election cycle. While one reason to do this might be to make sure they don't commit all their money to a losing candidate, another powerful reason for contributors to withhold money is that in the home stretch of the campaign, candidates can become increasingly eager to raise money so as to overwhelm the opponent's campaign. Because of that eagerness, big contributors can demand additional commitments from the candidate. It's called leverage.

This is what I despise about modern American politics. It doesn't work at all like they teach you in the 8th grade social studies. Money plays a huge role in who gets elected, all the way from President of the United States to member of a local school board. The deals that are struck by candidates to get that money is what drives the agenda of government bodies. All that stuff they say on TV is just to get elected. I'm sure there's someone out there who keeps track of campaign promises versus promises delivered once elected, and I suspect it doesn't look very good.

Candidate Ted Strickland promised to fix Ohio's school funding problems, I'm sure to gain the endorsement and campaign contributions of the Ohio Education Association, not just to win votes from the public. The teachers' unions of Ohio are looking for the state government to enact laws that gets the unions out of the situation of having their compensation tied to local school levies, and very much wants legislation that would underwrite the cost of their salaries and benefits with first dibs on the state treasury. They have been able to get neither the Governor nor the General Assembly to take action on those wishes, so they tried to bypass our elected officials and put a referendum on the ballot.

Governor Ted Strickland opposed the Getting It Right For Ohio's Future amendment, much to the OEA's surprise I suspect, and the amendment campaign is now essentially dead. He understands that this amendment would create a super-legislature that would keep demanding more and more, regardless of tax revenues and other needs. I couldn't agree more.

I like what I see so far in Governor Strickland. But I wonder what he owes to whom

Monday, September 22, 2008

Zero Sum Game

Readers of SaveHilliardSchools.org know that I am a critic of Mayor Schonhardt's homebuilder-friendly actions (e.g. the proposed annexation of the land near Bradley High School owned by Homewood Homes and other residential developers).

But I read with joy the recent Columbus Dispatch article about the potential of landing a significant Verizon operation in Hilliard, creating perhaps 500 jobs and a valuable piece of real estate. I especially like that the deal would include a 'keep-whole' provision for the school district, even though the City has agreed to abate the property taxes for 15 years (note that the City gets its revenue via income taxes paid by the Verizon employees). If this deal comes to fruition, the Mayor and especially Development Director David Meeks are to be congratulated.

But we have to remember that when jobs are moved from one municipality to another, rather than new jobs being created, our win is someone else's loss. In this case, 200 of the jobs are supposed to be moved from Dublin. But those jobs are supposed to be replaced by jobs that move to Dublin from other places. Someone is going to come up short. We've been on the losing end too, such as when the City of Columbus lured Gates-McDonald downtown, or when Dana moved its manufacturing operation to Knox County.

It's a tough game, but it's the only one we've got. The trick is for the municipal government and the school board to see themselves as partners in serving the same community. The municipal government cannot allow new homes to be built faster than commercial development, or the existing residents of this community will not be able to keep up with the every-rising cost of running the school district. The Master Plan says the City of Hilliard needs 1.7 jobs paying $40,000/yr to fund for the services demanded by each new house.

So the breakeven for the City is 295 new houses as long as each Verizon job averages $40,000/yr. Since this is a call center, the jobs will pay less and the number of jobs required will be higher - 2.7 jobs per house if the average pay is $25,000/yr. That equates to more like 180 houses.

But what does that do to the school district?

Assuming each new house has 0.8 kids, it costs $10,000/kid/yr to run the district, and we need about 1/3rd of that money to come from commercial real estate taxes (another third to be generated by the residential real estate taxes on the house where the 0.8 kid lives, and the final third from the State of Ohio), this means that to keep these school revenue proportions, developers should be allowed to build 1 house for each $2,000 in new school tax paid by commercial entities.

It takes a property value of $155,000 to generate $2,000 in school taxes (pre-levy), so to build 180 houses, the new Verizon building would need to be valued at $28 million to keep the school whole. That's possible as the new BMW Financial building was valued at $23 million.

So I think that's the deal. If we're successful in recruiting Verizon, then Homewood (et al) can build 180 more houses - but that's it until another big corporate citizen moves in. If we keep to this pattern, then our community can continue to grow, and our property taxes will need to increase only to fund increases in pay and benefits (another conversation), and not also growth.

