Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Retreat 2009

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?

Apparently not.

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…


  1. This is OT but I think this is very bad news for Hilliard.

    "Removing the construction trailers from the site" and "indefinite delay". I bet a lot of sphincters tightened when this was announced. A lot of the commercial development Schonhard and Co have touted for Hilliard must be based on the medical, retail, this facility would be expected to attract. Not good.

  2. In the last "Coffee with the Board" in March, which I believe was the only session held since the Levy election, there were two residents and four Board Members. I felt very bad for the Board Members.

    I do know the sessions last Fall prior to the levy were well attended.

    "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."

    In the 18 months that I have been following this blog and paying more attention, it is apparent to me that the "strategy" is dicussed by Mr. McVey and his staff, and then imposed upon the Board.

    Paul, once again, thank you for the excellent summary of this important meeting. Your efforts to continue to Educate Hilliard are a great service to the community.

  3. Excellent synopsis, Paul. Thanks for posting it.
    Regarding the Metro HS vs. the football teams, it raises the issue of what we should be paying for in these tough times. And it does seem rather bizarre to shortchange academic opportunities while paying for non-academic activities. That is a major reason I was against the third high school - and yet it was also the argument about why we needed a third high school - to create more opportunities in the sports and extra curricular areas. Otherwise, it would have made sense to expand the current buildings, which WAS the announced plan when the schools were built.
    On the matter of insurance plans, it DOES make sense to at least partially self-insure. My business took that route several years ago, raising deductibles on the plan and paying the difference ourselves after realizing that a small minority of our employees was responsible for the majority of claims to begin with. It does take some analysis of claims history to find out if this is effective though.
    I am glad that Ms. Bobbit is so concerned with our health issues - it would be nice if she paid a bit more attention to the financial health of the district too. The food service is contracted out to Aramark - I would have to assume that the district has some input into what is served, and of course always has the option of changing providers if they think it will improve the choices. Seems Aramark gets a pretty good deal - my wife works in the central kitchen which is now at Bradley, and she tells me that it is full of bells and whistles. Granted, they serve a huge number of students but wonder how much that cost us? Aramark also does a lot of private catering business using those facilities - wonder who gets that money? The smoking policy discussion I just don't get - isn't the use of tobacco products already prohibited on school grounds - by everyone? Seems a no-brainer to me - see someone smoking in the stadium, tell them to stop or leave. End of discussion. Seems our Board suffers the same problem of many companies - non-productive meetings due to getting so easily
    sidetracked with the minutia instead of dealing with the tough issues. As GS just posted, Erickson stopped construction on May 11 and it seems there was absolutely NO mention at the Retreat? Do they not realize that this could have a major impact on their revenue stream? Seems to me that the Board has their head in the sand, and will just carry on business as usual until the money runs out again, at which point they will come to us for more. They need to start thinking ahead a
    lot more than what they seem to be doing and place more of a focus on the important thing.

  4. Hillirdite:

    Yeah, the thing on the self-insurance isn't that it doesn't make economic sense - only that if the school board didn't go into that conversation with any consideration of the connection it might have to the union negotiations. For example, I can see the union leaders saying "hey, any money saved on OUR insurance should be money you give to US."

    The positioning toward the union needs to be pre-emptive, and sound like: "It's the taxpayer's money. We (your employers) agree to give you coverage, and the cost is something we split between you and the taxpayers. Since the taxpayers pay the far greater share (90%), and your cost is capped, all the money saved on the self-insurance goes back to the taxpayers."

    This is what I've meant about lack of business savvy. This isn't a PTO meeting - the School Board is entrusted with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, with a lot of people trying hard to get as much of it as possible to come their way.


  5. Paul - I get your point, and the Board has to get into the mode that ANY money saved needs to be saved for the taxpayers rather than give any and all savings back to the unions. I still don't believe the current Board has the stomach to play hardball with the unions, but they better unless they want to see another levy go down in flames. It is truly unfortunate that more people did not get up in arms over the last contract when it was obvious to many of us that the money was not there. Hopefully, the next time will be different since so many have been hit hard by the economy, and it isn't over yet, not by a long shot.

  6. Smoking issues? Ay-yi-yi. Denise fiddles while the district burns.

    I think the educational services delivered by HCSD are pretty darn good.

    Relative to other school districts I agree; relative to the standards of a generation or two ago is much more doubtful.

    Decreasing standards can be seen by how SAT tests have to be adjusted (dumbed down) to keep the scale where it's traditionally been.

    Also we're failing our best and brightest - those who benefit us all the most in the long run - likely due to egalitarian teaching strategies. I've read of studies show that the smartest students of a generation ago were more able in math and science than our current graduates. (It makes sense since only the best students went all the way through school in 1940 and they would make each other better because of it.)

