Thursday, June 4, 2009

Board Retreat: 2009

As is their custom, the Hilliard School Board will be gathering at 6:30pm on Thursday, June 18 at the Central Office Annex for their annual retreat, which will continue into the next day, starting at 8am.

I hope they do better this year. The retreat last year was useful as a time for the Board to to receive staff reports, but had almost no value as a strategic planning exercise. They have some significant long-range issues to address, such as:

  • Approximately 40% of our funding comes from the State of Ohio, and at this moment it is anything but clear how that funding may change in the next few years. Our leaders must prepare contingency plans that assume at least a couple levels of state funding. I recommend scenarios for a 5% cut, no change in funding, and a 5% increase.
  • Regardless of what happens with state funding, it is clear that the leadership has come to believe that another operating levy will need to appear on the ballot in 2010. This thought was reinforced in the presentation by the Audit & Accountability Committee at the last Board meeting. And to be fair, the Board gave hints that this would be the case at their meeting last year when they voted to put the last 6.9 mill operating levy on the ballot (following the failure of the 9.5 mill levy). Of course, this declaration was conspicuously absent from the levy campaign message.
  • The "elephant in the room" remains the same as it has always been – the rate of growth in the cost of compensation and benefits for the employees of the school district. This is the insatiable mouth that always needs to be fed. At nearly 90% of our total operating cost, no other category of spending has significant impact on the size and frequency of operating levies. We need to initiate a respectful but firm dialog with the teachers' union about recalibrating their pay scales to reflect current economic conditions. There is no way that another contract with 3% base pay raises and 4.15% step increases can be offered. The Board, the Administration, and the union leaders need to begin a dialog with the objective of minimizing the size of the next levy. Everything should be on the table, including the step increase structure which has been sacrosanct for decades.
  • After nearly a decade of asking, we still have no effective community education effort, meaning our voters will continue to make decisions based on emotions. This is a dangerous position to be in when the dominant emotion right now is one of anxiety over personal economic survival, as our economy continues to spiral into deeper recession.

I hope many of you will plan to attend some or all of this meeting, especially the first part on Thursday evening. Last year, the only outsiders at the meeting were me and Cathy Wogan from Hilliard This Week. If we want our school board to be more communicative with the people of our district, we need to show that we care enough to listen.


  1. I suspect the district isn't thinking longterm because our leaders are thinking: "All the other districts are in pretty much in the same boat as we are. We all have a 'compensation problem' with teachers that can't continue. Things have to change but we don't need to be in the vanguard of it."

    Public school districts seem eerily similar to General Motors. Very little long term thinking. Continuing to flounder due to being at the mercy of a powerful union. (As was said on MSNBC's Morning Joe recently, 'name one successful unionized company?' and the pundits were silent. I sense it works similarly with schools.) Ultimately the districts figure that they are too important to fail such that in the end voters will always eventually capitulate. Not to mention they figure that state government will ride in and rescue all districts and thus create even greater inefficiencies and waste.

    The real politic of it is likely that Hilliard knows things can't continue as they are but knows that other districts (like South-Western) are in bigger trouble so let them lobby to have the system changed. So far it doesn't seem to be working out since South Western sure doesn't seem to be thinking outside the box.

  2. A good while ago, I wrote that I had been in a conversation with a friend of mine who had once sat on a suburban school board here in central Ohio. One of his comments was that he felt nothing would change until there was an 'economic collapse in a respected school district.'

    I fear he's right.

    Yesterday, the Columbus Fire Chief got his turn to say that if the citizens of Columbus don't pass an income tax increase, hundreds of firefighters will have to be laid off. That was following the week of pronouncements by the new police chief that hundreds of police officers would get the ax. I guess that next week it will be the sanitation workers, then the street maintenance folks. I can hear it now - if you don't pass the income tax, we won't be able send the snowplows to any residential streets, or even buy salt for the main roads.

    Not once do you hear any of these leaders say - "we understand the tough spot many folks are in, so we're going to freeze our pay for the next three years."

    A contractor who will be doing some work at a not-for-profit I'm involved in said he had to lay off close to 20 people this year as the construction industry declines. When asked how he decided who to lay off - he said it had to be based on productivity. If he bid out a job estimating it to take 100 hours of labor, he needed folks who would actually get the work done in 100 hours, or maybe even less. So he laid off the folks who consistently took more hours than scheduled (which he would have to pay for, but not get revenue to cover).

    If his business were unionized, he'd have to lay off the most junior workers, even if those new guys were superstars. And because new guys are the lowest paid (by union rules as well), he might have had to lay off 25 instead of 20 to stay in business.

    As I've written before, I'm not against unions in principle. There's no question that unions played a big part in getting worker safety addressed.

    But the post WWII boom is over, and we need to recalibrate to a global market. Teachers and cops and firefighters may not think they're competing globally for jobs, but those of us our here in the private sector - the folks who pay the salaries of those unionized public employee - certainly feel that competition.

    Things have to change.

