Friday, January 30, 2009

Meeting Notice: Monday Feb 2

February 2, 2009, 6:45pm
Hilliard Public Library Meeting Room.
Please join us and bring friends!

This is the third public meeting of our group. For this meeting, we will move forward in discussing how the group will be structured, including committees/teams, goals and milestones for the upcoming year. Additionally, Paul will be presenting a summary of Governor Strickland's Education plan, as well as lead discussion on what it might mean based on the limited information available thus far.

We welcome your participation in the form of questions, comments and volunteering to help with the organization. We need your involvement to translate the energy and passion on this forum to a broader segment of the community!

Past meeting summaries can be viewed via the GrassRootsGoup topic on the left.

This meeting is not an official meeting of the Hilliard City School District, nor is it being coordinated with school officials, although members of the Administration, Board and Staff are more than welcome to participate.

No need to RSVP. Contact Mark Morscher if you have further questions.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Governor’s New Plan

Governor Strickland revealed the high level elements of his new education plan today as part of his State of the State address. These seem to be the key points:

  • Universal all-day kindergarten: I didn't know that we were shortchanging our kids by having them in kindergarten for only a half-day. It seems that one impact of this change will be to double the number of kindergarten teachers a school district must employ. Win for the OEA.
  • Addition of 20 school days, to a total of 200: This adds an entire month to the school schedule. I expect we will hear the unions demand another 10% in salary for the additional days.
  • Encourage the creation school district sponsored charter schools: This sounds promising, but we'll have to pay attention to the details.

    In particular, how will kids be selected to attend these schools? How much budget control will the charter school administrators have to fund unique programs (eg taking the portion of money that would have otherwise gone to athletics and reallocate it to science lab materials)? Note that this means that charter schools will be staffed by union teachers. Score another one for the OEA.
  • At least one Licensed Practical Nurse in each school building: If we don't meet that standard, we'll need to hire more nurses. Nurses are members of OEA as well. Another win.
  • New Licensure system: Teachers can qualify for four professional license levels: Resident Educator (analogous to a medical resident – ie one just out of school); Professional Educator; Senior Professional Educator; Lead Professional Educator. Advancement through the levels will be based on credentials (ie degree), experience and student progress.

    It will be interesting to see how student progress is measured. I expect that we'll see these license levels come into play in teacher pay grids. We'll have to see the details, but it could be a good thing.
  • New Teacher Tenure Requirements: Teachers must complete the four year Resident Educator program and serve as a Professional Educator for five more years to achieve tenure. Currently tenure can be offered in as few as three years. Seems like a good thing.
  • Alternative Licensure Program: Folks without an education degree but relevant subject knowledge can do a six-week boot camp (my term), then enter the Residency Program. This seems like a very good thing.
  • Increase the Authority of the School Board to dismiss teachers for good cause. This sounds promising, but we'll see what happens when this is tested the first couple of times.
  • Establish higher standards of mastery in both education and management for superintendents and treasurers. This seems like a very good move. I hope strategic planning and communications are at the top of the list.
  • Use the ACT as the standard of measurement: Seems like a good idea. More parents know what the results mean at least.
  • Require better budgeting and reporting, to be evaluated via an annual fiscal and operational report card. This sounds good as well. As a financial-savvy professional, I've always found the district's reporting to be difficult to use for decision making. Financial accounting and management (operational) accounting are two different things. I'm looking forward to this.

And now for the meat of the Governor's plan, his adjustments to the funding system:

  • Elimination of the so-called Phantom Revenue: The first step of the current state funding algorithm is to multiply the number of students in the district by a "formula amount," which is currently just under $6,000. So in round numbers, our starting number is about 15,000 students times $6,000 per student, or $90 million.

    From that, the state deducts an amount equal to 23 mills applied to all the taxable real estate in the school district. The total assessed value of that real estate is about $2.4 billion, resulting in a "charge-off" of $56 million. That means, without other correcting factors, that the state would send about $43 million per year to us.

    The catch is that there is state law (commonly called HB920) which causes a 'reduction factor' to be applied to the assessed value of a piece of property such that the amount of money collected on that property by a particular levy never changes (e.g. as when property values increase). When the 23 mill charge-off is calculated, the full, pre-reduction assessed value is used.