    Losing genius - that slight difference between excellence and something greater - is quite painful even if we don't see the effects of it as clearly as we do poorer student performance. Witness how much worse off we'd all be without Jonas Salk.

    I'm not sure there's a solution, but it strikes me that we've come a long way from reading the classics in the original Greek or Latin.

  7. GS:

    Not off-topic at all. The Erickson project may end up being an eyesore in our community for years to come. Or it will be chunked up into smaller properties that have neither the aesthetics nor revenue potential that was planned.

    Doing some research now on commecial vs residential development over the past decade, and its impact on school economics.


  8. As a follow-up comment (though this applies more to higher education and not our local district), Camille Paglia once wrote about the demise of modern education in Slate saying "I denounce the outrageous expense, ideological indoctrination and spiritual hollowness of American higher education."

    She posted a response from Bryan Cones:

    "I long for the education my older professors got (the old priests, that is) -- a good liberal arts seminary education, an incredibly broad graduate education in language, history, philosophy and theology. Unfortunately, I don't think it exists anymore -- creating an updated version would be a worthwhile challenge -- and I sure as hell don't want a doctorate in the 'latest thing,' which will surely be worthless in a year. One can only take so much play with language -- cleverness can really only go so far. Truly accurate analysis requires piles of knowledge, and most of what I've read is a lot of nothing."

  9. Eire:

    Well said. I had a chance to go to Germany in 2001 as part of an exchange visit with my daughter's German class. When we were there - in early June - their graduating seniors were taking their oral exams.

    That's right, oral exams. They may have taken some standardized tests as well, but an important hurdle for those kids was to be able to stand alone in front of a panel of teachers and get quizzed on absolutely anything they were expected to learn during their years of public school. There's no 'teaching to the test.' You have to be able to show conceptual and integrative comprehension, not to mention communications skills.

    The Germans use a system like many other countries where kids are sorted out into "college material" or not. The "college material" kids go to a separate school (called a 'gymnasium' in German) from the other kids, so for starters, there aren't so many of them. They get a great deal of attention, but there's not much tolerance of failure. If a kid doesn't do the work, they're sent off to the vocational school, which by the way doesn't carry the same kind of stigma is does here.

    We've largely taken the element of competition out of our public school academics. That's too bad, because it hits the kids hard when they start applying for college, and even harder when they have to compete for a job.

    I'm all for equal opportunity, but at some point you have stop trying to push unwilling or unable kids through the system, especially when it suppresses the opportunity for the best and brightest.


  10. The decision to leave Metro High School is troubling and warrants public scrutiny. I had a chance two years ago to observe the school, which included several days of interviews with students and faculty. I was blown away. The students at this impressive school have a tremendous opportunity, and it's one that Hilliard students shouldn't be denied.

  11. Matt: I couldn't agree more. I know two kids in Metro. One is the son of one of my business partners, and the other is a young woman from our church. I find myself quite envious of the experience they are having.


  12. The issue with Metro isn't the quality of the program, it is a cost/business model issue. Metro tuition is around $6200/year per student. That money, in theory, would have flowed from the state and followed the kid to metro, however, due to the guarantee and most proposals for state funding for this biennium, local taxpayers would be on the hook for the entire amount.

    How can you justify sending local taxpayer dollars out of the district for what is essentially a private school experience? You've got 5 kids per year and all of a sudden, that's $124K.

  13. Marc:

    Okay, but doesn't it actually cost the district $10,000 to NOT have to educate them? Our school leaders would certainly argue that it would ADD $200,000/yr to our costs if we were forced to accept 20 extra kids from outside the district.

    Yes, I understand fixed/variable cost analysis, and know that the marginal cost of adding or subtracting 20 kids is about zero. My point is that you have to be consistent in that argument, using the same logic whether adding or subtracting kids.

    And I'll return to the point that there are all kinds of programs in which a lot of money is spent on a few. Why is it that we take particular aim at an extraordinary opportunity for some of our brightest and most motivated kids?

    By the way, that $124K is about the cost of one athletic director.


  14. ... whoops. My opening sentence in that last comment should have read: "Okay, but doesn't it actually save the district $10,000 to NOT have to educate them?"


  15. I don't buy that Hilliard is taking a financial hit by participating in Metro High School. Furthermore, the district's public comments on the issue are muddled. Hilliard Assistant Superintendent Andy Riggle told The Columbus Dispatch, "We feel that we can offer that kind of learning experience that they (students) can get at Metro in our own district." Really? How? The Dispatch reported that Hilliard plans its own math and engineering program, but the news article didn't offer further details. Metro High School is a unique blend of college-level instruction and real-world apprenticeship. Hilliard is going to duplicate that? I'll remain skeptical until I see details. In the meantime, Hilliard students are the ones who get penalized by the district's decision not to participate in Metro, and that's not fair.

  16. During a similar discussion in Worthington, I quipped that we should send all 9500 of our students to Metro. That would have cost us $59,000,000. We could have taken the other $46 million dollars in our budget and had a really nice party.

