Friday, January 23, 2015

Budget Metrics

Budget Goals


I don't like the way the board sets budget goals.   This is an essay on how the district counts our money.  It's not my most exciting writing, but it's fundamentally concerned with how our taxes get raised.

Let's start with the main budget goal for FY15, the current school year:


FY15 budget goal from the September 18, 2013 minutes

First what's good about this.   The board is constraining budget increases to not exceed the inflation rate (usually around 2%), in other words, zero real growth.   This is an ambitious goal for a number of reasons.   In New Hampshire, nominal cost per pupil grows much faster than the inflation rate, often a few percent more annually.  So the cost-of-living constraint is a reduction relative to the state average.  Also, given tuition students and a surge of new kids in the district, our enrollment is rising, but we are not allowing ourselves to spend more money to accommodate the new students. This essentially forces a further reduction per pupil equal to the rate of increase of the student population.  This is all good news for the taxpayer.

I've been making public comments at board meetings for a while about what I think is bad about goals of this form.  I have three main objections. The first is that I don't believe the "not subject to COLA" exceptions should be included.   Negotiating contracts are a big part of the board's work, and this clause allows them to shrug off a poor job.  Dealing with external things like health insurance costs and shifting state support is a big part of budgeting -- when you get a shock in one item you have to find the money somewhere else.  The time for the mealy-mouthed language is after the bad thing happens -- you can use it to explain to taxpayers why you didn't meet your simple, ambitious, clearly articulated goal.  The board has been happy to reap the rewards of unexpectedly low health insurance costs, so no fair punting the hikes.

My next two objections are about the word "Budget."   First, it's not clear what exactly this means.  (The most likely contenders are the operating budget and the total appropriations.)  Second, it's the wrong goal to measure as it doesn't reflect important sources of revenue under board control, mainly tuition income and fund balance (previous year's unspent money).  Most of the rest of this essay covers this in detail while developing an alternate budget metric.

Here's the goal approved for FY16, the next school year.  It governs the work on the budget currently being developed.

FY16 Budget goal from the September 3, 2014 minutes


This is an improvement over the FY15 goal in an important way: it makes it clear that it's a constraint on the operating budget.   On the face of it, it's also an improvement because it reduces the exceptions -- health insurance and negotiated contracts are no longer excepted.  But it still excludes the increases from negotiated contracts as those need to be approved as separate warrant articles.  I guess we're counting health insurance as an expense this round.  (The health insurance budget line has acted like a stealth reserve fund in recent years, but I'm not going to get into that here.)

This also got worse in some ways.  I don't want to focus on the size of the increase in this essay, but I'll mention 3% is larger than an inflation cap, which would be around 1.8%, and that the difference is almost exactly the amount of found money from the LGC settlement which the district spent on Moh Café.

I'm not too fond of the preamble, which is a bunch of excuses about the increase.  I don't mind a rationale, but separate it from the actual goal.  It's a bit disingenuous too, given that by excluding warrant articles they excepted the negotiation increases and true capital expenses would be outside the operating budget (I think they're mostly talking about maintenance, which is an operating expense).  Actually the exception is even worse than it looks, because the district is probably excepting those items as costs this year, but comparing the total to the un-excepted budget of the previous year.

How Are Budget Increases Measured?


The real problem is the quantity being measured doesn't measure a few big ticket items that the board controls.  From what I can tell, this year the figure of merit is

increase = (FY16_operating_budget - state_shifts - negotiated_increases) / FY15_op_budget - 1

The goal is to keep this increase under 0.03.  Each of the subtracted terms will only be included if it makes the increase smaller, which is icky in my book.

Instead of subtracting costs from the total budget to obtain a figure of merit, it makes much more sense to subtract non-tax revenue, as those go to lower taxes, just like spending less.  Instead of using the operating budget, it makes sense to use total recommended appropriation, which includes all board recommended warrant articles (especially including negotiated contract increases).   And it certainly make sense to compare the figure to the comparable figure the previous year, instead of a different figure that results in a smaller perceived increase.

I'm not writing a mystery, so I'll tell you now that the form I prefer is

CostToGov = total_recommended_appropriations - total_school_revenue

increase = CostToGov_this_year / CostToGov_previous_year - 1

I called it CostToGov (cost to government) as it represents the amount that will be covered by federal grants, state taxes and grants, and local property taxes.  We'll get into exactly what's included in total_school_revenue below, where I call this metric TotA-Sc-FB-Xf.  Let's explore various budget metrics to see how I arrived at this one.