    Educators have long complained that this short-changes districts because it deducts more than is actually collected. In reality, it's a technical nit that gets largely offset by other aspects of the school funding algorithm. It seems like all the Governor has done to address this is to lower the charge-off from 23 mills to 20 mills. We'll see if it makes any difference to the bottom line after all the other adjustments are applied.
  • Allowing districts to pass levies that neutralize HB920: The selling point here would be to convince the voters of a school district that if they let their property taxes change with assessed property values, there would be no need for frequent levies. The trouble is, that's not true.

    There is no direct connection between year-to-year changes in the value of your real estate and the year-to-year changes in the cost of employee compensation, which is 90% of our operational budget.

    For example, the current teacher contract calls for 7% annual raises for at least 70% of the teachers. Do you expect your home value to go up 7% per year for the next three years?

    Actually, I'd like to call this bluff. For the next three years, teacher compensation should be tied to County Auditor's just-completed triennial assessment – which was that property values had not changed at all. No change in property value, no raises. Works for me.
  • Gradually raising the state's share of district funding to 59%: I think this is one of those great big averages that sounds good in principle, but will not necessarily be good for us. There are already districts in this state which receive nearly all their funding from the State. Certainly this plan won't fund them any less. I don't see how the Governor can not raise taxes, increase the fraction of the state budget allocated to school funding, and raise the fraction of funding all districts get from the state.

I have always suspected that any new scheme any new Governor might come up with would do two things: a) improve the level of income and income security for the members of OEA and OAPSE by reducing the level of local control; and, b) find a way to divert more money from the suburban districts to the urban and rural districts. This plan is nowhere near as radical as it could have been, but is nuanced in such a way that I think my suspicions will ultimately come true.

We'll see what actually gets enacted into law.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Statistical Errors

In reading the local news stories last week about Mayor Schonhardt's campaigning for the City of Hilliard to shift to a City Manager form of government now that he's term limited, I almost missed the little shot he took at the end of the story, as reported by Jeff Donohue of This Week.

The Mayor said: "The next time you read a letter to the editor laying an exploding student population on Hilliard's doorstep, just remember the number 27 and remember that is the extent by which we are contributing to the growth of Hilliard City Schools."

I've written more than one of those letters, as have other readers of this blog. Apparently, 27 is the number of residential building permits issued by the City of Hilliard in the last year.

This reminds me of a dialog I had with a fellow motorcyclist who felt there was no real reason to wear a helmet while riding. He backed up his position with this statistic: "In half of all motorcycle fatalities, the rider is wearing a helmet." Therefore he said, it's a crap shoot whether the helmet does any good, so you might as well enjoy riding without one.

I suggested to him that there would seem to be a statistic which is more meaningful: Of the number of riders who survived a motorcycle accident, what fraction of them was wearing a helmet? My friend's statistic only looked at the universe of bikers who had been killed. I'd prefer to understand what allowed riders to survive.

According to the US Dept of Transportation, there were 294,000 non-fatal single-vehicle motorcycle accidents in the period between 1990 and 1999. In the same period, there were 11,038 fatal single-vehicle bike accidents. 48% of the people killed were wearing a helmet – my friend's statistic. But note that there were 283,000 bike accidents that were non-fatal – 25 times as many. In what fraction of those was the helmet a critical reason for survival, or a reduction of the seriousness of injury? I don't know that answer, but it's the one I would want to know before deciding whether or not to take my helmet off – which I always wear by the way (however, I support the freedom to choose).

So what does that have to do with the Mayor's statistic about housing permits?

He doesn't say how many permits he turned down, did he?

My guess is that this number is zero, or pretty close. Perhaps there were only 27 residential building permits issued in the City of Hilliard last year because we have a nationwide housing market collapse. Maybe the Mayor hasn't noticed.

How about the past 10 years Mr. Mayor? How many building permits have been issued since you were first elected to City Council? Good grief, entire new massive neighborhoods have come into existence during that period, notably those along Alton-Darby Rd.

And you have fought mightily to preserve the right to annex new residential development land into the City of Hilliard, including more than 800 acres annexed in the last few months.

