Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cart Before the Horse

The following are the comments I made to the Board of Education during their meeting on October 27, 2008:
Your key campaign promise in this levy effort is Accountable Education. You have promised to create an Auditing and Accountability Committee to monitor and report on the fiscal operations of the district.
While that's commendable, you're putting the cart before the horse.
We're in a battle to find ways to maintain the level of excellence in our schools while keeping the cost affordable for the community. One could argue that dealing with the tension between those two dimensions is the primary responsibility of the School Board.
A key to doing that is effective long-range strategic planning. You don't win the battle though auditing or by holding people accountable after the fact. A friend of mine once said that auditors are the people who come in after the battle and shoot the wounded.
I would have been more impressed if you had also said that you were forming a Strategic Planning Team.
Because the issue here is trust. Trust is increased when you do three things.
  1. Say what you intend to do. In other words – Communicate your Plan
  2. Actually do what you said you were going to do
  3. Evaluate and report on your performance relative to the Plan, and then make adjustments. This is where auditing and accountability comes into play – at the end of the process.
The more times you do this – as an individual or as an organization – the more trust you are granted.
Right now, you still need a strategic plan. Maybe you have one, but haven't communicated it to the public. But I don't think you have one. It should have been the central topic for your Board retreat this summer. Instead that session was mostly spent receiving staff reports, not planning.
I know what strategic planning looks like. I spent a good part of my career as a high level executive in a large corporation. I'm here to help if you want it. If you want nothing to do with me – that's fine. There are other experienced executives in our community who I'm sure are better planners than me.
The point is that you need a plan, and you need to communicate the plan. Then you execute the plan and keep the public informed how you're doing compared to the plan. And because every plan is obsolete the moment you put it on paper, you need to commit to continuously reviewing the plan and adjusting it so that it stays relevant as conditions change.
Don't surprise the public. Give us your long-range view and allow us to help you shape it into a plan for our future.
Let the professionals you have hired deal with running the educational operations. None of you are experts in this field anyway. Your job is all about trust, because that's what is needed for our education professionals to have access to the funding they require to do the job we expect of them.
It starts with a plan. Let me know how I can help.
ps - If asked, I would certainly serve on this committee, even though I think their concept and the charter for this committee is flawed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

KJ Says: Make Your Voice Heard

The following is a message from KJ, a frequent commenter on this blog and an active contributor to our community.

One of the most important things that Paul's site has offered is the ability for various viewpoints to be expressed and discussed. A by-product of this "conversation" is not only an education of how the district operates but also a shared idea of how to make it better. Independent of one's stance on the upcoming levy, we all share one thing in common: We have a desire to make this district better.

Some believe we should send a message and vote down the levy now while others believe we should pass this levy and then get to work fixing the core problems that plague this district. Regardless of your position, you will have the opportunity to cast your vote, as you see fit, regarding the 6.9 mil levy that is on the November 4th ballot. Another important opportunity we have is to put the district on notice of our expectations for the coming years. Nothing is more powerful than an informed public that let's its representatives know where they stand. In this case, our representatives are 5 board members that comprise the Hilliard Board of Education. Additionally, we have influence on both the HEA and Administration, as a major portion of their revenue stream comes from us, the community.

I'm not asking you to vote one way or another, but I am asking you to communicate your position to the district* and the reasons why. Also, I encourage you to lay out your expectation of outcomes to either RECEIVE your vote or KEEP your vote in future elections. I offer two documents (one for those that vote for the levy and one for those who vote against the levy) as a guide for your communications with the district. Feel free to use all of my words or none of my words, I only offer these documents as guides. I just ask that all of us communicate our expectations to the district and hold them accountable to achieve those outcomes. Either way, the groundswell of public interest does not stop with this election…… The real work only begins!

I appreciate the candid discussion on this site and those that participate in this fruitful dialogue.