    Seriously, I'd take the $125K and engage the Hilliard High School staff in a competitive process where they can design their own STEM program using the $125K as seed money. The winning proposal should be cost neutral. The reward is that you'd have a sustainable program that would benefit Hilliard students for decades.

    You might be surprised what a group of talented and creative teachers might come up with.


  17. Marc:

    That's a hoot. I suspect that your fellow Board members didn't find it funny.

    I don't buy that it's an either/or proposition. By all means, our talented curriculum department should work to develop an internal STEM program which could help a larger population of kids. But is the only way to do that to take away the unique chance to attend Metro?

    Your district, Worthington, is not an enthusiastic supporter of Metro, requiring your kids who attend to pay the $6,200 out of their own pockets. Do I understand correctly that this policy was changed mid-stream, with some of your kids now at Metro having completed a year or two tuition paid by the District, but who will now have to complete their Metro experience on their own dime?


  18. In 2006 (Metro's first year), we charged parents the full tuition to attend Metro. All was well and everyone was happy.

    In 2007, Attorney General Mark Dann sent a note indicating that our district did not have the authority to charge tuition for Metro. While Attorney General Dann's opinions did not have the force of law, we decided that we not allow additional students to attend. We did not pull the existing students out of Metro.

    In 2008, State Representative Kevin Bacon and (then) State Representative Jim Hughes wrote language that clarified the law and restored our ability to charge tuition.

    Matt, I don't doubt that Metro is an amazing program - the question as always is - who pays. The Metro business model was set up on the false belief that local school districts actually receive that $5800 per pupil that is widely documented. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Given this, local taxpayer dollars are involved to fund tuition to benefit a small number of students. Moreover, it was an open ended commitment as Metro tuition could rise each year depending on the level of subsidy they receive.

  19. Marc: thanks for the clarification of Worthington's policy.


  20. Marc, thank you for the backstory on Metro funding. It is precisely this information that we somehow do not get from anyone when a topic is discussed. It is very similar to treating the symptom instead of the cause.

    I am of the belief that if we can fund an appropriate education for the specific needs and capabilities of a child for $6,000, it is the responsibility of the district to do it. We already do it for special needs kids, so why don't we offer the option for special abilities kids?

  21. Mark, I'll reiterated my original point. Hilliard school officials haven't fully explained their decision to leave Metro High School, and the public deserves some answers. If they have a plan to create a similar academic program, let's see the details. If they're mostly annoyed with the financial arrangement with Metro, then say so. And if that's the case, I think they are being very short-sighted.

  22. FYI, the Dispatch is starting to look at school funding a little more closely:


  23. Indeed. I've had the chance to talk with Charlie Boss a few times over the years (Hi Charlie, if you're reading), and think perhaps the dialog we've had on this blog has influenced the Dispatch staff to dig a little deeper than perhaps they have in the past. For example, until recently, you never heard any reporters around here write about step increases.

    I still need to analyze the most recent Dispatch article, but on first glance it looks pretty accurate and balanced.

    The next point we need to get across is that many school boards have an inappropriately close relationship with their administrators, and the two of them tend to get a mindset that they're in the business of manipulating the people of their community.

    When I was interviewed by the leadership of the teachers' union, who were deciding who to endorse in the election, I told them that the relationship between the school board and the administrators should be "friendly, not not friends." The Board is elected by the people to run the district on their behalf, and the administrators are the folks hired to carry out the mission.

    See Tail Wagging the Dog

  24. Just read in Hilliard This Week about the discussion of the smoking policy at the Retreat, and I am now shaking my head even more than before. Exactly what is Ms. Bobbit trying to accomplish? Is it a total no smoking policy for employees at any time, like Scotts has done, or just getting rid of "designated smoking areas" on campus? Between the combination of a poorly written article and the rambling statements by various board members, I am befuddled. I guess maybe that is why they had to spend so much time on it?

    And now that Erickson has totally pulled out on the Hickory Chase project, I wonder whether the Board was counting on any of that revenue in the future? I do know the mayor was quoted as saying the City was not counting on any revenue until it actually started producing some, but the board has been silent about the entire thing, other than This Weeks article saying Wilson is of the opinion that the schools should be secure.
    "As long as they pay their taxes, we won't be out any money," he said.
    Who is going to be paying taxes on a foreclosed property? The bank, I would assume? And how much revenue is actually going to go to the schools in light of the TIF agreements, which I will be the first to admit, I do not understand.
    Guess I am just feeling totally clueless this week!

  25. Take a look at what Worthington School Board member Marc Schare (a frequent commenter here) said to his fellow Board members in regard to their fiscal planning.

    The HCSD leaders need a little of this brand of thinking...


  26. Marc Share's comments sound a lot like the folks over at EducateHilliard.org, and just what we need here.