It seems to the alert observer that this unfortunate downturn of the economy has messed with the ability for you to get every square inch of residential land inside the boundaries of the water services agreement built out before you leave office as Mayor. Converting to a City Manager system could extend the window of opportunity to get this done with you still sitting at the controls. What's in it for you?

How is any residential development good for either the City or the School District?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Five Year Forecasts

I finally had some time to take a close look at the new Five Year Forecast published by Treasurer Brian Wilson in December, subsequent to the passage of the 6.9 operating levy in November. Here are a few observations:

  • Total revenue is projected to grow from $142.7 million in FY08 (actual) to a projected $159.7 million in FY13, an increase of $17 million over the five years. However, it's not a steady growth, but rather $8 million in FY09, $8.7 million in FY10, and essentially flat for FY11-FY13.

    There are two causes for this. One is the elimination of commercial Personal Property Tax and the phase-out of the guarantee created to soften the blow for school districts. In FY06, the PPT+"property tax allocation" (which includes the Guarantee) was $26 million. In FY13, Mr. Wilson projects this total falling to $17 million. That's $9 million we'll need to make up locally.

    The other revenue factor is that the property tax revenue will step up from $71.7 million in FY08 to $91.2 million in FY10 (as a result of the 6.9 mill levy), then stay essentially flat in FY11-FY13. In other words, he doesn't think there will be much in the way of new residential or commercial construction in the next few years, and I think that's reasonable.

  • Total expenses are projected to increase from $146.4 million in FY08 to $188.5 million in FY13, an increase of $42.1 million, in ever-increasing steps of over $8 million/yr, of which 95% is attributable to the increases in compensation and benefits for the employees of the district.

    Take note that the FY13 revenue is projected to be $159.7 million and the expenses to be $188.5, resulting in a cash consumption rate of $28.7 million in that year alone. Clearly without a significant adjustment to expenses, or some revenue windfall, more levies will be needed.

  • We started out FY09 (this school year) with $13.3 million of cash, and are forecasted to consume cash every year of the forecast, starting with $1.5 million in FY09 and reaching $28.7 million in FY13. At that rate, we'll empty the bank account in FY11.

So clearly we need we need more revenue growth and less expense growth. If we assume there is no other revenue source available to us than local property taxes, then how much is needed, and how often will new levies be required?

Well, if we use Mr. Wilson's forecasts exactly, the math is pretty easy. According the Ohio Department of Education, one mill of property taxes generates about $2.5 million in revenue in our school district. To cover all of our projected expenses through FY13, we would need a levy of about 6.4 mills in 2010, and another of the same size in 2012.

In other words, we would need to tax the people of our district about the same increment we did this year (about $200 for each $100,000 in market value) in 2010 and 2012. If the total expenses – of which 95% of the change is due to compensation and benefits – continues growing at the same rate, we can expect to need additional levies every two years at ever increasing millage rates.

But remember, it is the official policy of this school board to maintain a cash operating reserve (call it a rainy day fund) of at least 10% of projected annual expenses. If FY13 expenses are projected to be $188.5 million, then we should have $18.9 million in cash reserves saved away by then. To reach that goal, the 2010 and 2012 levies would need to be nearly 9 mills. Once the reserve is restored, subsequent levies would be reduced back to that required to funding spending increases.

Clearly the conversation must center on two things: a) if we can expect significant additional funding from the State of Ohio; and, b) the rate of increase of personnel costs.

The Governor will soon announce his plans for education funding. We have to recognize that the State has its own funding nightmare in front of it, to the point that the Governor is seeking concessions from union employees of the state that include a 5% pay cut and the elimination of step increases. I don't see how we can expect the Governor to ride to our rescue in this environment. We may be lucky to be handed only slight decreases in our state funding.

In other words, we should expect that any increases in spending will need to be funded with local tax levies.

As always, this brings us to the subject of personnel costs. Our unions have just signed agreements that grant 7% annual increases to the majority of employees – upwards of 70%of them  according to a statement made by Mr. Wilson in one of the pre-levy public meetings. Yes, they did concede to pay a small fraction of their health insurance premiums, and I appreciate that.

But even with that concession, I don't see how the next union contracts can contain similar numbers. The step percentage needs to come down from 4.15%, the annual increase percentage lowered from 3%, and the contribution to health insurance premiums increased. The degree to which each is changed is something which is going to be difficult to negotiate, and I think the work needs to start now.