Options for Budget Metrics


The operating budget (fund 10) represents all the money needed to operate the school for a year.  I think there's a bit of difference between what the ms-26 calls the operating budget, as that includes transfers to other funds to fund things like food service (which also gets revenue from meal charges and from the feds).  Those amounts stay pretty constant so I'm not going to worry about the difference too much.  Since the district is excluding recommended warrant articles in their goal, the increase as a result of negotiated contracts is not counted.

The total recommended appropriation is the operating budget, plus the first year amounts on any warrant articles recommended by the board.   I think it is a better metric than the operating budget because the additional warrant articles that are approved by the board will end up taking real money out of taxpayers' pockets so should be counted.

However, just focusing on the expense side of the budget leaves out important board work that affects taxes.  The problem is particularly acute given the increase in tuitioning.  We've reached the point where more tuition students means hiring more teachers.  This causes an increase in the operating budget to pay their salaries and benefits.   We're told this increase is more than offset by increased tuition revenue to the district.   But the spending metrics, like operating budget or total appropriations, do not include the beneficial effect on taxes of taking in tuition revenue.  Thus, under the pure spending metrics, taking tuition students is a bad idea, as it increases spending.   But in fact it's a good idea, as revenue received substantially exceeds expenses incurred, thus lowering the tax burden on us locals.  Our metric must reflect this.

Historically, the board appropriates a bit more money than it needs every year.  The amount left unspent at year end is called the fund balance.  It's returned to the taxpayers every year, lessening next year's taxes.  (Now at board discretion it can also be transferred to the reserve fund.)   The district keeps pretty good tabs on the expected fund balance.   Lately the board has been spending much of the leftover money instead of using it to lower next year's taxes.   My contention is that this is because the budget metric we use does not penalize this behavior, or reward a large fund balance used to lower taxes.

There are other revenue sources besides tuition and fund balance, though those are the big ticket items pretty directly under board control.   Locally, we also have food service sales, investment earnings and transportation fees.

There are also state and federal grants as a revenue source.  (This is different than the state tax portion allocated to the district.)  These tend to be largely out of district control so I leave them out of total_school_revenue.

It's my contention that what taxpayers are most concerned with in the school budget is their total tax bill.   Since the state portion of the school property tax is out of the district's control, it's the local property tax I consider here.


Possible Budget Metrics


I typed in seven years of MS-26 data, including the one the board signed a couple of days ago.  This is the form the district files annually to inform the state about our budget.  It's produced along with the budget, so represents information available for use in forming metrics.  It's all in this spreadsheet.

Out of the data I made the following five metrics:
  • OpBudget: Operating Budget, excludes additional warrant articles
  • TotA: Total Appropriation, includes operating budget & recommended warrant articles
  • TotA-FB-T: Total Appropriation, less Fund Balance and expected Tuition
  • TotA-Sc-FB-Xf:  Total Appropriation less School Revenue (includes tuition and food service), fund balance and transfers from other funds.
  • LocalTax: The local tax apportioned among the towns
Before we look in detail at these, let's focus a bit on the revenue side of our income statement.

Revenue


Unlike business, accounting for schools tends to focus mainly on costs -- where we're spending money.  For our purposes here it's helpful to change our focus and look at the revenue side of the income statement, where our money comes from.   (The source of the graphs is my MS-26 spreadsheet.)  All the graphs in this essay are in nominal dollars, meaning they're not adjusted for inflation.  I typically would adjust for inflation, but inflation's been running at a fairly constant 2% so it doesn't matter that much and this way is simpler for most non-financial folks to understand.

 
The bulk of the money to run schools, around 2/3 ($27M of $40M), comes from local school property taxes, the big green bars.  How this money is apportioned among the towns and eventually the property owners is the subject for another day.

After local tax, the next biggest chunk is Statewide Enhanced Education tax, coming in at $8.4M, around 20% of the budget.   The amount is largely out of the hands of the school boards.  It appears as a separate line on your tax bill.  The state collects it and doles it out among the towns.  The amount collected and the amount given back aren't the same -- this is the line having to do with Claremont and donor towns and a bunch of stuff I'm not really clear on that changes every few years.

The remaining 11% or so are a bunch of smaller items we look at in detail in the next graph.

 
I drew the gridlines here every $400,000.  Given our budget is around $40M, each $400,000 is about 1% of the budget. 
 
The big spike in the green line is cut off -- it represents $2M of additional revenue to build the new field ($1.7M bond + $.3M transferred from existing district track funds).  The field has its own warrant article.  It requires a 60% supermajority of voters to pass.  I'm guessing it's unlikely to pass this year.  Even if it did, it wouldn't impact taxes much next year -- for some reason the payments are low the first year.  (Principal and interest payments would average about 0.5% of the budget for each of the next 10 years.)   It does represent $2M of additional spending, so as we will see, it does impact the total appropriation.
 