That's still a challenge of course. The even better solution would be to build no new houses, and using all of the Verizon revenue to fund all the increasing costs of running our district, keeping the student population the same, and getting out of the routine of passing new property tax levies every 2-3 years.

This goes back to my primary question - why annex the Homewood (et al) land at all?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Do Overs

Two members of our State Board of Education, Colleen Grady and Susan Haverkos, write a blog called State of Ohio Education. Ms. Grady wrote an article recently addressing the number of Ohio high school graduates who must take remedial courses in English and/or Math. The Ohio Board of Regents publishes a report on this, so of course I looked to see how the graduates of Hilliard City Schools performed. Here's the statistics for the Class of 2006:

Number of graduates: 977
Number entering college: 488 (50%)
Average ACT score: 23
Percent requiring Remedial Math: 22%
Percent requiring Remedial English: 8%

Here's some other Franklin County Schools for comparison (ACT/% Math/% English)

Bexley: 23 / 7% / 5%
Columbus: 19 / 48% / 26%
Catholic Diocese: 24 / 15% / 8%
Dublin: 24 / 13% / 5%
New Albany: 23 / 8% / 12%
South-Western: 21 / 41% / 18%
Upper Arlington: 25 / 13% / 4%
Worthington: 24 / 19% / 8%

I think we compare pretty well with the other suburban schools in the list, as we should expect, although our math number would seem to require a deeper inspection.

One other cut of the data is to examine what influence the graduates' high school curriculum has on the need for remedial classes once reaching college. There's not a lot of surprise here: For Hilliard kids who don't take a college prep curriculum in high school, 35% will need remedial classes, compared to 26% who take the minimum college prep classes. However, of the kids who completed the Ohio Core curriculum, only 11% required remedial classes when starting college.

One question might be why more graduates who decide to enroll in college didn't take college prep classes in high school, and I ask that question from the perspective of economic efficiency. To some extent, it seems like these kids are wasting part of the money we spend paying for their high school education by taking an easier curriculum, then showing up to college unprepared. Then we bear some of the cost of their 'do-over' when they get to college, at least if it is a state-funded college here in Ohio.

In other countries, such as Germany, Japan and India, kids have to compete to get into college prep high schools (which are separate from their vocational schools), and then compete again to get into college. There's no skating through high school if they want to get into college.

And you can't goof off and expect the rest of us to carry you.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A National Issue

The following story was just published in Education Week, a widely-read periodical for the educators of our country. The writer is a former teacher who was later elected to the School Board in his community of Cherry Hill, New Jersey (suburban Philadelphia). It feels like he is writing about us, which suggests that our situation is not that uncommon.

Common-Sense Ways to Improve Education Without a Tax Increase

By Kenneth E. Hartman

In the latest attempt by a state to control the cost of public education, the New Jersey legislature recently gave approval to a new law limiting the number of sick days an outgoing public school superintendent can cash in on his or her way out the door. It also seeks to pass legislation that would move school elections from April to the November general elections to engage more voters in local school board races.

New Jersey, like her sister states, is struggling to offer a high-quality education at an affordable price. Interventions, such as financially penalizing districts who spend "too much" on administrative costs, have done little to control property taxes.

The truth is that both our states and the federal government are broke. New Jersey, for example, is $32 billion dollars in debt, and the federal government is more than $9 trillion dollars in debt. We must face the fact that there is no cavalry coming from our state capitals or from Washington to bail out local school districts and taxpayers. We the People must find a common-sense solution to enhance learning and stop pitting good people (young vs. retired) and good communities (urban vs. suburban) against one another.

Twenty-five years as an educator has taught me a lot about effective school districts, but nothing has given me more insight into how public schools work than the past year as an elected school board member in New Jersey.

Here, drawn from my experiences, are a few common-sense ways to improve public education, without raising local property taxes:

Control benefit and pension costs. In most districts, nearly 85 cents of every school-tax dollar received goes to pay for staff salaries and benefits. As salaries have risen to respond to market demands, teachers' contributions to their health-care premiums have not increased. In fact, few public school teachers in most states pay any amount of money toward those premiums.