It could be that the union members might want to adjust which years get a step increase, or perhaps to make the step increases vary depending on the year. I think a good place to start would be to set a goal for annual growth in compensation and benefits costs, as Rick has been suggesting for months, and let the union members get creative as to how to allocate the funds.

And I hope that the younger members of the unions, particularly the HEA, make their voices heard. When there's only so much money to go around, and a minority gets to negotiate for all, that minority will be tempted to tweak the deal to benefit themselves at the expense of those who feel weak and vulnerable. Remember young teachers, for the more senior teachers the difference between the best case and worst case scenarios is largely about compensation, while for you, it is about whether or not you have a job. If you don't want the senior members of the union gambling with your job, you need to ensure that the union represents all of you.

I don't think we have anything resembling a clear picture of the future fiscal health of our school district. It's clear that sacrifices will need to be made, and we'll have to make some hard decisions about what things are "must-haves" and what are "nice-to-haves." We may have a stretch here when we can't afford much of the latter. So the same admonition must go out to the people of our community: this is no time to be apathetic about the governance of our school district or local municipalities.

And I don't totally disagree with the position taken by Jim Fedako over at Anti-Positivist, who asserts that this system we have of allowing a simple majority of voters to cram tax increases down everyone's throat is a bad thing – he would say immoral. As with so much in our government, we've taken a good idea and allowed it to be morphed by special interests into a grotesque version of the original vision (which was simply that all American kids should have access to some level of education, regardless of their financial capacity). I'm not sure our country can afford what public education has become. This may be the opportunity to recalibrate our national priorities.

We've got the gas pedal to the floor, but are looking in the rear-view mirror.

That reminds me of the joke about two brothers, Bubba and Jim Bob, who are being interviewed to drive a semi cross-country as a team. The interviewer says "Bubba, you're driving a truck with a heavy load, and Jim Bob is sleeping in the back. You crest a big hill and see that a train is on the tracks across the road at the bottom of the hill. You hit the brakes and discover that they've failed. What do you do?" Bubba says, "I'm wakin' up Jim Bob." "Why for goodness sake?" says the interviewer. Leroy answers: "'Cause Jim Bob ain't never seen a crash like's about to happen!"

(apologies to those who've been wanting this dialog raised to a higher plane)

Friday, January 16, 2009

More of the Same?

Reported by the Hilliard Northwest News January 13, 2009:

"By unanimous vote and without comment, Denise Bobbitt continues as president, and Andy Teater continues as vice president of the Hilliard Board of Education for a second year."

I'm not sure which troubles me more – that there was no change in leadership, or that there was no discussion. Surely there was some discussion sometime – somewhere. While I acknowledge that our School Board enters Executive Sessions much less frequently these days than they have in the past, the reduction of time spent in announced Executive Session does not seem to have resulted in more discussion during the public meeting.

I can only conclude that the Board members have developed a way to discuss school matters in some other venue or media than their public meeting (e.g email, phone calls). In this case, one must believe that the Board members came into the meeting having already agreed to return Mrs. Bobbitt and Mr. Teater to their leadership roles, and the public vote was merely a formality.

I'll also admit that I had hoped Dave Lundregan would become the new President of the School Board. The biggest threat to the future of our district is economics – funding vs spending, and I believe Dave has the knowledge and experience to understand these matters best of all the Board members. I would much prefer to have him driving the agenda this year. I'm also interested in knowing whether: a) he threw his hat into the ring, but was shot down; b) he wanted this position but couldn't commit the time (it's not an easy time to be a banker); or, c) he just wasn't interested. We may never know since the real nomination and selection process happened out of the public eye.

All this just amplifies my belief that we have be sure the right three people are elected to the School Board this November.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meeting Summary: Jan 6, 2009

by Mark Morscher

14 people gathered on the icy night after the OSU bowl loss to further delve into the big picture of school funding and discuss the future of Save Hilliard as a public presence. There continues to be strong interest in having a group like this in Hilliard, as well as a desire to attend future meetings. It is clear that emphasis needs to shift to branding, platform development and action. Toward this end, six people volunteered to assist moving the group forward.

