Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Follow me on Facebook

Going forward, I'll be posting new content on Facebook. Please "Like" my new page, and let your friends and neighbors know about it.

All the 450+ articles posted here will remain, as well as the collection of materials which can be accessed from the links to the right.

I'm looking forward to continuing our dialog.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Property Valuations, HB920 and the Adversarial Process

Over the years, I've had a few conversations with a commercial property owner here in Hilliard about property valuations. He has appealed the valuation of those properties in hope of reducing his property tax bill, the bulk of which represents revenue for the school district.

He is angry that the school district has opposed these revaluations, saying he doesn't understand why the school district spends his own tax dollars to oppose his tax reduction request.

Part of this has to do with the technicalities of a provision in Ohio law often called "HB920," after the 1970s legislation which causes the dollar amount of property taxes collected to remain constant on the set of parcels in existence when the levy was passed. The original purpose of this legislation was to prevent rising valuations from automatically raising taxes, which at the time were particularly burdensome for folks in poor urban neighborhoods that were being regentrified, such as The Flats in Cleveland.

So if that original set of parcels were given a market value of $1 billion by the County Auditor, and a property tax of 1 mills were passed, the amount of money generated by that levy would be:
Tax = ($1 billion * 35%) * (1/1000) = $350,000
In other words, property collectively worth $1 billion would generate $350,000 in property taxes if a 1 mill levy is passed. The 35% is the fraction of a property's value which is considered taxable.

Let's say that 10 years later, those same parcels would have risen in value to $1.25 billion, as determined by the County Auditor. HB920 would still restrict the total tax collected to $350,000. This is implemented by way of a "Reduction Factor" applied to the tax calculation.

In this case, the reduction factor would be 0.800000, applies as follows:
Tax = ($1.25 billion * 35%) * (1/1000) * 0.8 = $350,000
All this works in the other direction as well - when property values decline. Let's say that instead of going up 25%, property values went down 25%, to $750 million:
Tax = ($750 million * 35%) * (1/1000) * 1.333333 = $350,000
This same calculation is applied to every parcel in the school district. But over time, individual properties do not necessarily change in valuation as the same rate as the whole district. Some may have greater increases, and some may have decreases. All get the same reduction factor applied, and in the end the total amount of tax collected remains the same.

Here's the subtlety built into this:  when one property owner is successful in getting their valuation reduced, the consequence is that everyone else has their property taxes increased in order to keep the total amount collected constant. As the value of one property is decreased, the overall Reduction Factor applied to everyone has to be increased to compensate.

So who represents the "everyone else" when a property owner files an appeal for a reduction in valuation?

In most cases, it's the school district. As with so much of our legal process, the various sides in a case present their arguments to an impartial "court," who listens to the arguments and renders an opinion. Whether the case is a capital murder or a property revaluation, the theory is that justice is best reached when opposing parties argue vigorously, and an impartial judge makes the final call.

That's what's going on here. Nothing evil or unfair - just the wheels of justice turning as designed.

But someone has convinced some of our lawmakers that this approach needs some tweaking. Language has been inserted into House Bill 483, the midterm budget bill, modifying section 5715.19 to prohibit parties such as school districts from opposing reappraisals unless the reappraisal was requested by the property owner.

In other words, if the County Auditor changes the valuation (remember all the arguments about the valuation of Nationwide Arena?), the school district has no right to argue in opposition.

Who then represents the interests of the property owners who will have their taxes raised as a consequence?  No one.

Contact your state legislator if you think this isn't fair. For those of us in the Hilliard School District, this is:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Their Education; Their Choice; Our Money

The final issue of the year of Bradley student newspaper, The Reporter, includes an editorial titled "Our Education, Our Choice."

First off, The Reporter is a well written and well edited student newspaper. I support and applaud the effort of our students to engage in political discourse. The School Board heard from students when changes were made to the Honors/AP class grade weighting, and it led directly to changes in the policy. We're hearing from them these days in regard to potential changes to the German programming.

The most dangerous threat to democracy is apathy. I've said it many times on this blog. Democracy is designed around discourse and debate. Not everyone will get their way all the time. To reach a majority, compromises must often be made.

So I'm glad that there is a student voice being heard about changes in course offerings. But they are also naive in regard to the economic reality.

Our school district offers an incredibly rich catalog of course at the high school level. Last year, students were scheduled in 209 uniquely number courses in our high schools. The Program of Studies for 2014-15 looks like a college course catalog.

When I went to high school some 40 years ago, our course options numbered about 30.

