Well, the 2009 edition of our School Board's annual retreat is now complete. The public part of the retreat began at 6:30pm on Thursday, June 18, 2009 at the Central Office Annex. The only members of the public in attendance were a Boy Scout (who was probably working on his Citizenship in the Community merit badge – yes, I am an Eagle Scout), a gentleman I expect was his Dad, and me. Reporters from Hilliard Northwest News, This Week Hilliard, and The Columbus Dispatch attended various parts of the meeting – no one else attended the whole meeting as I did.
The first topic of discussion was the food service arrangements. Lots and lots of discussion about healthy eating and appropriate menus for our kids.
Next up was a very brief discussion of district finances – much shorter than the food discussion. Superintendent Dale McVey made some comments about the two funding schemes now being debated in the General Assembly. One is the Senate's version, which is substantially the same as the current system. McVey stated "the education community would say it doesn't work, and never has." His preference is apparently the so-called Evidence Based Model sponsored by the Governor and supported by the House of Representatives. Interestingly, he said that it didn't matter that much to Hilliard in that both plans would provide about the same state funding as now for the next few years. From a planning standpoint, the District can assume pretty much what I've always said – we'll be lucky to keep what we get now.
There was no mention of the Five Year Forecast, or the $40 million accumulated deficit it estimates by 2013. Nor was there any discussion whatsoever about when the next levy might be needed, and how large it might have to be. We know the answer to the first is 2010. Doesn't the projected size merit some discussion?
About a month ago I wrote about the new $10 million financing deal Treasurer Brian Wilson proposed to the Board. The language in the resolution permitted what I believe to be irresponsible financing costs, and I told the Board that. Mr. Wilson came to me after the meeting and assured me that the language approved by the Board was just routine boilerplate, and the actual numbers would be much less. Mr. Wilson took a moment during the retreat to report on what the financing actually cost, which was much more reasonable: a fully loaded rate of 0.81%. Those are very good terms, and merit a press release to the public in my opinion. But I suspect that had I not made such a stink about this at the May Board meeting, Mr. Wilson wouldn't have bothered to discuss these financing costs at all.
Asst Superintendent Leslie McNaughten gave a brief report about the ways in which personnel were being adjusted to help achieve the $3 million in cutbacks needed in spite of the passage of the last levy. Somehow that led to a long – very long – discussion about smoking policy. Maybe this topic needed that much time, but I think I would have preferred to have it spent on financial or other strategic matters. It seems like these long discussions occur only on topics of interest to President Denise Bobbitt (e.g. health matters like food or smoking).
This was followed by a very impressive set of presentations by Asst Superintendent Andy Riggle and his team of curriculum professionals. These folks know their stuff, and you can hear their passion for the work as they talk about their vision and plans. There was much talk about the various tests the kids take, and how they perform. Dr. Riggle's team had lots of data and depth of knowledge about the subject matter.
I know there are, and have been, parents who feel the school district fails their kids. And I suspect that many of those cases are valid – I know of a few of them personally. But that doesn't mean the whole system sucks. In fact, I think the educational services delivered by HCSD are pretty darn good, having watched our own two kids go K-12 through the system. So do all the people who have moved here to take advantages of our schools. That doesn't mean there aren't some important things to talk about. One of those is the college remediation rates reported by the Ohio Board of Regents, which measures how prepared our kids are when they actually start taking college classes. Specifically, 25% of our high school graduates who enter college must take remedial math or English in their freshman year, compared to 15% of those who graduate from a Dublin high school. There was no mention of this in Dr. Riggle's presentation.
The Thursday portion of the meeting closed off with a report by Carrie Bartunek, who is responsible for community relations. She reported on several programs, including the "Coffee with the Board" events, saying they were well received and well attended, but gave no hard numbers. Mark Morscher attended at least one of these – how many were there besides you, Mark? Ms. Bartunek said her group had performed a survey recently, and said parents reported feeling communications was good. Of course, they're thinking along the lines of communications about their kid, or their kid's building. Those interviewed also reported being concerned and under informed about school finance; how many times have I made this point to the school leadership?
The meeting adjourned at 9:30pm, to be resumed Friday morning at 8am.