Our next meeting will be:

Monday, February 2, 6:45-8:15pm
Hilliard Public Library Meeting Room.
Please join us and bring friends!

During the meeting on January 6th, we presented a proposed mission and scope for group, which included:

Educating community about school economics

Communicate with the community how plans and actions of community officials affect school economics.

Communicate with school leaders what we hear from the community regarding economic matters

Motivate community members to become interested in school economics and governance of our community.

We also presented what we are NOT going to do:

Evaluate or criticize curriculum, programming and staff.

Triangulate the relationship between the community and school board. We are not an advocacy group or formal opposition.

Paul's vision of the future is to make ourselves redundant by:

Seeing that three Board members are elected in November that share our beliefs regarding Strategic Planning and Community Relations

Becoming the core of formal community advisory groups commissioned by the School Board.

We also presented a timeline for 2009 that showed various milestones for the School Board election. There was general agreement and limited discussion on the proposed, high level mission and scope.

Paul then presented a background on the "unconstitutionality" of school funding in Ohio, and several "Not Quite Truths" that have been prominent. During the presentation, several neat scatter correlation charts were presented that showed where HCSD related to all other Ohio school districts by a variety of metrics (median income, median home valuation, average teacher salary, per-pupil spending…). The results appear to show Hilliard pretty much following the trend of other school districts in Ohio. This reinforces that Hilliard is not facing any unique funding challenges within the state.

During the presentation, several other familiar topics were raised and discussed:

  • The relationship between municipal governments, the school district and developers. Given the history of growth in the Hilliard area and the impact it has on the cost borne by homeowners to fund public education, there was a feeling amongst the group of being taken advantage of by the developers and municipalities.
  • The recurring theme of apathy and how it is typically one of the leading factors in things getting out of control, whether it is over development, school funding trajectory or governance of STRS Investment performance.
  • Paul went over property tax basics like Total Tax, Effective Tax and how it relates to the state funding formula.
  • Paul showed the teacher pay scale as related to Step Increases and the base pay raise. A discussion also ensued regarding insurance and retirement. Paul reiterated that he doesn't know what an appropriate employee compensation package should look like, but to have that dialog in the community, he feels people need to understand the components better given that it is almost 90% of costs.

Goals/Next Steps

I will be working with Paul and the volunteers to identify the sub-groups (Platform/Branding, Outreach, Education,…) within the organization that need to be formed in order to fulfill the stated mission and goals. My goal is to have more concrete definition, milestones and next steps for each group to present and discuss at the next meeting.

We will need more people at the next meeting to help shape and support the new groups!

I look forward to seeing you February 2, 6:45pm at the Hilliard Library Meeting Room


Sunday, January 11, 2009

State Board of Ed: Representing Whom?

Our State Board of Education is comprised of 19 members. Eleven of the members are elected by the people of each region of the state, and eight are appointed by the Governor. The elected members are:

  • District 1: John Bender of Avon, educator, former State Representative in the General Assembly
  • District 2: Ann Jacobs* of Lima. Lawyer, former local school board member
  • District 3: Susan Haverkos of West Chester, business owner
  • District 4: G.R. (Sam) Schloemer of Cincinnati, businessman, former local school board member
  • District 5: Robin Hovis* of Millersburg, investment representative, was previously appointed by Gov. Taft
  • District 6: Kristen McKinley*# of Hilliard (our rep), labor attorney representing OEA members
  • District 7: Tammy O'Brien* of Akron, lawyer (undergrad degree in education)
  • District 8: Deborah Cain of Uniontown, retired teacher
  • District 9: Michael Collins*# of Westerville, businessman (education degree) former local school board member.
  • District 10: Jeff Hardin* of Milford. College educator.
  • District 11: Mary Rose Oakar* of Cleveland, former US Representative

* = newly elected; # = endorsed by the Ohio Education Association, the statewide teachers' union.