Besides the bond, the two revenue lines that change the most are tuition and fund balance.  Tuition is what we get from taking other, mostly Barrington students, and you can see that the district has been growing this for a while, even though the formal 10 year plan with Barrington to grow it further doesn't officially start until September.  Fund Balance is the unspent money left over at the end of the previous school year, which is essentially rolled over into next year, lowering taxes.  The remaining items include other school revenue (mostly food service, investment and transportation income), revenue from federal programs, revenue from state grants (mostly building construction funds) and revenue from transfers from other funds the district has.
 
I put "non-tax" in quotes because much of these are funded from taxes, just not this year's state and local property tax.  Tuition is mostly taxes collected from Barrington folks, fund balance and other funds are mostly from taxes collected in previous years and state and federal grants come from other taxes.  The exception is the school revenue, which comes from real business activity (selling food or bus seats). 
 
The district doesn't have that much control over the federal and state grants -- we pretty much have to take what we get.  The remaining items are much more under the control of the district.  For example, the board decides directly whether to spend the fund balance before the year ends or roll if over into the next year.  So when I considered which revenue sources to include in a budget metric, I thought it would be best to include sources that the board controlled and leave out the ones it didn't. 
 
What really matters is how much these various sources of revenue change from year to year. Let's look at that next.
This graph shows the variation in various revenue lines year to year.  Some, like Fund Balance Revenue, jump around wildly year to year.   Some, like State Grants, stay pretty constant year to year.  Tuition goes up every year.   Again the FY16 bond bar goes to $2M, but I let it be truncated on the graph.
 
That ends our tour of the revenue side of the income statement.  Now we can look at budget metrics.
 

Visualizing Budget Metrics

 
I plotted the five budget metrics mentioned above.   The purple line, local tax, uses the right scale ($10M less); the rest use the left. 
 
Ideally what we're looking for in a budget metric is one that tracks local tax closely while only including items controlled by the district.  These criteria are in conflict -- the more items you leave out, the more the metric will deviate from local tax.   Examining the graph, you can see the orange (TotA-FB-T) and the green (TotA-FB-Sc-Xf) track local tax pretty closely.  The orange deviates in FY16 because it includes the spending on the field but not the revenue from the bond and transfers.
 
Let's look at the percentage change of these metrics.  These are possible figures-of-merit the district could use for goals. 
 
The current goal is to keep the operating budget increase below 3% -- that's keeping the FY16 blue bar below 3%.  The board's been claiming success, but it looks a bit above 3% by my calculation.  I think the difference is the district is excluding $260,000 of cost shifts from the state -- the state has again reduced its contribution to staff retirement plans.
 
You can see how the green bar (total appropriations less school revenue) track the violet bar, local tax.    Usually the local tax is larger in magnitude than TotA-Sc-FB-Xf.  This is because, all else being equal, a 1% change in spending creates a 1.5% change in taxes.  This leveraging effect is because a given dollar amount is a larger percentage of the $27M local tax than the $40 total budget.   The exception is FY15, where a boost in the federal revenue helped lower local taxes. 
 

Discussion

 
You can see why I chose TotA-FB-Sc-Xf as the best metric -- it captures all the recommended spending, less all the revenue (nominally) under the control of the board.  It leaves out state and federal money largely out of the boards hands, but despite that it tends to track local tax pretty closely.
 
If you define
 
     total_school_revenue = FundBalance + SchoolRevenue + Transfers_and_bonds
 
then the budget metric becomes the net cost figure:
 
     CostToGov = Total_Recommended_Appropriations - total_school_revenue
 
One problem with the metric as currently conceived is that it is entirely based on the board's proposed budget as reflected in the MS-26 filing.  It does not reflect the outcome of the previous vote, where some of the warrant articles could be voted down or (at the deliberative session) have their amounts amended.  So if the taxpayers vote down the $2M field, next year the board would get credit for reducing total appropriations $2M, which doesn't seem quite right.  A better scheme would be to compare the proposed budget again the actual passed budget.  Most years everything passes so it doesn't make a difference, but next year it might.
 