In addition, most states have out-of-control teacher pensions: They are going deeper into debt to maintain a system that permits retirement at age 55, with a pension of up to 65 percent of the highest year's salary, plus lifetime health-care coverage for the teacher retirees and often their spouses.

Contributions to health-insurance premiums could be phased in and be prorated for newer teachers, who make less money than their senior colleagues.

Lack of action today will result in many states' being forced to declare bankruptcy in less than 10 years, and to have no choice but to make draconian cuts in pension benefits paid to currently retired teachers.

Pay to play. Families should pay a small student-activities fee for their children to play a school sport, participate in a school club, or be in a school play. Families on a free or reduced-price lunch program could be offered a fee waiver (there is little evidence to show that a student-activities fee reduces participation in extracurricular activities).

Corporate and university partnerships. State and federal tax incentives are needed to entice corporations to financially support local schools. Likewise, colleges could, for example, use their Federal Work-Study funds to pay their work-study students to serve as online tutors for local K-12 students, or offer online courses for schools to share.

Create a K-11 graduation option. Millions of students are ready for college after completing 11th grade, as evidenced by the plethora of kids taking mostly Advanced Placement courses in their senior year. I say, let them go. Students who are ready could receive half the money we would save by not educating them for another year (from $5,000 to $10,000) in the form of a college scholarship.

Stop reinventing the wheel. An ever-changing curriculum is costly and has resulted in teachers being confused and suspicious of the "latest" new direction. As a result, most teachers in America pretty much teach what they want.

The cost-benefit ratio of implementing a new curriculum every five to six years should be questioned by local school boards. Moreover, do we really need 15,000 curriculum departments across the country?

Use the technology we bought. Nationally, we've spent upwards of $60 billion on educational technology, with little evidence that it has had a significant impact on student achievement.

But technology can enhance classroom learning, and it does not require that we buy another gadget. With a single computer and Internet access, students could collaborate on a global-warming project with students in China, publish an essay on the Web for experts to evaluate, or plug in a $20 webcam and see and talk to leaders around the globe.

While local school board members may have the will to make meaningful changes, they don't always have the way. The way requires all elected leaders, local and state, to band together in a single voice to stop the unaffordable path we have been on for too long.

It is fear and mistrust that prevent shared ownership of this problem. It is fear and mistrust that inhibit creative solutions and cloud judgments. And it is fear and mistrust that encourage us to run from the problem.

We can't afford not to operate a public school system that includes quality teachers, safe and functional facilities, and an internationally benchmarked curriculum. But, at the same time, we can't afford a system that we can't afford.

Kenneth E. Hartman was elected to the board of education in Cherry Hill, N.J., in 2007. The opinions and ideas expressed in this essay are his own and do not represent those of the board, individual board members, or district employees. He is the recipient of the 2007 Educator of the Year award given by the University of Pennsylvania, and can be contacted at drkenhartman@yahoo.com.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Annexation of Bradley

On September 8, 2008 the City of Hilliard took its first formal steps to initiate the annexation and development of thousands of acres of land west of Alton-Darby Rd, in the Big Darby Accord area.

As I wrote in April 2007, there is much more to this story than is being reported in the local media (Columbus Dispatch; Hilliard Northwest News; ThisWeekHilliard). I have just submitted the following to the Hilliard Northwest News as a Letter to the Editor. It is longer than they like, but I hope they see merit in printing it anyway:

You reported that the Hilliard Planning, Projects and Services Committee introduced a resolution stating "it has the capacity to provide water and sewer services to Hilliard Bradley High School." I think you missed the key storyline.

The reason there is capacity to serve the high school and a potential new middle school is that the Hilliard City School District has already spent $834,000 of taxpayer money to construct mile long water and sewer pipelines from Alton-Darby Rd near Darby Creek Elementary School to the Bradley site.

These pipelines are in an easement obtained from Homewood Homes. This easement agreement is the story, and it was never disclosed to the public.

A key provision of the easement agreement is that Homewood is permitted to tap into these pipelines at no charge when it starts building houses. In other words, some of the money raised by our last bond levy is now being used to provide direct benefit to a developer.