Appointed members are:

  • Stephen Millett of Columbus, Battelle futurist. Taft appointee, term ends 2010
  • Jennifer Sheets of Pomeroy, attorney. Voinovich & Taft appointee, term ends 2010
  • Carl Wick of Centerville, retired NCR executive, former teacher. Taft appointee, term ends 2010
  • Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora, lawyer, former State Representative. Taft appointee, term ends 2010
  • Dennis Reardon* of Pickerington, former Executive Director of OEA. Strickland appointee
  • N. Daniel Green* of Gallipolis, retired postmaster, US Postal Service. Strickland appointee
  • Tracy Smith* of Van Wert. High School teacher. Strickland appointee.
  • Martha Harris* of Cleveland Heights. Special Ed teacher. Strickland appointee

Colleen Grady over at the State of Ohio Education blog posted her snapshot of the most recently appointed members, Readon, Green, Smith and Harris. I pay particular attention to what Colleen and her blog partner, Susan Haverkos, have to say about education matters as both served on State Board themselves. Susan continues to be a State Board member, while Colleen gave up her seat in order to accept an appointment to serve (a short time) in the 127th Ohio General Assembly.

Colleen made note that three out of the four are OEA members, with only Mr. Green not being an educator. Mr. Green's background does including serving on his local school board. The OEA endorsed election winners Kristen McKinley and Michael Collins, representing Central Ohio. None of the candidates endorsed by the OEA in the other five races for State Board seats won however.

Locally, our area has a new representative on the State Board – Kristen McKinley, who lives here in Hilliard. She ran against Larry Wolpert and James Moyer. Larry Wolpert is well known in Hilliard, having served as both a member of Hilliard City Council and as our State Representative in the Ohio General Assembly. James Moyer is not as well known in our part of the county, but ran a solid race, receiving nearly 77,000 votes (21%), including mine.

I started the research for this post taking a cue from Colleen's article, with suspicion that the OEA was beginning to exert an unhealthy amount of influence on the State Board of Education elections. The fact that only two of their seven endorsed candidates won suggests that the OEA's influence over elections is not that great – at least not statewide, not yet.

However, here in Franklin County, I think it was significant. Kristen McKinley won 56% of the vote in a three-way race, yet I don't remember seeing much campaigning by her here in her home territory. Maybe she just conceded Hilliard to Larry Wolpert, who received around 50% of the vote in nearly all of the Hilliard area precincts. Across the whole voting district, which includes much of Franklin County, she received over 200,000 votes. With the number of OEA members employed in central Ohio, I have to believe that a lot of these votes came from OEA members and their families.

By the way, second place in this race was "none of the above," with nearly 200,000 voters making no selection at all for State Board of Education.

Governor Strickland used his opportunity to appoint four new at-large members to the State Board to fill three of those seats with OEA folks, including the former Executive Director of OEA, Dennis Reardon. Colleen observed that two of the Governor's appointees, Tracy Smith and Martha Smith actually ran in the November election and lost (Smith to Jacobs, and Harris to Oskar). Interesting that the Governor would appoint two folks that the people of their community rejected.

It is not clear what role Governor Strickland would like the State Board to take going forward. Remember that he has already asked the General Assembly to put education fully under the administration of the Governor, a reorganization that would require amending the Ohio Constitution. I think this might be a good thing by the way, primarily because the Governor is a very visible elected official, and someone We The People are more likely to hold accountable than we do the State Board of Education, which is largely invisible and anonymous.

The next best thing for the Governor is to get people seated on the State Board who agree with his vision. He'll have a chance to appoint four more at-large members in 2010. There's a chance that with those appointments, a majority of the State BoE members would be OEA sympathizers.

That somehow seems inappropriate to me. The OEA already has a powerful presence in the Statehouse due to its campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. It seems to me like the State Board of Education, just like local school boards, should be the voice of the people who are consumers of education services, and who pay the taxes to support the schools – which substantially means to pay the teachers. However, we need to remember that the State Board has limited fiscal power, unlike a local school board, and that budgeting and taxation remains the province of the Governor and the General Assembly.

The economics of education is going to be a major challenge for the Governor and the General Assembly. Education funding is the largest part of the state budget, and the largest part of that funding goes to pay the salaries and benefits of educators. He'll have to figure out how to come through on his commitments to big campaign supporters – like the OEA - yet balance the budget in a challenging economic climate. The Governor is a smart guy, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what his plan will be when he announces it shortly.