* Our district leaders:

Denise Bobbitt, Board President;
Andy Teater, Board Member;
Dave Lundregan, Board Member;
Doug Maggied, Board Member;
Lisa Whiting, Board Member;
Dale McVey, Superintendent;
Brian Wilson, Treasurer;
Rick Strater, President of HEA;
Gary Heyder, President of OAPSE, Local #310

Friday, October 24, 2008

It Goes Both Ways

In her blog, retired Ohio teacher Kathy Bracy has published a string of posts in which she and others are outraged that the State Teacher's Retirement Fund has lost a pile of money in the stock market and other investments of late. In their latest blog, they're crying for the suspension of bonus payments to STRS executives "during this time of economic upheaval."
First of all, one would presume that the bonus packages paid to these managers would be based on how they performed over some period of time, meaning you wouldn't pay them any bonus unless the investment portfolio had grown in value by the target amount. So my first assumption is that these bonuses are set to be paid because the STRS portfolio generated very good returns their last fiscal year. Presumably the STRS members have been happy to pay bonuses to these folks in the past, and would have been happy to pay out these bonuses as well had the stock market not tanked.
So now the STRS members want to reach back a year and take money away from managers they hired to generate those results. The justification is that this year is going to suck, and a lot of money has been lost, so therefore the managers should sacrifice bonuses they have already earned…
… in order to pay to the retired teachers benefits they feel they have already earned. Seems duplicitous doesn't it?
Americans have been feeling pretty cocky about their stock market skills. After all, they've seen their portfolios climb steadily over the past 30 years since the development of the 401(k), albeit with a couple of bumps along the way. Little did they understand that they weren't riding the investment market to higher levels of value, they were just driving the prices up by chasing investments with all that 401(k) money. The saying goes: "All boats rise with the tide."
Retirement fund managers were caught in a trap. Even if they were smart enough to know a dangerous bubble was developing, they had to go along for the ride because their members expected to share in the extraordinary opportunity, even if they didn't understand why it was happening.
Now the bubble has burst, they've taken a huge paper loss, and they want to hold someone accountable. The first victims in their crosshairs are their own fund managers, the same ones who apparently made them so much money in the past that the STRS members granted them these lucrative bonus programs.
The STRS members face a serious situation: a big loss in the value of their portfolio jeopardizes the ability to fund the pension benefits of both the current retirees and those who have yet to retire. But they have an interesting backstop – state law. Section 3307.28 of the Ohio Revised Code gives STRS the power to increase the contribution required by the employers (ie the School Board) as necessary (up to 14%) to prevent funding shortfalls. So when the STRS portfolio takes a hit, the burden can be transferred back to the taxpayers to make up the difference.
What happens if the hit is really large, as is happening now? We can be pretty sure that the teachers' union – spearheaded by the Ohio Education Association – would lobby our legislators aggressively to get this 14% limit raised. They have a strong voice, as OEA is a large contributor to the campaigns of state politicians.
Where is a school district supposed to come up with this additional money? That's easy: ORC 3307.30 says we have to raise our taxes with another levy. What if the levy doesn't pass? Got that covered too – ORC 3307.31 says the State will just withhold it from their normal state funding payments to the district.
I wish my 401(k) had that kind of backing. How about you?

An Update on Bradley

As the crow flies, our home sits 600 yards from the main building of the Bradley High School campus. It is clearly visible from our bedroom windows, and during the early days of construction, our place was covered with the dust raised by the ground preparation process. We have a new neighbor, and it's going to change everything about what it's like to live here.

That's okay with us, although I'm sure I'm not speaking for all of our good friends and neighbors who live in our little corner of the county because of the solitude and beauty of the farm fields, woods and streams. We'll miss that too, but we're at that stage of life when we're ready to downsize from five acres and a family-sized house to something more appropriate for empty-nesters. When the real estate market recovers, we expect that our place will be pretty attractive to a family with school age kids, as we have an elementary school (Brown), a high school (Bradley), and potentially a new middle school all within walking distance.

The level of traffic is certainly going to change, especially if high school busing is eliminated. There will be hundreds of high school kids tearing along Roberts and Walker Rd on their way to and from school. The intersection of Roberts and Walker has already been rebuilt in anticipation of higher traffic volumes. Supposedly there are two roundabouts to be built, one at the intersection of Alton-Darby and Roberts, and other on Roberts a little west of Alton-Darby, with a connector between that eliminates the 'jog' of Roberts Rd at Alton-Darby. Part of the reasoning is supposedly that this will calm the traffic destined for the high school.

I doubt it. It will still be a mile from the Roberts Rd roundabout to Walker Rd, more than enough distance to build up a nice head of steam – just as you thunder past our driveway. Should be quite a revenue opportunity for the Franklin County Sheriff's department. I expect they'll be able to stay quite busy passing out speeding tickets and responding to accidents.

Anyway, living so close to Bradley, I have a chance to observe the progress pretty easily. The outside looks pretty much done, although I know there is a ton of work to do inside. I'm pretty impressed by some of what I see, but am concerned by others.