I'm not saying that offering 200+ courses each year is inappropriate. I'm just pointing out that it's not free. Every one of those courses must be taught by a licensed teacher, who gets a decent paycheck and great benefits. There has to be a place for the class to meet in a school building (except for the online courses). Those buildings are pretty nice in our district, and our community pays a boatload of taxes to repay the bonds (ie mortgages) on those buildings and to keep them maintained.

The range of what school districts spend, on a per-student basis, ranges widely in our state, from $21,776.student in Orange City Schools in Cuyahoga County to $6,000/student in Washington Court House. This is a consequence of both the differences in teacher compensation, and the number of teachers per student. And the number of teachers/student is heavily influenced by the variety of courses offered. You can be sure that the course catalog in Washington Court House pales compared to Orange. Or Hilliard.

I'm glad we have such a rich course catalog. But it's expensive. If we want to keep it so, then it has to be supported by regular tax levies to generate the revenue to pay the ever-escalating cost of faculty, staff and administrators.

The students don't bear these costs - the property owners of the community foot the bill. They're the ones who get to decide how much we spend to run our schools. They do so  by electing their neighbors to serve on the School Board, and more directly by voting whether or not to increase their property tax burden when we put an operating levy on the ballot.

A desirable school district is good for everyone. It makes our community a great place to raise kids, and it makes it a place where one can have confidence that the homes we buy retain their value.

Many kids want more. Nothing should be cut - only new things should be added. Meanwhile the voters tell us that it already costs plenty to run our school district, and they're not eager to increase the rate of spending. In fact, they'd like to see it slow down.

Economic discussions are about choice, when you can have some, but not all of what you desire. This editorial in the student newspaper doesn't acknowledge that because the students don't understand or participate in the cost side of the debate. Sadly, few voters do either. A parent showed up at a recent Board meeting to angrily tell us that he would campaign aggressively against us in the next election should the German program be terminated. He's free to make that threat.

I wish I had asked him that if we do not make any changes to the German program, would he be equally energetic in his support of the next levy...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Entscheidungen über Deutschunterricht

These are the comments I made at the April 28, 2014 meeting of the School Board.

I am of Germanic heritage. 

My children both took several years of German at Darby and received college credit for much of it.

I was a chaperone for a group of Hilliard students who spent 3 weeks traveling across German-speaking Europe.

I like German cars and German beer and have purchased a fair amount of both.

Ich habe Deutsch gelernt

Nonetheless, the resources of our community are not infinite, and we must constantly evaluate and adjust how we allocate resources to prepare our children for their future.

Depending on what list one consults, German is barely in the top ten list of first languages, although it is a few places ahead of French. Bengali, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese are all more widely spoken as a first language.

I traveled to Germany often for business. For the past 70 years, nearly all children in the former West Germany have studied English and are competent in English, and since the German Reunification almost 25 years ago, so have the children of the eastern states. It is not difficult to do business in English in Germany, although admittedly disrespectful.

While Europe and Germany will continue to be important trading partners for America, there is no question of the growing importance of Asia and the Middle East in our future. It may be time to begin reallocating our education resources relating to citizenship of the world toward those regions

Education is a people business – teachers instructing students. That means changes to programming and methods affect people. Tough decisions sometimes have to be made, and they will affect the lives of people we respect and care about.

That means we need to make these decisions in an empathetic and compassionate, but unambiguous way. No one should be left guessing.

If possible, we should allow there to be sufficient time for affected individuals to respond and adapt. If we can provide resources to facilitate the transition, that would be appropriate.

This too is a teaching moment for our students.

Friday, April 25, 2014

April 28, 2014 School Board Meeting

Here are the supplemental materials for the April 28, 2014 School Board meeting, to be held at 7pm at Scioto Darby Elementary.  Note that the Administration is posting this stuff on the district website as well.

I've added a new link to the list on the right - Curriculum.  It contains the Course of Study documents which have been presented to the Board over the past year or so. This is our curriculum - not the Common Core. You'll of course see references to some elements of the Common Core, because it's a pretty good set of standards and it makes sense to use many of them. But we add, delete and change curriculum elements as we see fit - locally.

That's why I don't understand the criticism of the Common Core, at least here in Ohio. Each local school district determines its own curriculum standards and instructional approaches to deliver that curriculum. If you want to have a conversation with me about the Common Core and Hilliard City Schools, please read these documents first.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Five Year Forecast

Here is the Five Year Forecast that will be presented at the next regular meeting to the School Board by Treasurer Brian Wilson.

click to enlarge
The changes are slight from the last forecast, approved October 2013, and shows a small increase in the projected FY18 end of year cash balance. It shows us in good shape to be able to wait until 2015 before asking the voters for another levy, my estimate around 5 to 5.5 mills. We could even wait another year, but that would demand a levy in excess of 8 mills to fund.

