Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Superintendent Who Gets It

The following letter appeared in the Monday, June 22, 2009 version of The Columbus Dispatch. The writer is the Superintendent of Hardin-Houston Local Schools, a school district of about 1,000 kids in Shelby County, west of us. Hardin-Houston Schools serves a region which is mostly agricultural, with local property taxes generating school funding of $2,500 per pupil, compared to $6,500 in our district. The State of Ohio provides 55% of the funding to operate Hardin-Houston, compared to 33% for Hilliard.

In other words, Hardin-Houston is comparable to Northern Local Schools in Perry County, the point of origin of the lawsuit DeRolph vs. State of Ohio that led to Ohio's school funding system to be ruled unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court. In spite of this ruling, the school funding methodology in Ohio has remained unchained, although substantially more money has been allocated in the state budget for school funding since them.

The Governor's so-called "Evidence Based Model" is touted as being a solution that solves the problems found by the Supreme Court in DeRolph. This model has incorporated into House Bill 1 - the State's biennial budget. The Ohio Senate has rejected the Governor's Evidence Based Model, and put forward its own bill which is essentially a continuation of the current system.

One would think that a Superintendent of a small school district which struggles for funding would be a strong supporter of the Governor's approach, and hence the House version of the school funding bill. But read what he has to say:

Ohio House Bill 1, which will establish the state's funding and spending priorities in the next biennium, 2010-11, continues to be debated in a joint House-Senate committee. By June 30, this committee must arrive at a balanced budget.

What makes this task so challenging is that the budget shortfall continues to grow -- to the tune of $3.2 billion.

Many more positives for school districts are found in the Senate version. For starters, every public school district will receive minimal increases in the next biennium; the House version actually projects a decrease in state funding for some school districts over this same period.

The Senate version virtually eliminates all the unfunded mandates found in the House version. This includes the "evidence-based" school-funding model, for which the House doesn't explain how it is to be funded. Thus, the Senate version allows school districts to retain local control over how their state money will be spent.

The House version mandates that state dollars pay for staffing positions/programs, such as building managers, social workers, nurses, nurse's aides, lead teachers, noninstructional aides, and also for 20 additional days of school.

The Senate version eliminates these unfunded mandates. It focuses on per-pupil spending instead of funding based on staffing needs. Also, the Senate version provides school districts with permanent replacement of funding losses caused by the elimination of the tangible personal-property tax.

Finally, the Senate version eliminates Jarod's Law, a costly unfunded mandate pertaining to school safety, and it restores the right of school districts to reduce staff for financial reasons.

The Senate's bill is not only more beneficial for school districts but much more fiscally responsible.

Superintendent, Hardin-Houston Local Schools

I don't imagine Mr. Scheu is a popular person in education circles. He understands the underlying motivations of the Governor's approach, and why it is supported by the education community. The current system calculates state support based on the number of students in the school district, but then allows the local school leadership to figure out how to best apply the money in their own district. The Governor's model starts with the number of students, but then goes on to dictate the minimum number of teachers, administrators and staff in several categories. The Governor's systems isn't a 'fund the child' approach – it's 'fund the employees.'

Hilliard Superintendent Dale McVey says "the current funding system doesn't work, and never will." Superintendent Scheu seems to disagree.

I have long believed Mr. McVey's issue with the current school funding system is that local voters have tremendous voice in the amount of funding the school district receives. The only way for the school leaders to get more funding from our community is to put an operating levy on the ballot, and have a simple majority of the voters in our community approve it.

That isn't easy. The history in Hilliard Schools is that operating levies aren't likely to pass the first time on the ballot. The school board then adjusts the millage, and the administrators publish lists of all the services that will be cut if the levy doesn't pass the next time. A "Do You Love Your Kids" emotional appeal campaign is mounted, and eventually a levy squeaks by.

Many school leaders, including ours, prefer a system where local voters don't have so much control. They want the control of funding of our school districts to be turned over to politicians who can be swayed with campaign contributions and promises of voting blocs. It's much easier to 'sell' a Governor and a few hundred members of the General Assembly than it is a community of 80,000.

As is so often the case in American politics, we of the public are the audience to a great performance of sleight-of-hand misdirection. The politicians supporting the Governor's Evidence Based Model want us to think its beneficiaries are our kids, when it's really the educators. Mr. Scheu is calling them out on this, and it's not the first time. He has the support of his School Board, who voted in March of this year to withdraw from the Ohio School Boards Association and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators – the large associations (and lobbying groups) representing school boards and school treasurers (HCSD is a member of both).

Good for him. I hope there are more in the education community who think like him.


  1. Refreshing to see a superintendent like that.

    What I don't understand is exactly how the system got this way. Specifically, how it is that the school board seems to have become a willing participant in the whole sham. It seems as though the board should be the citizenry's strong arm against the waste and nonsense so rife in the educational system.(My mother taught grade school for years and has stories of how far removed from reality the educational establishment is.)

    Instead the board acts like they've been compromised by the teaching industry. I suspect it's similar to how congress members are influenced by lobbyists. I suspect you end up being co-opted by those you work with the most - and the board works with and has more contact with the district than with local citizens.

  2. Eire:

    I think it's a combination of several things, but primarily these:

    1. Most folks have become apathetic about the governance of pretty much everything, be it the school board, their church, corporations (of which nearly everyone is now a shareholder), or the nation. When the people stop watching the henhouse, the foxes get it.

    2. The folks who step forward to run for the school board are good and decent civic minded folks - at least that's what I've seen here in Hilliard - but they aren't necessarily folks with the training and demeanor to govern a $200 million enterprise employing over a thousand people. I may criticize the folks who sit on the school but, but I have great respect for them as individuals who stepped up to their civic duty.

    It's another consequence of the apathy thing: Hilliard has plenty of people who would be awesome school board members, but they don't sense the duty to serve the community.

    3. The folks who are now serving on the Board have a history of service to the school district in a variety of volunteer capacities. In those roles, they have become friends with the administrators and teachers, often outside the school setting.

    And gradually, they lose track of who they are supposed to represent (the people of the community), and become more like an extended part of the Administration.

    After a while, the public becomes something that has to be manipulated, or best of all, taken out of the decision making process altogether - which is what our Superintendent and his colleagues would very much like.

    We need to put an end to that kind of thinking, and the only way to do that is to elect people for the school board who have both the skills and the willingness to speak for the people, and not the educators.

    Watch for announcements...

    (see also "Tail Wagging the Dog")

  3. Makes sense Paul.

    I've heard it said that (at least the last two hundred years) Americans prefer evolution, not revolution. Joe Scarborough argues that we're a center-right country, tempermentally conservative. And part of the conservative temperament seems to be to do things the way they've been done - which, in the school system point-of-view, is lame but...

  4. I love the phrase "evolution vs revolution." People who use it don't really understand what they're saying.

    Most people think about evolution as a eons-slow process. Turns out that while that happens, the key to evolution is that every once in a while, some cataclysmic event occurs and wipes out pretty much everything that hasn't developed characteristics that allows for survival in the new environment.

    Dinosaurs had a good thing going until the climate changed. When it got cold, it was good to be warm-blooded and covered with fur, like the mammals.

    I think such an event might be in the future of our public schools, and other government institutions. Could be that the private schools are the only ones left standing after a general taxpayer revolt.

    Maybe that would be a good thing.