  3. Things do have to change, hopefully not at the expense of our future, our students.

    Unfortunately, too many people see fit to speak their mind by doing long term, perhaps irreparable damage, to young people.

    The Unions ARE the problem, and voting no does NOT fix the problem, as we have seen time and time again.

    Perhaps we should find another way, maybe hold OURSELVES accountable for who we elect???

  4. Paul has mentioned it several times... we are being held accountable for whom we elected, as reflected by our disappointment with the continued lack of communication and overall change in approach toward our fiscal concerns. Hence, the growing effort founded within this forum to be much more careful and directed in the upcoming board election, as well as genuine effort to Educate Hilliard.

    That is much more focused on OUR accountability than I have seen ever before. If you want to hold yourself accountable for the direction of this district, do some thing to be heard or help direct the future of the district. You, too, can Educate Hilliard.

  5. Paul, don't know if you read This Week yet but there's an article about the schools that seems to have the "smoking gun" in it as to why the schools seem to be so relaxed about development. Maybe I'm reading it wrong, but it seems like Brian Wilson is lamenting the decrease in growth in residential property in recent years! He talks about how it has shrunk to .5 percent as if that's a burden on the district, before adding that residential growth is a "double-edged sword because it also means additional students".

    I couldn't believe it. I think this explains why the district was so nonchalant about residential growth for years and didn't put any pressure on the city council. They must see it as more or less revenue neutral ("double-edged sword") at least in the shortrun! They are not on our side on the issue which actually makes sense because of course a union is going to want more customers (i.e. more students) because it ultimately means more jobs.

  6. Eire:

    I was at the meeting and heard him say this firsthand.

    This Board has never done what is called a 'sensitivity analysis.' This is study of how changes in particular variables affect the whole system. It's the financial equivalent of the scientific approach of doing experiments by changing only one variable at a time.

    In this case, you would start out by asking: "What are the primary components of revenue?" The answer would be: Residential Property Taxes, Commercial Property Taxes, and State Foundation Aid.

    Then you would run scenarios which change these variables in different ways.

    So one scenario would be to hold Commercial Property Taxes and State Foundation Aid constant, and increase Residential Property Taxes. If you assume that Residential Property Taxes increase as the result of new construction, and not just property tax increases on existing residences, then you also have to assume that each new home brings with it 0.8 kids.

    This analysis tells you that as more houses are built, the greater the funding deficit becomes.

    This is what has been happening, and the only way our Board knows how to fix it is to raise taxes on the people and businesses of Hilliard via levies.

    They think they are powerless to demand that the rate of residential development be paced to commercial development. Mayor Schonhardt would have us believe that he's trying to take care of the schools by doing exactly this, but the evidence says that the pace of residential development vs commercial development in the City of Hilliard has widened during his administration.

    We need a school board that will: a) educate the public of the truth; and, b) have the backbone to call out Mayor Schonhardt and his gang.

    By the way, the City of Hilliard has just annexed another 90 acres, much of it for residential development. This brings the total of new land for development annexed to nearly 1,000 acres this year alone (at also includes the land occupied by Bradley High, Alton Darby Elementary, and Darby Creek Elementary - major income tax sources for the City of Hilliard).

    Under county development rules, this 1,000 acres would have a maximum of 200 homes. Under the Big Darby Accord, it would be fewer than 500. Schonhardt claims that he would also keep it at 500, but I suspect that it will end up being more like 2,000 - the number of new water/sewer taps he has approved by Columbus.

    The school board needs to keep an eye on this, and make it clear to the Mayor that he's being watched.

    This board would rather stay polite and quiet and act like victims instead of leaders.

  7. Paul,

    I agree with you on this development issue. IMHO, how it ends up rolling out will end up making or breaking this district. We certainly don't want to see residential development unbalanced by the corresponding commercial development.

    Although the Bradley attendance area would be the one most directly impacted, this is a district-wide concern. We would need more redistricting that eventually would fill up all three HSs (Darby & Davidson, as well). However, it is possible before that we got to that point, long-lasting damage might have already been done.

  8. Paul,

    I should have said that how this residential development unfolds is ONE of the main factors that will make or break this district. There are other concerns as well.

  9. Actually, it won't be Bradley that's affected first. I was part of the redistricting team this past time. Setting boundaries for the middle/high schools wasn't that tough, but it was really hard drawing boundaries for the elementary schools, as most of the schools in the southern part of the district are already stuffed.

    I heard more than one person say that Washington Elementary should have been built further south, perhaps on the same land as Bradley. But the people of Ballantrae made lots of noise, and got their way. They complained about the relatively short distances their kids travel to get to Norwich. They should check out how long the drive is from WestPoint to Brown. Most folks in the northern part of the district don't know that WestPoint or Brown even exist. Meanwhile, Washington is handling only a fraction of its capacity.

    Speaking of balanced development - it turns out that the City of Dublin is no help to Hilliard City Schools. The ratio of commercial property to residential property in the part of the City of Dublin in the Hilliard School district (and remember that land has been in the Hilliard School district for a hundred years, but was only recently annexed into Dublin) is much worse than either Hilliard or Columbus:

    In Columbus, there is $700M of residential property and $324M of commercial/industrial, a ratio of a little more than 2:1.