On the good side, the stormwater drainage system looks quite impressive (this is a huge deal out here where the land readily floods after a big rain). There is a large retention area to the east of the main building that looks like it could hold a great deal of water. It also has snaking water channel cut through it, which I think serves to create habitats for marsh flora and fauna, which was the native state of the land out here in Brown Twp. The parking lots are designed to drain water into similar ditches along the edges of the lots, rather than the typical design of sloping the asphalt toward center drains that flow to retention ponds.

My disappointment was what I saw in the athletic complex. I really don't what else to call it. There is the football stadium, which looks to be identical to the stadiums at Davidson and Darby. But next to it are not one, but two baseball fields, both equipped with concrete block dugouts and electric scoreboards. North of these there are two more softball fields. This seems extravagant, so I cranked up Google Earth to see what we have at the other two high schools.


  • Football stadium with track
  • Football field with track (Weaver)
  • Four more fields large enough for football, soccer, lacrosse
  • Six baseball diamonds
  • 15 tennis courts


  • Football stadium with track
  • Two more football fields and tracks (Heritage/Weaver)
  • Six more fields large enough for football, etc
  • Six baseball diamonds
  • 15 tennis courts


  • Football stadium with track
  • Unknown number of fields for football, etc
  • Four baseball fields
  • 10 tennis courts

So I guess it turns out that the Bradley facility is no more extravagant than our two other high/middle campuses. Does that mean that if and when a middle school is built on the Bradley campus, the expectation is that it will have its own football field with a track, plus more two more baseball diamonds and five more tennis courts?

How did we get ourselves to this situation? When you look at one of these campuses on Google Earth, you realize that half of the real estate is taken up with athletic fields. I realize that the cost/sqft of these fields is nowhere near that of the school building itself. But they do represent an ongoing maintenance expense. Again, small potatoes compared to the cost of maintaining a building, but it's more. It seems like there's always more.

I've written before that our community has champagne tastes and a beer budget. It permeates everything that we do it seems, and the extent of these athletic facilities are one more example. I sat in the stands at the recent Hilliard Marching Band Invitational, where bands from all around our region are invited to perform. I repeatedly heard folks from other districts talk about what a 'palace' Darby High School was. They were flabbergasted to hear that we had two more high school campuses just like it.

I wonder how much of the funding capacity of our community we've tied up in our buildings and facilities – capacity that could have been applied to operating expenses instead. You know we get no state assistance on building construction; it all comes out of the pockets of local residents and businesses.

With some effective long range planning, we could have seen this coming. While it is certainly appropriate to have facilities for outdoor physical education at each high school, perhaps we could have purchased a hunk of land and created a common varsity athletic complex. It would be difficult, but not impossible to schedule around such a shared facility. After all, the Darby/Davidson football game was held on Thursday night to accommodate scheduling conflicts at Crew Stadium (why did we play over there?).

A wise person once said that we can't drive into the future looking in the rear view mirror. We've got to take a fresh look at this stuff with realistic expectations.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dallas Schools Struggle Financially as Well

From Teacher Magazine:

Dallas Teachers Brace for Pink Slips

Dallas teachers can expect to hear as early as this week whether they are among the nearly 1,100 layoffs approved by the city’s school board on October 2, according to The Dallas Morning News. Teachers will account for half of the layoffs, as the district tries to fill an $84 million shortfall in this year’s budget.

Many teachers told the newspaper they felt frustrated by district administrators’ handling of the crisis.“They don’t care about us,” said elementary school educator Kimberly Stephens. “If they did, they would have found another way to help clean up this mess.”

“I’ve always been proud to be a Dallas Independent School District alum, but today I am ashamed,” said Richard Goodwin, a geography teacher and 31-year veteran of the school district. “If district Superintendent Michael Hinojosa were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he would be cut.”

The layoffs, which the school board passed in a 5-2 vote with one abstention, are expected to save the district about $30 million, according to The Houston Chronicle. But even combined with $38 million from other budget cuts, they still leave the district $15 million short.

The reality is that school districts are professional services organizations, and viritually all of the spending has to do with personnel costs. There is simply no way for a school district to significantly cut back on spending without reducing staff expenses.

What is disappointing to me in our situation here in Hilliard is that the most senior teachers are casting their young colleagues to the wind rather than share the pain. Their demonstration of selfishness may be what undoes public support, costing them all in the end..... pl