Our School Board also agreed that if Homewood Homes requests annexation into the City of Hilliard, the School Board would request annexation as well. Why was this important enough to Homewood to put it in the easement agreement?

The approximately $5,000,000 in annual payroll that will be paid to the staff of Bradley would become subject to Hilliard City income taxes, generating approximately $100,000/yr of new income for the City. Could there be a "scratch-my-back, I'll scratch yours" arrangement between Homewood and the City: Homewood receives the benefits of friendly zoning policies, while the City gains a significant new revenue source? The pawn in this deal is the School Board, who was maneuvered into abandoning the land they already owned on Cosgray Rd (since sold to another developer) and purchasing a piece of land well away from water and sewer services.

This annexation request was not initiated by the School Board, with Homewood merely going along for the ride. It is Homewood and the other developers who are driving this annexation, evidenced by the fact that the adjacent Brown Elementary property is not included in the request. Why? Because the developer-friendly Ohio annexation laws provide a mechanism for 'expedited annexation' when the parcel is less than 500 acres. With the elementary parcel, this request would exceed that.

What's the advantage of expedited annexation? Ans: Neither the township nor county governments can object except for reasons specified in the law. In fact, no public hearings must be held, and the county commissioners are REQUIRED to approve the annexation. Appeals by the public are not permitted. As long as the developer and the city are in agreement, it's a done deal.

As noted in The Columbus Dispatch, this is the beginning of what could be a 2,000 home development. At the ratio of 0.8 school age kids per new home used by the school district, this means 1,600 new students – the equivalent of one more high school which all of us would pay to build and staff. This will not help our funding problem. Residential development is our funding problem.

Paul Lambert

It is also worth reading what the Darby Creek Association has to say about the way this land development effort has been carried out. Note that the Dan Nichter referenced in their newsletter is the same Dan Nichter who now sits on the Hilliard City Council. There is more maneuvering to be done, so it never hurts (the developers) to have another friendly face on the public body that controls land use policy, does it?

This link will produce the whole list of articles in this blog about development. It will take a little time to wade through it, but if you are new to this blog - these articles are necessary background for every member of our community.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Class Warfare

White vs. Black. Rich vs. Poor. Urban vs. Rural. Red vs. Blue. English vs. Spanish. Creation vs. Evolution. Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life.

It seems like American society is defined by all of these conflicting interests, especially now that Presidential campaigns seem to fill the gap between elections in much the same way that Christmas pre-sale advertisements start somewhere around the 4th of July.

America has long been described as a melting pot, like what you get when you mix all the various colors of PlayDoh together – gray (come on, you've all done it).

I think maybe we're more like a bucket of marbles each covered with a particular shade of paint which reflects our beliefs and takes a very long time to dry. We tend to congregate with other marbles that are painted about the same color as ourselves, so when my wet paint rubs off on you, and vice versa, we end up about the same as when we were before.

Sure, the paint color components that make up our ethnicity may fade over time. No one in the rich neighborhoods shudders when a Black family moves in any more, at least I hope not. But we wholeheartedly support economic discrimination: if you can't afford a house in my upscale suburban neighborhood, you can't send your kids to school here. Po' folks keep out. That melting pot idea isn't for you until you get rich and learn how to behave yourself.

I think one of most gut-wrenching conflicts ahead of us may be along generational lines. We'll see it in the Presidential election this time. Barak Obama and John McCain are nearly 30 years different in age. Interesting that they each chose running mates who bring the average age of each pair to about the same point, isn't it?

And while we Boomers have funded Social Security for our parents and grandparents through our sheer numbers, who is going pay for our Social Security benefits given that our children's generation is smaller? Will we make them sacrifice to support us? It's supposed to be the other way around isn't it?

A reader recently alerted me to a blog called Schoolhouse Rock, whose author has been writing about the conflict in several school districts between senior teachers who like the traditional approach of rewarding teachers for longevity, and the younger teachers who want to be rewarded for performance.