It might be worth reviewing the article I wrote in 2011 about the four big Budget Knobs, those being: 1) our cash reserve balance; 2) our spending rate growth, 3) when we want the next levy to be on the ballot, and 4) how large we should plan for that levy to be.

One of the unfortunate side effects of losing the old SaveHilliardSchools.org domain is any of the links in the blog which refer to that domain are now broken. I'll experiment with fixing that when I have a chance. Sorry for the aggravation.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


I must have missed the notices to renew the domain name I've held since 2006 - SaveHilliardSchools.org.  It is now apparently in the possession of Majid Hussain, who lives in Birmingham, England. One of the many kinds of entrepreneurs on the Internet - those who somehow find out about expiring domains and snatch them up, hoping to collect a "ransom" to give them back.

Fortunately, that doesn't mean the hundreds of articles and years of work have been lost. I've had the domain "EducateHilliard.com" registered but dormant for several years, so have put it back into service for this blog. I'll put the word out of the change, and hope that folks find their way back. Meanwhile perhaps the scads of spam comments will stop.

All the 400+ articles I've written are still here, and folks should still find them when doing a Google etc search if they're looking for this kind of information.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

iPads for Everyone, Part 2

One of the ways in which we plan to offset the cost of a 1:1 deployment of iPads to our students is by acquiring content in a different way than copyrighted textbooks.

Right now, electronic versions of many traditional textbooks cost nearly the same as the paper version. That's because the textbook industry hasn't yet been transformed in the way the music industry has (see my prior article on this subject). Few people pay $20 for a music album any more - we got very tired of albums with maybe two decent songs and a bunch of mediocre stuff. Now we expect the option to buy music by the song, with only a few artists having the market power to demand that their songs be bundled in albums any more.

Will we see something similar with textbooks?

Ask most teachers, and they'll tell you that a significant fraction of the material in their current textbooks is never used. In some cases, there just isn't time to cover every chapter. In other cases, most but not all of the contents match our evolving curriculum. So the teachers use what fits, and have to find other sources for everything else.

An evolving practice is for teachers to assemble much of their material from sources other than textbooks. It may be modules available from online sources, or material written by inhouse staff. And of course teachers have been writing some of their own lesson material for years.

With iPads in the hands of every student, we have a lot more flexibility as to how to assemble course material. What doesn't make sense is for every school district in America to write their own materials for every subject.

What I think will develop is a network of content developers, some embedded within school districts but mostly independent, each specializing on various subjects, or courses, or even particular units within courses. For example, maybe Hilliard schools becomes known as an excellent producer of American History content, and we start selling that to school districts across the country. Maybe Worthington becomes the Trigonometry experts. Maybe Bexley specializes in 17th Century French Literature. A school district in Boston becomes the go-to source for Physics curriculum.

If folks like Prentice Hall, one of the major textbook publishers, are smart, they'll start to nurture and develop these independent content producers. And they'll find a way to package and sell content in a manner like iTunes, where a school district can download a math unit for a couple bucks per student.

The competition will drive content producers to figure out more and more powerful ways to present concepts, using the full audiovisual capabilities of devices like the iPad. We already see some of this with the Khan Academy material for teaching math and science.

I think we'll also see a kind of publishing standardization develop such that a course is say American History can be assembled from modules acquired from many sources without subjecting students and teachers to jarring and distracting differences between authors. That in turn will drive the device manufacturers to build more and more capability into their devices. And drive down the price.

In the process of getting stuff organized for the upcoming move of our household (still within the school district), I came across a document from my 9th grade year explaining to our parents why our school was arranging a three day trip to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Here's an excerpt:
Today, we desperately need more effective science instruction, for international competition is ever increasing. Our scientific and technical knowledge is increasing and changing at at such an accelerating rate, that to cram more facts into the heads of our children is certainly not the answer. Professional scientists tell us that 1/3 of what we are teaching today will be obsolete five years hence, and what replaces this knowledge has not yet been discovered.
I was in the 9th grade in 1968, forty-six years ago. Yet it's remarkable how much this educator's warning sounds like what we hear today. In those days, our personal calculating device was a slide rule, and we produced term papers on manual typewriters (footnotes were a pain!!). We had to find our information by actually going to a building called a library, looking through the card catalog (title, author, subject), checking out several promising books, searching those books for relevant information, and making dozens of note cards. "White-Out" was our best friend.

One of the casualties of our move is a set of very fine encyclopedias and a dictionary that my wife and I bought soon after we were married. Today, it's not worth making shelf space for these expensive books in our new, smaller home. Truthfully, we haven't cracked open one of these volumes for decades.