In particular, it will be interesting to see whether he thinks he has the political leverage to push through the reorganization of primary/secondary education in Ohio.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Meeting Notice: Tues Jan 6

Tuesday, January 6 6:30PM
Hilliard Branch, Columbus Metro Library
Meeting Room

This is the second meeting for folks in our community who are interested in learning more about how public school funding works in Ohio, and what we can do to ensure that our school district remains both high performing and cost effective.

At our first meeting, we learned about how both residential development and personnel costs drive our need for frequent and sizable operating levies. We also explored the motivations of the various players in our community, including the city officials, school leaders and developers, and how they relate to the economics of our school system.

At this meeting we will discuss why the Ohio Supreme Court declared our current system of funding public schools to be unconstitutional, as well as potential alternatives. We will also dig a little into why educators want to get away from local property taxes as the basis for funding. Here's some pre-reading if you're interested.

We'll also talk about a timeline of actions that need to take place over the next 10 months, prior to the November 3rd election, when three of the five school board seats will be on the ballot. A key part of this conversation will be setting the mission and scope of our organization.

This meeting is not an official meeting of the Hilliard City School District, nor is it being coordinated with school officials, although members of the Administration, Board and Staff are more than welcome to participate.

No need to RSVP. Contact Mark Morscher if you have further questions.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Never Waste a Good Crisis

We are getting nearer to the day when Governor Strickland announces his 'fix' for school funding in Ohio. Andy Benson of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation recently wrote an article describing his views as how this might play out. I found it very interesting that Mr. Benson, who is certainly closer to Capital Square politics than most of us, believes the Governor might describe a new way to go about both education funding and spending, but will tell Ohioans that it can't be implemented until the economic situation turns around for Ohio .

I've been cautiously optimistic about Governor Strickland. We're both products of the industrial areas of Appalachia, and I'm impressed that he holds a PhD (in counseling psychology) from the University of Kentucky, a first rate university. He should be getting some good advice from First Lady Frances Strickland, who also holds a PhD (in educational psychology) from University of Kentucky.

But I'm not so blinded by his bucketful of degrees to forget that he is a shrewd career politician. The scenario described by Mr. Benson would be a pretty slick maneuver on the Governor's part – essentially a way to make more campaign promises with the luxury of not being able to actually put them into operation – and risk failure. Dreams always sound better than reality. What great positioning for the run-up to his 2010 re-election campaign.

The Governor can't act alone of course. He must gain sufficient support from the General Assembly for whatever strategy he lays out. In that fact lays the danger. Here's what I wrote in response to Mr. Benson's article:

While crisis may create an environment where ideas for radical change can gain popular acceptance, it also creates an opportunity for those whose ultimate goals are not so benevolent. It was after all a national crisis that enabled leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Hussein to come to power. Their ambition met opportunity, and we all know the result.

I fear that the crisis in which Ohio find itself will be the opportunity the education lobby has been waiting for to push through a school funding approach which serves to protect the compensation and benefits of Ohio's public school employees in spite of what it might push aside in terms of other programs - or what it might add to the tax burden of Ohio's citizens and businesses.

We can assume that the Ohio Education Association has been lobbying mightily to have the Governor recommend a program substantially like the proposed "Getting It Right For Ohio's Future" (GIRFOF) amendment, which would have made the State Board of Education a kind of super-legislature that would have first dibs on the state treasury. While the Governor has said he doesn't want to yield that kind of power to the BoE, he can't ignore the political might of the OEA either (the Ohio Education Association, the state teachers' union, of which the Hilliard Education Association, the union of our district's teachers, is affiliated).

So certainly, there must be some sort of compromise in the making. My guess is that we will see something that looks like the revenue model proposed in the GIRFOF proposal, but gives the Governor more power over the governance of Ohio's schools (and the BoE and Superintendent less).

While the leaders of the education lobby will evoke images of more Nathan DeRolphs still sitting on the floor, the truth is that a great deal has been done since that suit was filed to lift the funding levels of our poorest schools. And as someone who travels all over the state, I've seen firsthand many of the new school buildings constructed in little communities with the assistance of the Ohio School Facilities Commission.

This current fight isn't about the schools in low income areas any more. It's about decoupling the compensation and benefits of public school teachers and public school employees from local levy votes. School Boards and school administrators simply abhor having to beg the people of their community for more money on a regular basis. But they've carefully framed the problem as being the form of taxation (property taxes) rather than who has control over the levying of taxes.

