Monday, April 27, 2009

It’s For the Kids, Right?

The agenda for tonight's Board of Education meeting (which was posted today rather than last Friday, as is policy) contains these personnel actions:

F1-A: "[the]Superintendent…as part of a continuing District-wide reduction in force… under Article 16 of the Board's labor agreement with the Hilliard Education Association OEA/NEA, the employment contracts of the following certificated/licensed employees be suspended, effective with the start of the 2009-10 school year, for lack of funds"

  • Jason Kruder (50%) – English/Speech
  • Erika Little – Health/Phys Ed

F2/F3: Approve new administrative contracts for Nathan Bobek and Luis Vazquez as Student Services Coordinators at Hilliard Davidson, with two year terms.

Does that make any sense to you? If there is a district-wide reduction in force being carried out because there is a lack of funds, why would two new staffers be hired at the same time two teachers are being laid off?

Because the HEA contract specifies that those lowest in seniority get laid off first, we must assume that these two are our newest hires. I don't know Mr. Kruder or Ms. Little, or which schools they teach in, but if our selection process is a good one, we should be able to assume that they were hired from the large pool of applicants because they have excellent credentials, and the interviewers felt they would be good additions to our district. It's seems a shame to cut them loose just as they are getting their careers started.

I also have little doubt that there are two other more senior and more highly paid teachers who are chronic underperformers who, in a rational world, would have been given their walking papers before these two young teachers. To retain underperforming teachers while terminating two promising teachers seems grotesque, and certainly a waste of taxpayer money.

And then there's the fact that these two personnel actions results in a net headcount change of zero. If this stuff is "all about the kids" – the mantra behind ever decision our school leadership makes – is it true that the kids benefit more by having two fewer teachers and two more Student Services Coordinators?

Finally, a point I've made many times before: Notice that the HEA leadership is willing to sacrifice two of its youngest members in order to protect the salaries and benefits of the rest. Had the HEA instead offered to skip just one year of its 3% base raises, it would have freed up more than enough money to save the jobs of these two teachers.

It's not about the kids. It's not about the teachers either, at least all the teachers.

It's about money, and the use of the political power of the teachers' union to protect those with the most through the involuntary sacrifice of those with the least.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

We Are Not Alone, Part III

Back in December, I posted an article which made a plea to the members of the Hilliard Education Association (HEA) – the teachers' union – to begin thinking about how to enter a new phase of their relationship with the people of our community. Hilliard has been a fast-growing community for a couple of decades, and we have a long tradition of supporting our schools generously. But growth has slowed with the general economic situation in our country. With this recession, the growth of personal incomes has also fallen. Indeed, a number of people in our community are struggling with declining incomes and layoffs. I certainly have friends who have lost their jobs, and even some where both husband and wife were laid off within weeks of each other.

Each of us can and usually does form an opinion as to how much teachers and other school employees should be paid. Some will make comparisons to other professions and say teachers should be paid commensurate with engineers or bankers, especially since teachers are expected to earn Masters degrees early in their career. Others observe that if we place high value on the education of our kids, then we should place high value on the teachers as well, and pay them accordingly.

I belong to the school of thought that teachers should be paid a competitive wage. In other words, we should be willing to pay our teachers enough so as to recruit and retain teachers who can and will perform up to and beyond our expectations. The trick is coming up with a way to quantify our expectations, and to figure out if our pay policies are helping or hindering the achievement of those goals.

We have a few quantitative measures of performance available to us. The Ohio Department of Education publishes Report Cards for each school district which give an indication how our kids perform on standardized tests. Another is the remediation rate as published by the Ohio Board of Regents, which shows that 26% of the Hilliard kids who take a college prep curriculum in high school need remedial English or math once they reach college.

But we mostly rely on qualitative factors and our emotions. Do we feel our kids are getting a good education? Is my kid having a good experience in school? Does my kid like his/her teachers? Do I like my kid's teachers? That's okay – feelings and emotions are valid evaluation tools.

So let's say that in general, we're satisfied with the performance of our teachers and staff. Now how do we go about figuring out what they should be paid?

In the private sector, that's usually pretty easy. The management of a company will pay just enough to recruit and retain employees who will perform the functions required at the level of quality demanded. Employers who aren't willing to pay this amount – whatever it is – will find it difficult to fill positions, or will discover that they end up hiring people unable to perform up to the employer's expectations.

There have been times and situations in the American economy when the employers had the upper hand. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people flocked from a life of scraping by on subsistence farming to the potential of a steady wage earned working in America's new factories. Industrialists like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie had all the cheap unskilled labor they would want and more, and so could run their operations on a highly profitable basis, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process.

