Tuesday, November 20, 2012

UA Levy Defeated - What Does it Mean?

Three of the most highly regarded school districts in Ohio had operating levies on the ballot this month: Worthington, Dublin and Upper Arlington. The first two had theirs pass, while UA's failed.

I'll not try to analyze the whys and wherefores of those outcomes. Each community has its own personality and demographics, and I have no standing in their debate. But I think there is a lesson in the UA case which is worth examining.

I had the opportunity to attend one of the EducateUA meetings. This was the group who mounted the formal opposition to the UA levy. While that name sounds like the loosely-coupled set of EducateXYZ organizations across the state which I had some hand in organizing (e.g. the EducateHilliard organization which supported Justin Gardner, Don Roberts and me in the last School Board election), and it is true that I at one time had registered the EducateUA.org domain, I had no part in the creation of this EducateUA organization.

My objective for many years has been to educate community members about the true economics of public schools in Ohio so that they can make informed decisions about the governance of their local school districts. The "vote YES if you love your kids" mantras frustrate me, as do the equally ignorant "we waste too much money on ________" rants.

The EducateUA folks decided to focus in on the compensation and benefits costs of their teachers. Okay, that's appropriate. As I've been saying for a long time, the economics of a school district is driven by the cost of the team of professionals recruited to fill the classrooms, and that's how it should be.

I know very few UA teachers, but have many UA friends, primarily through our long membership at Mountview Christian Church. Those families moved to UA to partake of the UA schools, which means to have their kids in the classroom with UA teachers. The majority of kids who come out of the UA schools are a tribute to both their parents and the teachers. It is a place of excellence.

Nonetheless, the mixture of sagging funding from the State of Ohio and growing compensation costs has driven the demand for increased school funding - primarily through local property taxes - to a pain threshold for an growing number of UA residents. That's a real problem, and it needs to be addressed.

But I don't understand how cutting off the funding is alone a solution. If the EducateUA people think the total spending on teacher compensation is the problem, what do they propose to do about it? After all, the compensation schedule for the UA teachers isn't something new. It's been evolving for decades, approved at each stage by the school board members the UA voters elected.

The total cost of the teachers is driven by their average comp/benefits times the number of teachers employed. The first is negotiated between the School Board the teachers' union, and the latter is a function of the programming and services the district chooses to offer.

UA has a rich set of offerings, and that takes staffing. But that didn't change overnight either. Where they are today is the result of decades of decisions, once again approved by those elected to serve on their school board over those years.

I suggested to the EducateUA folks that if they wanted to oppose the levy, they needed to tell the voters what they thought should happen if the levy was indeed defeated. From what I saw, they had no plan in that regard. They simply wanted to defeat the levy, and force the School Board and Administration react to the reduced funding.

My suggestion to them was that the likely reaction is very predictable - the Administration will propose to the School Board that extracurricular programming be eliminated, or perhaps made a Pay-to-Participate system fully funded by very high participation fees. High school busing would also be eliminated. Neither would have that much of an effect on the budget, but would be painful - like a punishment to the community.

Next, they'll cut some of the optional academic programming, like gifted services at the elementary level. Non-core courses at the high school level would also be on the chopping block, but which ones? The Last-In-First-Out layoff protocols insisted upon by the unions means that it's the lowest paid teachers who get laid off first, so lots of them have to be cut to make much of a difference. In the case of the Hilliard School district, approximately 15% of the teachers would have to be laid off to reduce the teacher comp costs by 10%.

I may be wrong, but from what I can tell, the EducateUA group has not thought through any of those realities, and has no idea what the Administration is going to propose to the School Board, now that their levy has indeed been defeated.

Not only that, but the UA School Board is in the midst of a Superintendent search, meaning that the Superintendent who really understands their system is leaving, and School Board has to convince the candidates to replace him that UA isn't in for a long levy battle of the kind which nearly tanked South Western Schools a couple of years ago. Few Superintendents want to walk into that situation.

Both the pro-levy and the anti-levy groups need to do a better job of thinking through their positions, and quit campaigning on slogans and emotions. There is a very real economic problem to be solved: rising costs, which are almostly entirely due to compensation and benefits, and softening revenue sources, both from a State and local perspective. Cost growth trends versus revenue growth projections are out of whack, and tough choices need to be made to bring them back into alignment.

I voted against our most recent Five Year Forecast because I don't think we're doing enough in Hilliard Schools to have that conversation either. If we can figure out now how to take $250,000/yr of cost out of operations right now, then it has the same impact on our projected +4 year cash reserves as slashing $1 million from our spending plan for FY17. Making moderately tough decisions now will help us avoid having to make gut-wrenching decisions in a few years.