What does the future look like for today's 6th graders, the first of our students to be issued iPads?  We haven't a clue. We know that they'll be expected to locate and synthesize vast amounts of information, and they won't need to be trained on the Dewey Decimal system to find it. They won't be competing with peers who are armed with facts, even though we marvel at Aaron Craft's ability to recite Pi to 60 places.

I remember a physics professor once saying that in our working lives, we wouldn't be expected to pull the differential equations of thermodynamics from our heads, but we'll need to have internalized that there has been a method developed for addressing such problems, so that when we encounter one we'll know it can be solved, and what resources to use to proceed.

That's the kind of knowledge we need to impart to our kids, whether we're talking about science and math, or philosophy and history. They need to be able to call on the great thinkers who came before them and add their own insight (a function of knowledge) and creativity to help solve problems that we today don't know exist. And as much as many like to poo-poo the value of a liberal arts education, teaching kids how to think and reason is just as important as teaching them a trade.

These iPads are both a instructional learning devices, and a portal for access to the incomprehensible amount of information out there. Will they hold up as state-of-the-art for long?  No, of course not. The slide rule I mastered in high school was out of date and relegated to a drawer in my first couple of years of college. No one in my workplace used a slide rule - everyone had pocket calculators, expensive as they were.

But that doesn't mean my high school physics teacher shouldn't have taught us how to use a slide rule. In fact, I was at an advantage when I started engineering school at Ohio State - many of my classmates had never used one before.

Likewise, I have no doubt that the students of Hilliard City Schools will be advantaged by the incorporation of these devices into our methods for delivering instruction. Isn't that why most of us moved to Hilliard and continue to financially support our schools - so our kids will have a great start in life?

Monday, March 17, 2014

iPads for Everyone

At the School Board meeting held March 10, 2013, Superintendent Marschhausen introduced to the public a plan to begin equipping our students with tablet computers. Much of what he said was captured in a story in This Week Hilliard.

One of the most important statements he made was that this program would not result in any new taxes. That detail was noted in the This Week story, as well as in the story in The Columbus Dispatch. In his March 11 blog post, Dr. Marschhausen goes on to say, "We will pay for this initiative mostly through a reallocation of district and parent resources with only a small amount of additional dollars being spent on the entire program."

That's a big deal to me.

Readers of this blog know that I've written at length about the economics of our school district, and that our costs are driven primarily and appropriately by the compensation and benefits of our team of teachers, support staff and administrators. Indeed, compensation and benefits represents 86% of our operating budget. But did you know that after compensation and benefits, one of our greatest costs is textbooks and educational materials?

Textbooks are crazy expensive, especially for the upper grade levels. It's not unusual for textbooks to go for over $100 each, and for them to last only seven years. That replacement cycle is due in part to wear on the books, but also because of changes to curriculum and content. It's the reason virtually every school district in America is looking for an alternative to the printed-on-paper textbook.

The textbook industry is about to go through the same kind of radical evolutionary process as the music industry already has. I read an excellent story about the music industry a few years ago in which the author made the claim - accurately I believe - that the record companies had once maintained power in that ecosystem because they had built the scale necessary to manufacture, distribute and retail plastic discs: first vinyl records, then CDs.  Yes, the record labels did manage to lock up artists and exert creative influence, but the artists signed with the labels because that was the only way to get millions of records pressed and distributed. And that's how everyone made money (except the Grateful Dead, the ultimate touring band).

Then came the internet. It became possible for artists to record their music and distribute directly to consumers. Some did exactly that and made a few bucks. Then outfits like Napster showed up and nearly succeeded in making the going price for music essentially zero through their implicit support of music piracy (aka copyright infringement). The music industry had a period of chaos when it looked like no one was going to be able to make money.

Then along came Apple Computer, who changed everything when they released the iPod and iTunes. Concurrently, Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America for copyright infringement and won (which I think was the correct outcome), and music piracy came pretty much to an end. A reasonable price point for music was found, and consumers went back to spending $billions, but the wealth was now being distributed differently than before. No one would have predicted 20 years ago that a computer company would be one of the biggest players in the music industry and that the traditional record labels would become almost invisible. But that's what happened.

No longer did the record labels rule the roost, but they managed to survive by finding a viable niche in the new music ecosystem: they could still help find, produce and promote emerging artists. I suspect that the music industry is bigger than it ever was, and more artists are making a decent buck.

Similarly, one could argue that the book publishing industry has maintained its power because of its investment in and control of the printing and distribution of bound collections of ink on paper. When Amazon came along, it first began to disrupt the distribution end of books on paper, and life became pretty tough for the brick-and-mortar retail bookstores. The next assault on the book publishing industry came when Amazon released the Kindle, and did to book publishing what the iPod did to music publishing.

Except in the case of  K-12 school textbooks.