Gradually the workers began to organize, and found that if they spoke in one voice, they could substantially equalize the power of the two parties – ownership and labor. The two sides fought vigorously, and sometimes violently – trying to find that point of equilibrium where the ownership was making enough profit to keep running the enterprise and the employees earning high enough wages to make it worth coming to work every day.

We're now entering a new stage in American labor relations. As labor costs have continued to rise over the last few decades, an increasing fraction of manufacturing operations have been shifted out of the US to other countries with workers willing to labor for significantly less than their American counterparts. This wound has been slowly bleeding for a long time, causing pain here and there as factories have closed down. Now we're hemorrhaging jobs, which is both a cause and effect of our global recession. America's largest manufacturing concern – General Motors – may soon cease to exist. It will certainly never be the GM of Alfred Sloan's time again.

Consequently, the power of the labor unions, such as the United Auto Workers (UAW) has declined as well. Both management and labor are struggling to find a way to keep the company alive, and everyone is making concessions. My objective is not to demonize the labor unions here – the leaders of these failing firms have been idiots, mainly because of their short-term orientation.

But the point is that there are, I expect, tens if not hundreds of thousands of laid-off UAW members who would work for a fraction of their former wages just to have a job again. This current economic event is causing a reset of all labor rates in our country, at all pay levels.

Except in the public sector, and especially in school districts in middle-class suburbs.

Here in the Hilliard School District, our teachers and staff received a 3% base pay increase in 2008, are getting another 3% increase this year, and will receive an additional 3% in 2010. On top of that, all teachers earning less than $76,769/yr (in 2009) will get an additional 4.15% step increase each year. For a teacher with 13 years experience and a Master's degree (which all are now required to have by their 10th year of teaching), the current contract sets the pay to $68,712 in 2008, $73,712 in 2009, and $79,072 in 2010. That's an increase of $10,360 in just three years, or 15% in total.

Are they being overpaid? That question can't be answered in isolation. We have to bring in a couple of other factors to the analysis.

How about the first test – are we having any trouble hiring and retaining good teachers? I don't have any facts in this regard, but it is my understanding that a great number of people apply for every open teaching spot in Hilliard City Schools. My eldest daughter is a teacher, and I can attest to the challenge a new college graduate has getting a job in a well-regarded public schools (and it's much harder for a music teacher, as she is). So I have confidence that our pay scale is sufficient to recruit new teachers.

How good is it for recruiting experienced teachers? Turns out that we can't find out because the HEA agreement disallows the transfer of more than 10 years of service (Article 29, C), and since seniority dictates all kinds of important stuff, a teacher with 20 years of experience in Dublin, for example, would be nuts to transfer to Hilliard and give up 10 years of seniority.

How about retention? Are we losing experiencing teachers because the pay scale is too low? How about new teachers? Common belief is that more teachers leave the field in the first five years than in the rest of their careers. That's probably true, as young teachers find that their romantic visions of being a teacher vastly differs from the reality of being in a classroom every day. Lacking the data, I'll go with this observation: no one in our school leadership – Board, Administration or HEA – is talking about there being a retention problem.

Employee compensation is not a topic that typically comes up at levy time – not in the affluent I-270 suburbs around here at least. But that is changing. Members of the New Albany levy campaign committee were outraged when a substantial part of the proceeds of the levy they worked to pass was used to give district employees a pay raise. Where did they think that money was going to go when nearly 90% of a district's operating expenses are salaries and benefits?

A group called EducateWorthington has been formed to bring this issue of compensation out in the open – a parallel effort to ours here in Hilliard. I've had the privilege to meet Mike Alfred and John Herrington, and remain in dialog with them. I'm also grateful that Marc Schare, a member of the Worthington Board of Education, frequently comments on this blog. EducateWorthington recently organized and hosted a community meeting, much like those our grassroots group started in November of last year (yes, Mr. Fedako, we're still alive).

Members of the Hilliard Education Association and the Hilliard Local of OAPSE: You have our future in your hands. I encourage you to be empathetic members of our community, and think about what you will offer to the taxpayers who have supported you so generously over the years, and are now collectively feeling more pain and anxiety about their financial futures than ever before in their lives. You don't have to wait until your current contract expires. You can take action right now – today – to stretch our levy dollars without affecting programming or services.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Every once in a while, I cruise through the website of Olentangy Local Schools. One reason is that I find their website very well organized, visually appealing, and rich with all kinds of governance information, including timely posting of audio recordings of their Board of Education meetings. With their agenda, they also post the documents that support the discussion items. Our Board could learn a great deal from Olentangy in this regard.