It's going to be interesting to see what happens next in UA. Will they get the Superintendent they want, or will the best candidates be scared away by a levy battle?  How will the UA School Board react to the levy defeat?  Are they going to just go back on the ballot in the Spring?  I'm pretty sure they will, but will it be for the same mills, or less?  If it's less, will EducateUA still oppose the levy?  What if their levy is defeated again?

And more importantly, how will we prevent our community from going down the same path?

I know of no solution other than sincere, respectful, and empathetic dialog among the stakeholders, and we need to start soon.


  1. The last time a levy failed in Dublin a fellow board member stated it was great. He said people would be moving from Dublin and Westerville. Well using that approach people will move from UA to Hilliard.

    The truth is that this casts a dark cloud over HCSD. The future does not look good. Thank you for your NO vote on the 5 year plan. The great concern is that the other laugh at board meetings as we travel down the path to the failure. With the 5 year plan showing the point where we run out of money (again), we just drove past the bridge out sign. We have board members say we can always make changes.

    The history of the district is to spend until we need more tax money from within the district, then start talking to the community about all that will be lost if we don't vote yes. The first vote will fail. Then a select team will be selected behind closed doors to obtain money from vendors who serve the district to sell the next levy and save the end of the district. This group will not have a board member on it, but in the past Dale has had a relationship with the group. If fact the last levy news coverage had a leader leader calling Dale to tell him the levy passed. This has been the method used the past 10 years or so, different board members same leader Dale M.

    I have asked for the public conversation for the past 5 years. I asked the same question at the last board meeting. Looking at the face of Dale and most board members tells the story. They do not want to talk to the community and make changes other than what Dale suggests and the board votes yes on.

    I know this blog is not the place to vent on a person. My comments are provided as an example of how the district has been run the last 10 or so years. However history provides us with what has happened in the past. Us little tax payers never see how the decisions are reached without public conversation. The first step that must be made is a culture change. The current way doing business must change. The next leader must have great communication skills with all, just not the board and those in his favor.

    It is all about the number of students in the class, and what we pay the teachers in total compensation. Without changes we will have a cycle of spend then repeat until a levy fails once, twice then we will experience the true result of the current leadership team of the superintendent and the board. I hope we select the next superintendent who is a leader. So when he/she recommends and the board approves it will include far more people and conversation than a few one on one talks with the board members.

    No matter who we select as the next leader the ones at risk are the children. Home owners come and go. If the district has a run of no votes for several levy requests,then those children in the district who are unable to move will pay the price.

    We have been driving down the same road for several years with a bridge out sign ahead. Each time the voters provide a fix then off we go again. When the fix is not provided we will see the results of lack of or poor leadership.


  2. Paul, in order for there to be a conversation, both sides must want to participate.

    Unfortunately, in Hilliard (and probably other districts), one side doesn't want to participate.

    So, to rectify that situation, one must take a stand. Since the only thing these people understand is money, we will simply deny them any more until they come to the table for meaningful discussions.

    They will continue to believe that everything will be OK, and that the taxpayers will continue to put their hand in their wallet every 3 years.

    I don't believe for a second that Hilliard voters will support another levy after the way this board (yourself excluded) have just ignored the taxpayers since the last vote.

    There have been no attempts to arrest the spending increases as you have advocated for, and given that, we have no option at this point other than to take a firm stand and draw a line in the sand (or school parking lot).

    I ask you to relay this message to your fellow board members. We may not have been at your meetings, but we have been watching. And we do not like what we see, and we will do everything we can to prevent this board and this administration from destroying the future of our children's education by mortgaging their future for the benefit of today's employees.

    Yes, I said it. The employees. This is not, and has never been, about the kids. It has always been about the schools and the people that work in them.

    And voters are beginning to figure that out.

    1. I'm glad to hear that the voters are starting to understand the politics and economics of the public school industry - which is substantially the same across the country. This has been my primary mission for many years, and I know and appreciate that you and your colleagues have been playing a part in the education effort as well.

      The next major economic event which will occur in the life of our school district is the renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreements with the two unions - HEA, representing the teachers, and OAPSE, representing the staff. The result of those negotiations will have a direct bearing on the size of the levy that gets put on the ballot in 2014 - which I'm quite sure is going to happen.

      It's not a bad thing to put a levy on the ballot by the way. It's appropriate for the School Board to give the community the opportunity to answer the question: Do you want to spend $X more per year to fund the Five Year Forecast for Y years?

      But we need to have two viable alternatives: one if the levy passes, and one if it doesn't. The latter alternative still needs to fund the budget necessary to operate a high quality school district, albeit with a narrowing of programs and services (because by then, labor rates for the next 3 years will have already been set).

      More public education and engagement is needed, not less, and we can start with the Superintendent search process just getting underway. I hope my fellow Board members agree.