The metric as perceived counts transfers from funds as a good thing, as they lower taxes.  I wasn't sure whether to count transfers or leave them out.  I counted them, which seems only fair as I penalized the board if they recommended adding to the funds in the first place.  I lumped the bonds in with the transfers (they're sort of transfers from future years in the way drawing on a fund is a transfer from past years).  Since the spending of the bond money on the field is appropriated, it adds to costs, so the bond principal has be subtracted in the metric to accurately reflect the effect on taxes.  Probably if the board doesn't recommend a bond (is that even possible?), it won't count in total appropriations (which I'm really using as a shorthand for total recommended appropriations) so we shouldn't count the revenue from the bond in the metric either.
 
Our operating budget is going to grow as we staff up to take tuition students.  If we stick with operating budget as our metric, the implication is tuition students are bad as they increase costs.  But, as long as the tuition revenue exceeds the additional expense, tuition students are good for the taxpayer.  This reality is accurately reflected in CostToGov.
 
Similarly, the board has been treating the fund balance as free money, spending much of it on a wish list as the year end rolls around.  But spending the fund balance this year increases next year's taxes.  That reality is not reflected in the Operating Budget metric, but is in CostToGov.
 
I'm going to leave this posted for a while to allow for some comments before I send it as a letter to the board.
 
 
 
 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Budget Season Approaches

It's been over five months since I've posted.  I attended most and watched all of the seven board meetings in the interim (minutes 5/7 5/21 6/4 6/18 7/16 8/20 9/3 9/17).   Mostly the board spent money over the summer -- especially on Moh Café and the new floor in Mast Way's gym, because, you know, equity.  I don't really have the time or energy for a full report, so I'm going to mostly focus on the budget here.

Newsweek ranks ORHS 110th Best High School in USA


The 2014 Newsweek rankings came out and ORHS ranked 110th out of 16,000 high schools.   This is the second highest in NH.  (We were 753 in the 2013 Newsweek rankings.)  Somehow our graduation rate percentile, whatever that is, was 67.3, which doesn't sound like the perfect record I thought we had, so maybe there's room to move up next year.  Newsweek did a second list of Top Schools for Low Income Students, to address criticism that their lists were dominated by schools with low numbers of students in poverty.  We were 279th on that list.

Principal Allen, who normally doesn't put much stock in magazine rankings, was happy to trumpet this one.  Congratulations to all the students, staff and administrators who made it happen.


Newsweek 2014 selected high school rankings, click to enlarge
 

 

Next Board Meeting 6pm 10/1 at Moharimet


The 9/3 meeting was at Mast Way and the 9/17 meeting at ORMS.  The final stop of the tour is 10/1 at Moharimet.  Note the early start time of 6pm -- apparently there will be a dedication of the new Café/Gym before the meeting proper starts, presumably at 7pm.

It's been great getting out of the high school into the other buildings for these meetings.   Great for everyone, that is, but our crack AV guy Alexander Taylor.  Alex spends around 6 hours moving, setting up and tearing down a TV studio each time.  That's not even counting the actual meeting time or the time to reassemble everything back in the high school.   Hang in there, Alex!

ORHS junior Maegan Doody, the student member of the school board, happens to be one of the top runners in New England.  This impressive young woman was recently featured as WMUR's Hometown Hero

Budget Season Approaches


The board is getting ready to prepare and pass the FY16 budget, which covers the 2015-2016 school year.   They have set a broad goal to keep top line costs growing at 3% or below.   For the last few years the board has been keeping top line growth below inflation (currently running around 1.7% this year) but didn't think they could reach that this year.

Since the normal tendency is for the budget to grow faster than inflation (school cost inflation is generally higher than consumer price inflation, see the chart below) the board and administration have to find ways to cut to achieve zero real (inflation-adjusted) growth.  Generally, this has been done by pulling rabbits out of hats -- each cycle the board or administration has to come up with something to offset the increases.  A few years ago it was the energy audit and subsequent overhaul, which cut ORHS annual fuel costs by $90K.  There was also staff reductions through retirement incentives, which cut around 14 positions, saving $1M a year.   Last year there was a large reduction in health insurance costs.

This year's rabbit could have been the LGC fraud settlement of $500K.  But instead of passing that back to taxpayers, the board and the voters decided to spend it on Moh Café.   That $500K is almost exactly the difference between a 1.7% and a 3% hike.  With the extra extra space added, Moh Café will cost more than that, which will be paid with the liquidated capital fund and the fund balance.  The fund balance is the unspent money at fiscal year end that would normally be used to reduce next year's taxes (or go into the Reserve Fund).