That doesn't mean the Olentangy school board doesn't have its share of shenanigans. Board member Jennifer Smith is often the lone dissenting voice when questionable things come up, and I have much respect for her commitment to transparency and truthtelling.

I was very interested to find a flyer they had produced called "Ohio School Funding and Olentangy: The Answers to 5 Frequently Asked Questions." Some of the things written in this flyer are right on, and echo what has been communicated over the years in this blog:

  • Point #2: "… as Olentangy has grown, commercial property taxes provide a decreasing share of Olentangy's school funding. Commercial growth has not kept pace with our explosive residential growth"
  • Point #5: "… the school taxes from a typical home cover only a fraction of the cost to educate just one student"

But they also perpetuate the same myths I described in the prior post:

  • Point #4: "House Bill 920 prevents school districts from recouping inflation when property values rise as a result of reappraisals or updates."

    Arg!! Inflation is not what has been driving home values or operating costs. Home values have been increasing at a substantial rate over the past decades in spite of a long period of low inflation.

    And our operating costs have been going up at a high rate because nearly 90% of our operating costs is the salaries and benefits of our team of teachers, staff and administrators, which has been growing well in excess of inflation.

    This same mistaken claim is made as the first bullet in Point #3

The education community works very hard to distract our attention from the substantial growth of employee costs over the years.

And let me say this one more time – my concern is less that there has been this substantial growth than it is that the conversation is avoided, and even suppressed. It's the 'elephant in the room' during every financial discussion and levy campaign.

We can't allow that to continue to be the case.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

You’ll Get Nowhere If You Don’t Start with the Truth

On April 8, 2009, the Hilliard Northwest News published an article titled "Audit committee members share complexities of finances."

In this article, Nathan Painter, a member of the new Audit and Accountability Committee is quoted as making this statement:

"When we pass a levy, that levy is not adjusted (over the years) for inflation. It is kept at a single balance, and taxes (residents) pay go down as time goes forward." He said this stuff is hard to understand, "even for an attorney."

Well, it's doubly hard to understand when your facts are incorrect. Mr. Painter is repeating the propaganda long spoken by our school administrators. I've written about this on a number of occasions**, but here it is again:

  • While commonly called "HB920" by school officials, what Mr. Painter is talking about was enacted into law via Ohio Revised Code 319.301. The purpose of this law is to prevent the amount homeowners pay in property taxes from increasing just because their property gets appraised to a higher value. This law was championed by George Voinovich at a time when folks were being taxed out of their homes during the regentrification of downtown Cleveland in the 1970s. It has been the bane of school administrators ever since who, rather than getting automatic funding increases with the rise in home values, must go to the public periodically and explain why their operating expenses are increasing so rapidly. Of course, they didn't really want to do that because the reason expenses are increasing is because of the generous pay increases built into the labor agreements with the unions representing the teachers and staff.

    It seems to me that the best rebuttal for this claim is an examination of the current situation. While most school employees continue to enjoy increases in excess of 7% per year, home values are actually decreasing with the collapse of the housing market.

    But hey Mr. McVey, if you want to argue that your salary should vary with home prices – I'm ready to concede that point.

  • The second part of Mr. Painter's observation is the often repeated, but mistaken belief that "once a levy is passed, it never collects more money."

    First, we have to understand that there are two kinds of levies. The first is a bond levy. A bond levy is essentially a community mortgage taken out to fund the construction of buildings. The bond levy authorizes the school district to sell municipal bonds to investors and use the cash raised to build (or repair) permanent structures. The taxes collected via the levy are used to make semiannual interest payments to the bondholders, and to build a "sinking fund" which will be used to pay off the bond at their maturity – usually 20 years.

    So when more people move into the community and built houses, the amount of money required to service the bond debt doesn't change, and the amount of taxes to be collected can be spread across more people, allowing the collection from each taxpayer go down. So when talking about a bond levy, Mr. Painter is correct. And it's the correct way to handle bond levies.

    The other kind of levy is an operating levy, which is used to pay for salaries, benefits, utilities, supplies, maintenance and so on. Our last operating levy added $210 per $100,000 of market value to our property taxes. As long as HB920/ORC319.301 remains in effect, we will never pay more than that $210 per $100,000 (as valued when the levy was passed*) because of that levy, regardless of how our home valuations change (up or down).

    *Note: I realize after reading the "Letter to the Editor" published in the Northwest News that I didn't explain this as clearly as I could have. Our most recently levy added $210 per $100,000 of market value to our tax bills. Let's say your house was valued at exactly $100,000 in the last reappraisal. This means $210 was added to your tax bill.

    If in the next reappraisal, your home is valued at $150,000, the amount collected by this levy will remain at $210.