    In Hilliard, there is $680M of residential and $160M of commercial/industrial (more than 4:1).

    For Dublin, there is $149M of residential and only $21M of commercial/industrial, for a ratio of more than 7:1.

    But to be fair in this analysis, a $400,000 home in Ballantrae pays substantially all the school tax necessary (~$6,000) to pay the local share of educating the 0.8 school age kids who live in a new home.

    The moral of that story is that as long as new housing is expensive, there doesn't need to be commercial/industrial development. If that's what Mayor Schonhardt has in mind for these 2,000 new homes he's fought for, we can rest easy.

    But if it's more average housing - we'll all get stuck subsidizing the cost of educating the incremental kids.

  10. We need to tell the union that we cannot afford the current contract and they must make concessions.GM did it. Chrysler did it. Before another levy is floated, the teachers' contract should be re-negotiated.

    Paul re: Alton Darby housing. I seriously doubt Homewood has high-end housing in mind for Alton Darby. By the time they begin building, they will have found a way to wiggle out of the Darby Accord and you'll see 4houses per acre. Green space? Sure, at the subdivision entrance there'll be a flower bed. The big money is in high density. I think Schoenhardt made some promises he'd help Homewood with the zoning and you are right about the 2000 houses.

  11. We're thinking the same way...

  12. Drive around the north end of the district and you will find potential commercial Hilliard City School District property being used for Dublin City Services, Dublin Baseball Fields, and even Dublin City Schools Services/Bus Depot facilities. In the middle of the district property, you will find the same for Upper Arlington City Services. All valuable commercial property that is being used, but not contributing to our school district taxes (that I'm aware of).

    Smart of UA and Dublin locating these facilities outside of their school district.

  13. Paul,

    You're right, I focused too much on the high school situation and not enough to the situation in the elementary schools. I agree that the elementary schools in the southern portion of the district are likely to see the brunt of a new development cycle first.

    Someone at the district level (perhaps Tim Hamilton?) mentioned that Washington Elementary was going to open with a smaller enrollment to allow the build-out of homes in Ballantrae. Similar reasoning was given for leaving growth room for Hoffman Trails (although its enrollment is significantly higher than Washington's). There would be some buildout (smaller than at Ballantrae) at Estates at Hoffman Farms, Village at Homestead and some other areas near the Hilliard YMCA.

  14. I thought I remember Schonhardt saying (at least implying) that the homes built in and near the Alton Darby/Roberts/Walker area were going to be of the upscale variety.

    I did some checking on Homewood's site and it seems that most of the homes built are of the starter to trade-up variety. I'm not saying that this automatically means that the homes will be less than $400K, but it doesn't seem to fit Homewood's current profile.

    I'm not drawing conclusions at this point. Just adding some more information to consider.

  15. SJ:

    That's correct, the empty space in Washington is supposedly held for further growth in the northern part of the district. But if that was really a universal criterion for reserving space in schools, then we'd be saving lots of space in Darby Creek and Alton-Darby, the schools in the part of the district where growth is most likely to happen next.

    The placement of Washington Elementary was a political decision, not one made with logic. The redistricting exercise made that clear. The growth in the northern part of the district is affluent and vocal people (read this if you haven't already), while the southern part of the district has more of immigrant and lower income folks.

    And I think Homewood will build whatever they want when the time comes. Who knows what the real estate market will look like. We went through a time - early 90s - when it was the $350K homes that were driving the market. While that market stayed fairly solid, there then developed a market for low-end housing with the availability of subprime mortgages.

    Which part of the market will come back first? My guess is that as the economy recovers, we'll see middle-class folks start to scale down their taste in home - and it will be the $200K or so housing that comes back. The lower end of the market has been all but eliminated by the mortgage crisis. There will continue to be demand for high end housing, but I think the school funding situation will play a large role.

    In other words, I think the folks with the money to have a choice where to buy a house will head for school districts with lower growth potential and therefore more stable funding situations. Districts like UA and Bexley.

    The point is that what Schonhardt says means pretty much nothing if the homebuilders don't see a market in that range. And the view from the outside is that what the developers want, they get.

    The only way to put a stop to all this is for: a) citizens to throw off their apathy and actually care about this stuff; and, b) to pay attention to who gets voted into every municipal and school district office. If we keep voting in pro-developer politicians, we're all gonna get screwed.


  16. Paul,

    Yes, I'm quite aware of the politics that occurred during redistricting, particularly by the contingent from Ballantrae.

    I'd agree that the southwestern portion of the district is likely to see the largest growth and that Alton Darby and Darby Creek could face overcrowding in a few years. Darby Creek ES was already overcrowded, but some of its neighborhoods were redistricted away in the most recent round. However, it could be just a matter of time until DCES is overcrowded again.

    Again, I haven't drawn any specific conclusions as to the nature of development around Bradley HS, other than I share your concern about its potential impacts on our community and schools.