One of the more interesting of these is in the District of Columbia, in which the superintendent of the public schools has proposed a program in which teachers can choose between two plans: a) to trade tenure for a large pay increase (ie working on one-year contracts); or, b) the traditional seniority-based approach, but at lower pay levels (with longer/continuing contracts). However, since the teachers' union is the sole bargaining entity for all teachers, and the teachers' union is controlled by the most senior teachers, the union President has come out in opposition of the superintendent's proposal and is supporting a traditional contract. At least one young teacher is pretty angry about this, as are her commenters.

I've proposed that our teachers' union (and all other employees) accept a one-year rollback in their raise schedule in order to preserve most if not all the jobs of the most junior teachers who will get laid off if the levy doesn't pass. I think this action would demonstrate that the teachers understand the state of mind of the voters, and all-but-guarantees the passage of the levy.

I've received no response to my proposal, and so have to assume that the leadership of the HEA prefers to bet – not their jobs, but rather the jobs of the most junior teachers – that the levy will pass.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Election Math

I was just reviewing the numbers from the March levy vote, which can be found here on the website of the Franklin County Board of Elections.

There were a total of 26,810 valid votes cast on the levy, and the outcome was 11,593 For (43%) and 15,217 Against (57%). The difference is 3,624 votes, but that's not how much the levy lost by. With 26,810 votes cast, it would have required only half plus one, or 13,406 votes to pass the levy. In other words, if only 1,813 people had vote For instead of Against, the levy would have passed.

The Nov election is almost surely going to have greater turnout. I think it will be similar to Nov 2004, when it was around 80% in Hilliard. I don't know the current count of registered voters in our school district, but let's say it's around 42,000 – about what it was in Nov 2007. If there is 80% turnout, it means 33,600 votes will be cast.

For the levy to pass, it will require 16,801 votes in favor of the levy.

Let's assume every voter who voted in the March 08 election will vote again this Nov, and will vote exactly the same as they did in March.

That would mean that for the levy to pass, it will require all of the 11,593 votes For from the March election, plus 5,208 new votes For the levy.

For the levy to be defeated again, all it would take is the 15,217 Against votes from the March election, plus 1,584 new voters to vote Against.

In other words, on a marginal basis the votes have to be 3-to-1 in favor of the levy in order for it to pass, if no one changes their vote from March.

Pretty tall order.

The School Board and the Administration has taken an interesting stance, saying essentially: If you pass this 6.9 mill levy, we will still have to make $3 million in cuts, but aren't going to put any effort into identifying what those cuts might be. But if the levy is defeated, we know exactly what $11 million will be cut.

Folks, I'm not even sure that $3 million is the right number – it matches an extremely rough estimate I made and used in my address to the Board at their August 11 meeting. This number could easily be off by a $million or more either way. I'm not so sure the Treasurer did his own math and came up with the same number I suggested, or whether they're just using my guesstimate.

If $3 million is the right number, why wouldn't the Superintendent go to the list of $11 million in cuts already identified, and show which ones would have to be cut to achieve $3 million in budget reductions?

It looks to me like you could say that the Administrative Staff, Classified Staff and Transportation reductions would be carried out even if the levy does pass. Those add up to $2.6 million, so a little more would be needed, but nearly all teaching positions and programming could be maintained (there are many more permutations of course).

Or the employees could all agree to a 3% rollback of their salaries, and no one has to lose their job and no programming would have to be cut. I don't see what other action has a prayer of getting this levy passed frankly. And we do need it to pass to buy time to get the finances of this District straightened out.

Assuming that we all agree that the teachers, staff and administrators deserve a raise at some point, and that we can assume there will be no bailout from the State of Ohio in the next couple of years, it's a foregone conclusion that we're going to need to pass another levy sometime.

I'm proposing that if we pass this one now, and then all work hard to get things squared away, we should be able to make the interval to the next levy longer than we've seen in the past - maybe by a couple of years.

But if the levy is defeated, our school leadership - which includes the School Board, the Administration and the union leaders - are going to immediately start hacking away at a district we've spent years building. Once those teachers, staff members and administrators are laid off, we'll have little chance of ever getting them back even if we do pass a levy in 2009.

Don't put all the blame on the school leaders either. We've all been asleep at the switch for years, pretty much ignoring the fiscal operations of our District. Finally, we're seeing a spark of public engagement, and I think we have a real chance to get things back under control.

But we can't blow it up before we get there.