While it seems like an obvious move to start buying all textbooks in Kindle format, it's not that easy. A basic Kindle may not cost any more than many textbooks (Kindles are $69 today), it seems like it would be shortsighted to get a basic e-reader when the potential is so much greater with a tablet device like the iPad or the Android devices.

As has been done before with big-deal decisions like this, a task force of community members, teachers and administrators was formed to make recommendations on this matter. With their input, the Administration decided that we'd start with the Apple iPad mini, to be first issued to next year's 6th graders. The 6th grade teachers will get their iPads this spring, along with professional development to help them integrate these devices into their instructional routine. Then during the summer they'll have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the devices and applications they'll use in the classroom.

Not everyone will agree with this decision. The choice of computing platforms has long been like a religious discussion, especially along the lines of PC vs Mac. Recently the Android operating system has become a viable third alternative, and Amazon is still in there as a player with the new models of the Kindle. I've long been a PC bigot, scorning the Mac world in the same way Fox News regards MSNBC (and vice versa).

Then one of my kids gave me her first generation iPod Touch as a hand-me-down when she got her first iPhone (with her own money, yeah!). I used it mostly as a PDA, storing my calendar and contacts, and giving me wireless email access (I've been a PDA user since the first Palm Pilots were introduced in 1997). But I still carried a cheap cell phone - because I'm cheap.

When we shifted to Consumer Cellular, I used the radical reduction in our cell phone bill to fund the cost of an iPhone 5C. Love it. Meanwhile my wife started using an iPad mini, and she rarely gets on our PC anymore. The camel had gotten its nose under the Lambert tent.

After getting zapped by one more virus, or registry corruption, or memory leak, or whatever it is that's making my office PC run like a slug, I finally made the leap to a Mac Mini for my primary office use. I still use Microsoft Office for my productivity software, but otherwise I've fully converted to the Dark Side. Sorry Bill.

The Apple folks have very aggressively attacked the K-12 education segment, and have developed sophisticated products and efficient management platforms. We've long had a few iMacs in elementary classrooms for shared use, and recently starting making shared carts of Macbooks available for checkout when a teacher wants to teach a module which makes use of online resources. For the number of buildings and computers we have in our school district, it takes a remarkably small number of administrators to keep everything update and functioning. That's partly due to the choice of a Mac environment, and partly because of the wise choices made by our Technology Department, long led by Gary Orr (who retired a couple of years ago), and now by Rich Boettner.

So continuing our evolution to the so-called 1:1 device environment (one device permanently assigned to each student) with Apple technology makes sense to me. Starting with the 6th grade students, using the iPad mini as their device, makes sense as well.

But my support is equally due to the commitment our Administration made to pull this off with no increase to our budget. It's easy to spend a ton of money on all kinds of stuff in a school district, and we already spend plenty. Without a doubt, the time would come when it would be a no-brainer to shift to a 1:1 device environment. We're on the leading edge of that curve, and will have to work hard and be smart to make our fiscal commitments come true.

I'm asking Dr. Marschhausen to develop a way to assure the School Board and the voters that the promise of "no new taxes" is honored. At a minimum, it should show up as a permanent downward inflection in our textbook spending. At a macro level, the spending side of our Five Year Forecast needs to remain on substantially the same trajectory as was last approved in October 2013.

Meanwhile, I'm proud to be associated with a school district who is among the first to take this step. Many are watching us.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Common Core

This article was stimulated by one by Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, titled "Lies, Damned Lies, and the Common Core."

I was a little surprised that during time leading up to the November 2013 election, no one asked the candidates for Hilliard Board of Education what any of us thought about the Common Core. It didn't come up during the "Meet the Candidates" night conducted by the League of Women Voters. The reporters from This Week Hilliard didn't ask about it, nor did the online questionnaire published by The Columbus Dispatch.

And I was glad.

Not a lot of people understand the Common Core: what it is, how it is designed to be used, or what it contains. That means most of the questions someone like me gets about Common Core originate from ignorance and prejudice, often fueled by what they hear from folks like Glenn Beck and Fox News.

The radio in my car has three stations on "speed dial" - WOSU-FM (89.7), WTVN-AM (610), and WODC-FM (93.3).  If I'm out during the morning or afternoon drive time, I'm usually listening to 610 because I enjoy the local programming, and in particular have long been a fan of John Corby and Joe Bradley, who do the afternoon drive-time show.

I also enjoy lots of the WOSU programming: BBC World Service, All Sides with Ann Fisher, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and of course, Car Talk. And when I just need to clear my mind, or want to revel in a beautiful day - I crank up the oldies on 93.3. That's my chicken soup.

Every few days, I'll decide to listen to what Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh have to say. It doesn't usually last long.