Asst Superintendent Tim Hamilton started off the day with an update on the construction of Bradley High School. You may have read that this $65 million facility has now been turned over the HCSD. It was good to hear that activities are already taking place there (we've heard the drumline practicing from our house).
Gary Orr, the Director of Technology and Richard Boettner spent the next 90 minutes updating the group on their IT achievements and plans. Mr. Boettner, the Coordinator of Instructional Technology, explained many ways in which information technology has been applied to the classroom, with many teachers and students taking advantage of its potential.
President Denise Bobbitt asked a great strategic question: at what point can we start using electronic devices as a substitute for books, and get out of the business of buying and maintaining printed books.
No one around the table got the right answer however. The issue isn't technology – the Amazon Kindle is already here. It's that the school book publishers haven't figured out how (or if) they make money in a world of electronic books. They've watched the music industry get torn to pieces by failing to correctly analyze the strategic implications of downloading, the iPod, and Wal-Mart, and don't want to make the same mistakes.
The strategic response for the Board should have been to give the IT folks the mission to start working with Amazon, their current book publishers, and other large school districts to do some experiments (e.g. select a set of high school kids to receive a Kindle loaded with all their textbooks, and try it out for a year).
The curriculum team was brought back up to discuss progress on the one strategic initiative I'm aware of, called "High School 2020." Of particular interest to me was the discussion relative to the Pre-Engineering program being implemented. You may have read that the HCSD leadership decided to drop our district's support of Metro High School – a decision which I still don't understand. One goal I heard mentioned was that students in this Pre-Engineering program would receive credit for "their first two engineering courses at Ohio State." That seems like a very low goal. I'm not even sure what it means. I was in the College of Engineering at OSU, and couldn't tell you what "the first two engineering courses" might be.
The argument against supporting The Metro School is apparently that a lot of money gets spent on a few kids. Our agreement with Metro says that we can send five students per class to Metro – a total of 20 kids. I understand the cost to the school district to be about $6,700 per kid – less than the average per student spending for a student in our own schools. Metro students complete their high school requirements by the end of their sophomore year, and by graduation may have completed a year's worth of college credit – which includes actually taking classes at OSU.
So what if only a few kids can attend Metro? Seems to me that we have no problem with that kind of selectivity in other arenas. For example, only 50 or so kids get to play varsity football for one of our high schools. We pour an enormous amount of resources into those few kids, including a pretty fancy football stadium, coaches, uniforms, etc. Spend a pile on 50 kids for athletics, but balk at spending a little (and no extra) on 20 kids for an extraordinary academic experience? What does that say about our priorities?
After lunch, the external health insurance consultant gave a presentation on the merits and challenges of converting to a 'self-insured healthcare plan.' I am familiar with this concept – my employer was self-insured for many years. The idea is simply this: rather than paying large insurance premiums, the school district would pay claims for healthcare services directly. To keep from being exposed to the potential risk of huge claims, the school district would buy a "stop loss" policy which kicks in after a large deductible is met – usually on the order of several dollars for an organization this size.
Even when self-insured, there needs to be some parameters to the coverage. For example, how large will the co-pay be for various services? What things will be covered and what will not? How much will employees be required to contribute to the fund the school district would set up to pay healthcare claims? The best way to handle all this is to hire someone, perhaps the current health insurance provider, to administer the plan – including advising the School Board on the parameters of the plan.
Done well, a self-insured plan can save an organization a decent amount of money. But we would have to also recognize that it would create more parameters for the employee unions to put on the table when contracts are being negotiated. There would be no cost savings in going self-insured if the money saved on insurance just ends up being negotiated to another component of compensation.
As was the case last year, this meeting spanning nine hours cannot be called a strategic planning session, and I know of no other strategic planning session on the Board's calendar. At best it was a presentation to the Board members of the various achievements and near term plans of the various departments. The notable exception to this was Andy Riggle's curriculum group, who most definitely had a long-term vision (e.g. High School 2020) which is being turned into a well defined set of practices and measurements.
All that stuff is wishful thinking if there is insufficient funding to support it. The conversation our school leaders dread must take place nonetheless, and that's the one about whether it is the desire of the people of this community to continue funding our schools at the levels desired by the unions and the administrators. If nothing changes, I believe that cost to be on the order of 7 mills every two years – the same size as our last levy. I'll explain where that number comes from in the next article…