It doesn't sound too bad, and it's not even quite as bad as it sounds.  The increase in tuition students (done so far without additional hiring) will bring in additional tuition revenue.   This will lower taxes, even though eventually the top line will increase.   Conversely, spending down the fund balance rather than returning it to taxpayers doesn't effect the budgeted amount.  Unfortunately the district has chosen to use what I've been calling the top line of the budget, total budgeted spending, as its measure.  This means the savings from tuition dollars won't be reflected in the measure nor will the losses from spending down the fund balance.  Perhaps a better measure would be total local tax burden, which has the various revenue streams that lower local taxes (fund balance, tuition, state and federal funds, fees, etc.) subtracted out from the top line.

A Brief History of Oyster River Budgets


I've been working on this chart that shows how our budget went awry in the 2000s.   If I can find the data, I'll extend it back in time even further.  I tried to include (for admiration or blame) the person who was Chair when the budget passed, but I wasn't sure on a few.  Note that (barring resignations, which occurred a few times) the board member who gets elected chair in March of a given year will be in charge of passing the budget for the fiscal year two years hence.  So, for example "Brackett 2013" refers to the FY13 budget passed by Henry Brackett.  Chairman Brackett was (re)elected chair in March 2011, got the board to pass the budget in January 2012 (or so) and sent it through the deliberative session in February 2012.  That budget was passed by the voters in March 2012 and was in effect July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013, which is FY13.   The idea is to associate a name with the increases or declines, though in actuality the other board members and the voters have influence. To my knowledge the voters have not voted NO on a budget over this period.

All the data (except school board chair names) were derived from the NHDOE cost per pupil and valuation reports (see nhdoe).  This means I used cost per pupil (CPP) rather than the total budget.  The CPP is adjusted to remove transportation, debt service and tuition expense to make the various districts in the state more comparable.   It's not the best measure, but useful and easily available, and since we're looking at the year on year change, the various adjustments are less important.

click to enlarge
 

The chart shows the year on year change in the various items.  In blue is the change in the state CPP, the average it costs to educate a child in NH.  Change in ORCSD CPP is in red.  These are all in nominal (non-inflation adjusted) dollars.   Rather than adjusting for inflation, I included the inflation rate in orange -- it's been hovering around 2% for a while now (though it did drop to zero during the initial part of the financial crisis, FY2009 in the chart).   The green bars are the change in ADM, which what the state uses for enrollment.  I think it's calculated from the attendance on October 1 every year, so it tends to be a little lower than what we usually think of as the total enrollment.  Looking only at the year on year change makes that irrelevant.  (If I'm right, parents you can make your school district appear more frugal by sending your sick kids to school on October 1.)
 
The blue bars are state CPP.  You can think of it like the CPI, but for school costs.  Notice that it generally exceeds the CPI  (orange bars), often substantially.  Districts have definitely tightened their belts after the financial crisis, as the earlier numbers are all above 5% and the later numbers are all below 5%.

The red line is ORCSD CPP.  Since the CPP is determined not only by the amount of spending but also the number of students, I included the green enrollment measure.   If the district kept total spending constant, CPP would increase by the amount enrollment falls.  In the years 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 the increases in CPP are mitigated by enrollment decline, so the red+green (which is a proxy for change in ORCSD total spending, as it's the change in per pupil cost plus the change in enrollment) is about equal to the blue state CPP those years.  Assuming the state enrollment stayed about constant (I have to check into this) this means our boards didn't so much raise taxes faster than the state education increases as failed to cut costs in the face of declining enrollment.

Former chair Barth is responsible for last year (FY14) and the current school year (FY15).   Both years the district brought in top line spending increases at or below the inflation rate, in the face of enrollment increases.  That should continue our recent pattern of growing below the state rate, but the data isn't available yet.

In FY2001 our CPP was around 13% above the state. We got as high as 36% above the state in 2006.  Since then it's been a slow march down to 23% in FY13.  I'll guess we're now around 20% in FY15.  I'd say 5% to 10% above state CPP is where we want to be while remaining a top school in a relatively well-off community.  If we can keep our belts tight a few more years we'll get there.   The rest of the state tightening their belts makes it a slower process.



Policy IIB


The real driver of costs is staff.  The main driver of faculty size is policy IIB, which sets the number of teachers per class.  I think the current policy, irrespective of the numbers, is rather deficient.  It's short, so here it is in its entirety:

Policy IIB, click to enlarge


My main problem with policy IIB as written is that the guidelines, all of the form "not to exceed," are essentially benefits to the teachers and students.   They limit the size of classes.   The only nod to the taxpayer who has to fund all this is "classes below 12 will be brought to the attention of the Superintendent for approval."  There is very little here that attempts to limit how small classes can get, and thus, there is little limit on how large the faculty can get.