    However, if a new house is built in the school district, the owners will pay an equal amount of school tax per $100,000 of value as every other homeowner in the school district – for all levies in force – causing the total amount of tax collected by the school district to increase.
As has been the case with the ACT Committee and the Finance Committee, there will be no meaningful results from this Audit & Accountability Committee unless the members take it on themselves to look past the biases of the school administrators. They must do their own research and their own analysis if their mission is to serve the community, and not just validate the erroneous thinking of our current school leadership.

And A&A Committee members, if you really want to audit something that looks fishy, check out process of selecting a site for the third high school, including the easement agreement that was signed between the School Board and Homewood Homes…

**Prior related posts:

Ignore Friction

What Goes Up

Superintendent Mistaken About Inflation

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tail Wagging the Dog

I was reading this Columbus Dispatch editorial about charter schools, and it made me think about how wrong-headed our concept of governance has become in this country.

Over the past ten years, I've had the privilege of being asked to serve on a number of governing boards, some at for-profit shareholder owned corporations, and some at not-for-profit organizations.

In more cases than not, I have found myself to be the lone voice willing to argue with the management about who it is the organization was built to serve. Many organizations seem to get this exactly wrong.

What I have observed is that the governing boards of many organizations come to feel that their job is to help the management impose its will on the stakeholders. That’s exactly what went wrong with America’s financial system.

After all, those big bonuses that went to the CEOs and other executives came into existence with the blessings of each corporation’s Board of Directors. It was misguided logic for those Boards to create compensation systems that rewarded short term results at the risk of long term viability.

It’s because the risk/reward equation gets screwed up by stock options. The management of the corporation bears little risk but can reap huge rewards. Meanwhile the true owners of the company – the shareholders – risk their entire holdings for much smaller potential rewards. When the business blows up, which we’re seeing too much of right now – the executives walk away with fat termination deals while the shareholders and bondholders lose pretty much everything they invested.

In much the same way, I think many school boards, including our current one, believe it is their job to impose the will of the Administration and the unions on the people of our community. That’s exactly the wrong perspective.

It is the job of the School Board to impose the will of the people of the community on the Administration, not the other way around.

The best example of this misguided thinking was the action of our School Board to pass a resolution supporting the Getting Right for Ohio’s Future effort, which would have taken away the direct voice a community has in funding our schools and given it to a newly created body of appointed officials that would have the power to compel the General Assembly to fund schools the way they dictated.

This dialog about charter schools comes from the same place. Those who are most invested in the public school model – the teachers, administrators and staff – are fighting to preserve a system that benefits them, in spite of the clear choice of many parents to move their kids to charter schools.

Ask Dick Hammond if you don’t think this is true. Mr. Hammond served on the Hilliard School Board until the last election, when he lost his seat largely because he also lost the endorsement of the Hilliard teachers’ union – because of his support of charter schools. Interestingly, Mr. Hammond was the only school board candidate who is actually a professional educator. When asked during the Candidate’s Night why he supported charter schools, his answer was that charter schools wouldn’t exist if the public schools were meeting the needs of all the kids. I agree.

This November, our community will have the chance to fill three of the five seats on the School Board – a majority. It is an opportunity we cannot squander. If you want to help in that effort, please contact me at

Friday, April 3, 2009

Meeting Notice

April 6, 2009, 6:45-8:15pm
Jim Rice Meeting Room

Joint Safety Services Building
5181 Northwest Parkway

At the last meeting (March 2), we acknowledged that much of the "steam" from 2008 has vanished, and our efforts should be consolidated to focusing on the 2009 Board Election.

With a majority of the board seats available (three out of five), it is a great opportunity to support a slate of candidates that understand the issues at hand and are willing to address them, as well as embrace the importance of community education and awareness that has established. To this end, we are going to dedicate the next few meetings on the important tasks of Platform Development, Candidate Identification, and Campaign Strategy. We can use your help in these areas to identify ways and people that will resonate the message and bring success in November.

Our next meeting is this Monday, April 6, 6:45-8:15pm at the Joint Safety Services Building (5181 Northwest Parkway). We will be in the Jim Rice Meeting Room, and you should enter the doors in the left-front of the building.

During this meeting, we will develop the basis for the Platform, discuss Candidates and brainstorm ideas for names of the "committee to elect". Paul has indicated he will run again, and one other candidate has shown interest. I have volunteered to be the Treasurer and assist with leading the committee. If you are interested in helping out or have strong ideas to help the platform, please attend. In addition to Platform strategists, we can use help with the Marketing and Public Relations aspects of a campaign.

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

Note: 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.