I remember when I first became aware of Glenn Beck. It was right after 9/11.  Before then, 610 had a locally-produced morning show with Bob Conner, a long-respected radio personality here in Central Ohio. Then on 9/12 or one of the days immediately following, Clear Channel said something like "we're bringing Glenn Beck to all our stations nationwide during this time of crisis."  I don't know that BC ever returned to the air on a regular basis, and it's been Glenn Beck every weekday morning since then.

Beck has been able to amass a huge audience in the years following of course. It's more than just an audience though. He now has disciples - folks who absorb what he has to say as truth, and are inspired to act on his agenda, which I'm not quite clear about. I'm not sure many of his followers are clear about it either.

On some points, I'm right with him:  less government, free markets, love for God and our fellow man. Sounds pretty conservative, and one would assume this makes me a staunch Republican, maybe even Tea Party.


Nor am I a "Big D" Democrat, even though I think an appropriate amount of government regulation is a good thing. If we're going to function as a society, we need some ground rules that we'll all abide by, and in particular our markets needs some boundaries that dampen out wild swings and prevent unhealthy monopolies from developing. Some parts of the Democratic Platform I agree wholeheartedly with - especially those dealing with social justice. Other things are way outside my morals and sensibilities, and I can't accept being labeled a Democrat if those values get attributed to me as well.

So I'm an independent, or as Ohio law defines me, "Unaffiliated." As I put on my Facebook profile, my political views are - well, you have to ask me about a specific topic.

Back to Common Core.

Glenn Beck seems to have taken the position that the Common Core is part of a left-wing conspiracy to indoctrinate our children with liberal values, much to the detriment of our republic. In fact, I think that's pretty much the words he uses. He believes its purpose is part of the long-view strategy of the Democrats and others to win the liberal struggle by bringing up a generation of kids who share their views.

That view is promulgated by the hard-core right, and the elimination of Common Core has become a key plank in the platform of many Republican and Tea Party candidates.

Here's my take.

If you want to have a discussion with me about the evils of the Common Core, the first thing I'm going to ask you is whether you've actually read significant elements of the Common Core standards, and compared it to the curriculum standards currently in place in your school district. If so, what differences do you see that concern you?  I'd happily engage in such a conversation, and would likely learn something in the process.

Or are you just reacting emotionally to the showmanship of folks like Glenn Beck?  I think Beck is a marketing genius. He's identified a genre of issues that matter to many Americans, and has been able to stir up a fair amount of fear and emotion around those issues, drawing people to listen to him - which is how he gets paid.

Yet, the greatest threat to our nation isn't all this political debate and stupid squabbling. Nor is it al-Qaeda and others who threaten us with physical harm.

It's the ignorance and apathy of the voter. I thank you for electing me to another term on your school board, but by the way, only 13% of the registered voters showed up in November. Only 7% of the 56,488 registered voters in our school district voted for me (just 8% for Andy and Lisa). So do my views align with the majority of the people in our community?  Who knows?

What fraction of the voters do you think have put any effort into the daunting task of understanding the Common Core? Or the Affordable Care Act, potentially one of the most impactful pieces of legislation written in the past fifty years?  Heck, most of Congress doesn't understand the ACA. I expect that not a single member of Congress has read the whole thing. Nor has the President.

Neither have I.  I just want to know what it means to me: Can I get cheaper coverage? (No)   Is this program going to cost me a bundle in taxes so others get benefit? (Probably).  Is the country better or worse off because of it?  Note that this is my third question. Me first, country second.  Such is the way things are going in America.

We can get specific information to answer the first question, and I did so. I finally made a successful pass through Healthcare.gov and got quotes for coverage. I compared it to my current arrangement, and found that I'm better off where I am. Nice data-driven, objective decision.

The other two questions are trickier. Even if I read and fully understand the thousand or more pages of the Act, I still wouldn't necessarily be able to predict all the economic and political consequences, mainly because I don't understand the motivations of all the lobbyists who actually write much of the legislation these days. So like every other American, I'll form my opinions based on what I read in the press and hear on the radio and TV.

I'll listen to Glenn Beck on occasion and try to pick what makes sense out of the snake oil pitch. I'll listen to NPR as well, and even a little John Stewart.

By the way, did you hear that the Administration is thinking about using The Onion as a channel for reaching young folks about the ACA?  Isn't that interesting - that the most trusted news sources for the Millennials are those who overtly parody the news?

I'll turn to my Feedly feed, and read some mainstream news sources as well as blog articles which seem to be applicable, like the one by Petrilli which I reference at the beginning of this story. I'll attempt to synthesize all that and form an opinion.