For years, I've heard from the administration and board that Policy IIB has a guideline for minimum class size of 18 (for example, here and here).  I blindly parroted this factoid until I bothered to look it up.  As anyone can see, the only mention of 18 is the maximum K guideline, and the only mention of a minimum is "below 12" requires approval.

So I would respectfully suggest guidelines of "no fewer than N students" be added to the various grades.  Or perhaps, just an ideal class size goal to aim for, neither a maximum nor minimum.  Another deficiency of the policy is it mostly silent on how small classes like shop, which have fewer than 22 workstations, can get without approval.  Furthermore, the policy also lacks guidance about what happens when the principal wants to have a class whose size is outside the bounds.  How about: the principal needs no approval for a class with one student above or below the guideline, superintendent approval is needed for a 2 student deviation and a deviation of 3 or more requires board approval.   There should be an annual report on how the actual class sizes with the guidelines.  

The policy doesn't distinguish between general and special educators, though it has been interpreted not to include special educators.  Furthermore, no mention is made for guidelines to determine the number of paraprofessionals that assist teachers.  Another thing not specified is whether the guidelines refer to each section of a multi-section class, or the average as is often assumed.  Is there a difference between required classes and electives?  These all should be clarified.

Once the form of the policy is improved, the district could have a serious discussion of the actual numbers in the policy.  Is 18 the right minimum for high school?  How will we staff up in response to enrollment growth, locally and tuition students?

We always hear that staffing is the prime driver of the budget and that the class size policy drives staffing.  I have been making the point about policy IIB not having minimum guidelines since March.  (I've had the IIB reference in the banner above since then too, as I tried to guess at the current big issues.)   So I was really disappointed by the board discussion on 9/3 which concluded that the policy IIB had been reviewed and required no changes.

It's ultimately the voters, or perhaps the board as their representatives, who should determine the tradeoff between small classes and lower taxes.   With the influx of tuition students and the surprise turn in local enrollment we will be staffing up.  This is our chance to get to our class size goals while avoiding debilitating layoffs.  If we fail to reconcile the tension between taxes and class size now it will be much more painful to do later.

Well, that's plenty for now.  Bye bye.



Thursday, April 24, 2014

Moh Cafe Turmoil

Moharimet Cafeteria News 


At the school board meeting, the superintendent reported that contractor bids for the Moharimet cafeteria came in over $800K, greatly exceeding the $545K estimate approved by the voters in March.  Apparently the economic downturn is over and contractors are raising prices.  An effort was made to pare back the project to bring costs back in line.  Facilities Director Jim Rozycki is handling the redesign and negotiations. Examples of changes include cheaper acoustic tiles, eliminating duplicate  HVAC work and going from 5 to 2 skylights.

In addition, there is a lot of support to increase the gym width by 10 more feet.  That's in addition to the 20 feet already approved.  Two claims were made in favor: The 50% additional space would cost only 12% more and the modification leaves Moharimet and Mast Way with about equal gym space.  The argument against is that it doesn't make sense to spend more money on space given the expected enrollment decline.

Madbury selectman Jay Moriarty relayed the town's support for the additional expansion,  saying it's OK for the district to further encroach on the town's property line and going so far as to offer town resources to help remove trees.

My guess is the board will approve the additional space at the next meeting.  The money will come from the Capital Reserve Fund opened up by the voters in March and the expected year end fund balance.

The fund balance is the unspent money already raised from the taxpayers.  By law it has to be spent this fiscal year, transferred to the Reserve Fund or given back (i.e. used to reduce next year's taxes).  The business administrator compiled a list of possible uses for the leftover money, mostly facilities maintenance from the capital improvement plan.

Strings Teacher Hired


The board approved the hiring of Andrea von Oeyen as the music teacher who'll concentrate on strings. Ms. von Oeyen has 8 years experience and is currently a teacher in Alton.  She has been involved in our OREO (Oyster River Elementary Orchestra) after school program. 

Board Goals Enumerated


Most of Wednesday's meeting was devoted to a discussion of board members' goals for the district.  All the board and many administrators spoke about their top few priorities.   Here’s my read of the most commonly mentioned ideas -- the board will presumably compile its own list soon.

Math Consultant.  Apparently our students are doing well in math class but poorly on standardized tests.

All Day K Plan.  The idea is to create a transition plan for consideration.

High School Field. Lots of support to bring this long simmering plan to fruition.

Many other goals were mentioned,  including improving teacher evaluations, later start time for middle and high school, solar power and improving areas of academic weakness. 