Here's the litmus test: If the General Assembly made a law saying property taxes were henceforth prohibited in Ohio, and that the portion of school funding which now comes from local property taxes had to be replaced with local INCOME taxes, would that be satisfactory to the education community?

Of course not. Their problem isn't with the form of taxation - it's that local voters have a choice.

So why not go all the way? Let's just eliminate local school districts altogether and go to a state school system with open enrollment. Let any kid attend any Ohio public school he/she wants, and let the funding follow the kid. In that way, per-pupil funding would be identical in each and every school in the state, and that debate would be over.

And let's make teacher pay and benefits uniform across the state as well.

Oh wait a minute. That would end the wealthy suburban enclaves with high teacher salary scales that GIRFOF is so careful to preserve. You see, GIRFOF doesn't eliminate local property taxes or even spending disparities. It just gives local school districts the option to use local property taxes to fund their district in excess of state standards. Most suburbanites who voiced support for GIRFOF don't understand this at all. Not only would their state taxes have to increase to fund the higher aggregate spending levels dictated by the state BoE, they would have to continue paying local property taxes to sustain the higher spending levels of their own district.

But note this - there are some in the wealthy suburbs who understand all this very well, and like the fact that their higher property taxes keep the "riff-raff" out of their community. They want to be sure local school districts are preserved, and that they retain the ability to levy local taxes, be they on property or incomes, so as to retain the economic barrier to those they believe are the undesirables.

Yes, a crisis creates a call to action. The trouble is that we Americans have become so apathetic in regard to our government that we aren't prepared to critically analyze the proposals that will be put before us. And many foolishly think that the (almost) elimination of property taxes would mean that schools would then be funded by some sort of monetary manna from heaven.

I fear the cure will be worse than the disease.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


note: I realize, after reading some of the comments to this post, that I didn't do a very good job conveying my thoughts. No, I have not changed my position regarding the need to pass the 6.9 mill levy last November, and would be advocating for its passage if the vote were being held tomorrow.

My intention was to describe my emotional reaction to actually seeing the tax bill and preparing to write the check. It was also to confess that as much as I rail about the ignorance and apathy of most Americans these days in regard to government, I let myself walk into the voting booth without having put a minute's thought into the MRDD levy - and it turned out to sizable increase.

I wrote this post because I was curious if others had a similar reaction to their tax bill. My hope is that many did, and that it will motivate more folks to help us change the fiscal management of our school district, and our community.

My apologies for mucking up the message. Thanks to those that care enough about our effort to hold me accountable.

Our property tax bill arrived in the mail today. I knew it would be bigger than last year, but was still caught a little surprised by the magnitude of the increase. Here's the numbers:

  • The assessed value of our property didn't change. Remember that the assessed value is 35% of the market value. Both are shown on your new tax statement (which I find very readable and understandable). County Auditor Joe Testa had said earlier in the year that there would be no changes made to property values in the triennial assessment. Take note that this is political position, not fact. Ask anyone who has tried to sell a home in the last year if they agree with Mr. Testa that property values haven't changed.
  • My total tax bill went up $898.66, or 12.42%.
  • Only two of the components were increased: 1) MRDD for $167.88 (34%); and, 2) the Hilliard School District for $746.02 (16.34%). In other words, 83% of the increase in my tax bill was due to the school levy.
  • The school tax was 63% of my total tax bill last year, but rose to 65% for this year. It is 1.5% of what the County Auditor says is the market value of our house.
  • The school tax went up $210.60 for each $100,000 of market value.

Why was I surprised?

I guess the MRDD increase wasn't on my radar. All these other taxes (those other than school tax) can get lost in the shuffle, but I think I would have remembered had someone said the MRDD tax was going to increase 34%. It must have been one of those "it will cost you only 50cents per day" kinds of campaigns.

But I think the real reason for my reaction is having the total increase looks a lot like $1,000/yr when you just glance at the numbers. Maybe that's chump-change for a lot of you, but having our taxes go up $1,000/yr is attention-getting for me, especially in light of the current economic situation.

What kind of reactions are you folks having to your new tax bill?