Or maybe I'll just watch the Winter Olympics. When will it be warm enough to get the Harley out? It already is in Sochi...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

February 10, 2014 Meeting of the School Board

Please note that this meeting is being held at 6pm at the McVey Innovative Learning Center Annex.  The agenda is comprised of routine items, and I expect that the meeting will be brief. Note that Board meeting materials are now available on the district website.

I would like to bring to your attention that the Popular Annual Financial Report (PAFR) is now online and available for your reading pleasure. I've complemented Treasurer Brian Wilson and his team for producing a document which I think does a great job of explaining the major components of our economic structure. I encourage you to take a look at it, and invite your neighbors to do so as well.  There are hardcopies available from Mr. Wilson's office.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Supplemental Materials for the January 27, 2014 School Board Meeting

Here are the supplemental materials for the January 27, 2014 meeting of the School Board, to be held at 7pm at Memorial Middle School.

I'm happy to report that the supplemental materials for School Board meetings are soon going to be posted on the District website.  Thank you Dr. Marschhausen for making this happen. Perhaps at some point, documents from prior meetings will be posted online as well, but until then the materials I've posted - going back to June 2012 - will remain available here.

As I noted previously, we're in the process of going through the three readings of new and changed policies, the documents which govern the operations of our school district. This meeting will be the second reading, and if all goes according to schedule, we'll be voting to put these policies into effect at the next meeting.

Please take the time to read the new proposed language of Policy CBA, the "Qualifications and Duties of the Superintendent."  This has been significantly overhauled with input of the School Board, Dr. Marschhausen, and Dr. Bill Reimer of the Education Services Center (ESC) of Central Ohio. This policy is much more "alive" than the prior policy, and I'm excited to observe Dr. Marschhausen already spreading its philosophy through the District.

Please also give some attention to the proposed IGBEA-R, which describes how our district will deal with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. I understand the motivation behind the Guarantee, but I think it places unnecessary burdens on school districts which have demonstrated success without it. After all, we're not in the business of producing 3rd-grade graduates, it's 12th grade graduate which is our goal. If a kid catches up in the 5th grade, why isn't that a good and acceptable thing?

I wish our public education system could be redesigned to adapt to the developmental growth rate of each kid, and not try to shove them through 13 years of school like it is an assembly line in which each age cohort is homogeneous in their ability. We certainly do that at the college level - each individual is free to go at the pace in which they can succeed (and afford).

Meanwhile, we're going to have some drama because of this law and the policies it demands. There are going to be kids who have to repeat 3rd grade who might be better served with other solutions. The parent meetings will be challenging, and as Dr. Marschhausen says, everyone will be crying.

Item E1f is the approval of supplemental salaries for coaches and leaders of the Spring activities for Davidson/Weaver and Bradley/Memorial. The Darby/Heritage numbers will be brought for approval at the next meeting.

I hope you're a regular reader of Dr. Marschhausen's blog, "Get Connected."  His most recent story talks about how the decision is made to close the district on snow days. He also closes with a word of caution to the students to be careful what they post on social media sites. Increasingly often, these posts are examined by important folks, like college admissions officers and potential employers. And they don't necessarily disappear from the search engines just because a post, or even a whole account, is deleted...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Whoops! Spreadsheet Error: STRS Still in Trouble

I've been writing for a few years about the ticking time bomb which is Ohio's State Teachers Retirement System.  I first became aware of this issue when I came across a blog written by Kathie Bracy, a retired Columbus Public teacher.

This week, STRS was again in the news when The Columbus Dispatch reported that a consulting firm the STRS management uses had a "programming error" in their actuarial evaluation of the investment fund. It turns out that the problem is bigger than was thought.

Pension funds are simple in concept.  Employees and employers pay into a fund during the employee's working career. That money is invested. When the employee retires, the combination of employee and employer contributions, plus the earnings on investments, are used to pay out retirement benefits to the employee.

Pensions have been around for a while, but became popular during the last half of the 20th century as employers competed for workers in the post-WWII boom economy. The best thing about this component of compensation - from the perspective of the employers - is that it was a promise to pay something in the distant future, and not an immediate hit to profits.

Then someone got the bright idea to start increasing the pension benefits so that a retiring worker would receive not just the money he had contributed, plus that contributed by the employer on his behalf, plus the earnings on those contributions accumulated over the years - but also a share of that which was being contributed by active workers, and by the employer on those workers' behalf, plus the earnings generated by those contributions.

Some would call that a classic Ponzi scheme - a kind of con game where the first investors are paid off using money collected from newer investors, who are paid off with money from still newer investors. Ponzi schemes collapse when new investors become hard to find, and there's no money to pay off the earlier investors. This is what happened with the now infamous Bernie Madoff scandal, but there have been many such swindles over the years.