I'm in Florida typing this on my phone, so I'm gonna end this here.  I'll add links later.  Bye. 


Monday, April 7, 2014

4th Grade Band Nixed

4th Grade Band Cancelled

As part of a sweeping overhaul of the music department, including the addition of a strings program, the 4th grade band program has been eliminated.   I actually wrote about this two weeks ago, but apparently few read that far down on my posts.  I buried the lead then, but it's more interesting than anything that happened last Wednesday so I'm starting with it this time.

The music presentation (video, slides in the agenda), includes the following:


In addition to the presentation, the music teachers sent around a letter detailing the new program. The teachers claim the research shows that the more mature fifth graders will have more success as instrumentalists.  As the parent of a third grader I was looking forward having my boy begin a band instrument next year and I'm a bit disappointed.


Bus Accident in Madbury

There was a fair amount of news from the last meeting.  I learned that there was a bus accident in the district (Dr. Morse tells the story).  Bus driver Cindy Bushong was commended for her defensive driving which avoided a head-on collision with an out-of-control truck in Madbury on that last slushy day.  The 14 students on board were uninjured.  The superintendent himself had ordered the two hour delay that morning -- the assistant superintendent who normally handles snow days was off.

Language Teacher Reinstated

The 0.4 FTE World Language teacher position that was eliminated in the recent budget has been reinstated.  Wendy Gibson gets to keep her job because an inordinate number of students signed up for French next year.  You may recall that an effort to reinstate this position failed at the deliberative session.

Slush Fund Revealed

Where does the district get the money to pay a teacher after the budget is approved?  The superintendent revealed the health insurance budget line is used as a slush fund.  Typically a large increase is budgeted for and if the actual increase is smaller the difference can be directed as needed.   This little game resulted in the large fund balance from 2009 (I usually say $2.2 million but I've heard the superintendent say $2.8 million) which was used to lower taxes the next three or four years.

End 68 Hours of Hunger Funded

Member Maria Barth (absent due to back problems -- get well soon, Maria) and Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Eastman were commended for raising $12,000 to fund End 68 Hours of Hunger through the rest of the year.  This is a program to give underfed students food to take home for the weekend.  The fundraising largely came from a meeting with local business leaders.

Board Approves Administration Raises

The board approved about $50,000 in equity raises for administrators.  The stated rationale was to raise the pay among administrators to the top quartile in the state in order to reduce turnover.  The district suffered from a whole lot of turnover around 2012, which has quieted lately.  (Carolyn Eastman was reportedly a finalist for superintendent of SAU 50, Greenland, Newington and Rye, but she didn't get the offer.)  I mistakenly reported the raise would be $50,000 a year for two years last time -- it's $50,000 total over two years.   The superintendent was given some latitude because Director of Special Education Catherine Plourde's salary was not raised sufficiently on the approved salary schedule.

Principal Allen reported on Oyster River's success in one act play and robotics competitions, and the upcoming Todd's Trot and production of Oliver.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Congratulations Chairman Newkirk

Congratulations to Tom Newkirk, who was unanimously chosen as Chair by the ORCSD School Board last Wednesday (video). Al Howland was elected Vice Chair 6 to 1. The board includes newly seated members Denise Day and Sarah Farwell and a new student rep, a sophomore named Maegan Doody.  Meagan was recently chosen New Hampshire’s Gatorade 2013-14 Girls’ Cross Country Runner of the Year.  Congratulations to them all.

Maria Barth voted no on Al, having nominated Denise Day while declaring the vice chair position is best held by someone who can eventually be chair.  (Al has only one year left in his term.)  In the end, even Denise voted for Al.  Al didn't attempt to refute the idea that vice chair is training for chair, so I'm going to start the rumor here that Al is running for reelection next year with an eye on becoming chair in 2016.  You heard it here first folks because I just made it up.

Outgoing Chair Maria Barth seemed happy to pass the baton to then Vice Chair Newkirk. You may recall two years ago both Maria and Tom vied for Chair, and Tom magnanimously allowed the more experienced Maria to take the reins.  It was a time of upheaval in our district, with four new board members, a one-year interim superintendent near the end of his stint, new principals in the high school and Mast Way and lots of turnover at the assistant superintendent/director level.  Maria was the calm at the center of the storm, a farmer in Lee, a grandmother of Oyster River students who had 11 years experience as chair of the Kittery school board (they call it school committee).  To me, she was immediate relief from the seemingly unremitting irritation of the previous chair.