STRS is an agency created by the Ohio law, and governed by a Board which includes officials appointed by the Governor, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate, plus five actively working teachers, and two retired teachers. They don't share exactly the same goals.

Working teachers would like to contribute less, have the employer (ie taxpayers of school districts) contribute more, be able to retire earlier, and have confidence that their eventual payout will be both generous and secure.

Retired teachers want to be sure that they get all that they were promised, and that their benefits won't be reduced, or made less secure, by increasing demands from working teachers, or because of risky investment decisions by the retirement fund managers (unless they pay off).

And the politicians?  They want to get re-elected of course. So they listen to the lobbyists who provide the most in the way of campaign contributions and votes.

What about the voters - the taxpayers - the folks who foot most of the bill for this retirement system?  In politics, the ignorant, the apathetic, and the quiet get ignored. Sadly, this seems to be the majority - the so-called "Silent Majority."

STRS needs more fixing. This actuarial mistake reveals that the current STRS benefits scheme is still designed to pay out more money than can be supported by the current size of the fund, its projected investment earnings (which are still overly aggressive in my opinion), and expected future contributions. Some or all of those parameters need adjustment.

The only way to fix it is to increase contributions and/or reduce benefits. You could of course get even more aggressive in the investment strategy. Rare coins anyone?

Two classes of folks have an interest in the benefits side of the equation: teachers already retired, and teachers who are yet to retire. The latter group has the greater political clout, primarily because of the power of the Ohio Education Association - one of the largest unions in the country. The working teachers also have more seats on the STRS governing board than do the retired teachers. So for now, future retirement benefits are prone to be protected at the expense of the benefits to current retirees. This is what Kathie Bracy and her cohorts have been fighting about.

On the contribution side, the two parties are the working teachers and the employers - the taxpayers. For a number of years, the teachers have contributed 10% of their salary, and the taxpayers 14%. In the last round of adjustments, the teacher share is gradually being raised to 14% as well.

So what's next?

STRS invests heavily in the stock market.  They probably had pretty impressive returns in the past year or so (the 2013 report is not yet out). They've also had some pretty spectacular losses, like in 2007 when they lost nearly half their money - on the order of $30 billion. They're not expecting those kinds of losses again, but they are making assumptions about investment returns which many - including me - believe are overly aggressive. That's means they think they're better off than they really are.

I don't know what comes next, but I remain steadfast in my belief that the taxpayers shouldn't be expected to bail STRS out. Our 14% share seems like it should be enough to fund reasonable benefits, given reasonable contributions from the working teachers. Remember that the while the percentage is constant, the underlying compensation isn't.  If compensation goes up 5% per year, then the taxpayer contribution will go up at 5% per year as well.

If the STRS members want to gamble with that money in hope of getting even bigger retirement benefits, that's okay by me. But if the bet doesn't pan out, it's the STRS members who have to take the haircut.

Not the taxpayers.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Supplemental Materials for the January 13, 2014 School Board Meeting

Here are the supplemental materials provided in preparation for the regular meeting of the School Board, to be held Monday January 13, 2014 at 7pm at Ridgewood Elementary School. Note that this meeting will be preceded at 6:45pm by our annual organization meeting, during which officers will be elected, committee assignments made, and various annual resolution passed. Andy, Lisa and I will be sworn in for the new term.

Item C3 is the acceptance of the Treasurer's Monthly Report for November.

Item F1 is a resolution to authorize the President and Treasurer to sign a contract for the sale of 100 acres of the parcel on Cosgray. The buyer is Help All Kid's Play, Inc. (HAKP), and the price is $3.5 million, or $35,000/acre. These are the folks who want to build soccer fields there, and are who we hoped to sell the property to in the first place. Unfortunately, the first time around, they wanted the school district to provide the financing, and we could not accept their offer on that basis. This is a simple cash offer.

We've decided to retain title to 24 acres of this parcel just in case it makes sense to build a school there at some point in the future. In the meantime, it will be leased to HAKP for use as part of their athletic facility. This is an annual lease with automatic renewal unless either party gives 90 days notice.

The agreement includes a rider which states: "No portion of the Property shall be sold, leased, licensed, authorized or otherwise used for residential or multi-family housing or any related uses (the “Use Restriction”). The Use Restriction shall run with the land. No residential or multi-family housing building or structure shall be erected or constructed on the Property."   Besides the obvious desire to limit new residential development, this also keeps the buyer from just "flipping" the property to a developer at a tidy profit. We accepted a price lower than the $40,000/acre that Rockford Homes thought it was worth only because HAKP agreed to this condition.

A new set of Policy updates are getting their first reading. I've not reviewed them yet, but will be doing so before the next Board meeting. I encourage you to read these as well, and let one of us know if you have any feedback.