Then things ran smoothly.  They could have gone much worse. There was turnover for a while longer, but that seems to have long since settled down to a more typical level.  Chairman Barth and new Superintendent Morse systematically addressed the outstanding controversies in the district, to the point now where they are largely settled.   Elementary rebalancing -- approved.  Tuitioning -- approved.  Moharimet cafeteria -- approved.  Strategic Plan -- community portion done, goals approved, staff implementation plan coming along.  Two budgets under inflation -- check.  Community divided no more -- check.  At this point it seems like the outstanding major decisions are behind us and the task now becomes managing the execution of these decisions.

If Maria got into trouble anywhere, it was when she appeared to be suppressing public comment.  I have to admit I was surprised to see it from someone I'd assumed was a staunch first amendment advocate.  The first controversy was over eliminating the second round of public comments.  Eventually, the current format of public comments at the beginning and end of the meetings was adopted.  Last October, Maria interpreted policy to not allow current district employees, even teachers who live in the district, to speak at public comments.  It appears Chairman Newkirk has reversed this.

Anyway, I want to personally thank Maria profusely for her service as chair in this difficult period.  She was reluctant, but her admirable sense of civic duty led her to step up when we all needed her experience.  We're all better having watched how Maria guided us through difficult decisions with her calm, unflappable manner.  Maria can be very proud of her accomplishments as chair as she serves out the last year of her term as a regular school board member.

Let me try to quickly sum up the news from the last two board meetings.  Last Wednesday, the board unanimously voted up to $40,000 for survey, test pit and architectural drawings for new fields at the high school.   Member Barth in discussion objected that these requests come to the board in isolation, with insufficient consideration and prioritization of other outstanding uses for funds.  The plan is to fund-raise half the $2.4M budget (about $300K already raised) and have the district supply the rest. The intent is to aim for a bond vote, perhaps as early as next March.

The superintendent pitched pay-equity raises for district administrators, around a $50,000 budget increase (0.12%) for each of the next two years (and paid forever thereafter, of course).  I think it's on the agenda for the next meeting.    The board unanimously approved retirement incentives.  I don't think the amount was specified, but last time I recall it was up to a $20,000 bonus to teachers and staff who chose to retire.  Some concern was expressed about overusing this incentive.

An enthusiastic music department presented the new Oyster River music curriculum.  The surprising thing was no more 4th grade band!  Chorus will now be mandatory.  I think there are going to be a few shocked third grade parents -- I know I'm one. The teachers cited research on the benefits of starting band at the middle school level.  Elementary students would be getting more music instruction time and there were ensemble opportunities for young students getting private lessons. All students will be offered guitar in 8th grade. The preponderance of effort seemed aimed at the middle school, with significant increase at the high school too.

Principal Allen urged Friday, June 13th as graduate day.  With snow still expected this spring, the board wisely did not take up the matter immediately.

At the previous meeting the police reviewed changes to the emergency response plan in the hopper (video).  In the new protocol, called ALICE, during certain events as much information as possible is spread in clearly understood language and staff are given discretion to leave the building with children if they judge they can do so safely.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Farwell and Day win, articles all pass, tuitioning passes in Barrington too

We had another great election day today.  Congratulations to Sarah Farwell and Denise Day, who won the two school board seats.  Michael Williams did very well, pulling in a respectable share of the vote but was unable to overcome Sarah and Denise's long ties to the district.

Congratulations to Richard Laughton, who won handily for moderator.

All the ballot questions passed, so the teachers get their contract, Moharimet gets a new cafeteria and the district gets its $39.3M budget.

The tuitioning plan passed in both Oyster River and Barrington by large margins, so that agreement is now in effect.  Congratulations to the boards and administrations in both districts that worked hard to make this a reality.

Newmarket voted down the new high school.

Scott Bugbee ran a great race in Lee, and beat out incumbent John LaCourse for selectman.  The Lee Library fund got its next $100,000 of funding by a squeaker of 359 - 348.

A great big thanks to David Taylor, who very kindly sent us the election returns (any errors in the percentages are my own):

Total ballots: 1,588

Article 1: Moderator

  Richard Laughton 1,290
  Write-in          3

Article 2: Two at-large school board seats

Sarah Farwell      1,027   65%  (of 1,588 ballots)
Denise Day            901   58%
Michael Williams  597    38%

Article 3: Teacher Contract
 Yes 1,066  69%
 No    482    31%

Article 4: Moharimet Cafeteria
  Yes 1,107   71%
  No    448     29%

Article 5:  Transfer from Capital Reserve Fund
  Yes 1,070   71%
  No     434    29%

Article 6: 10 year Tuitioning Agreement with Barrington (passed in Barrington too, so it's on.)
  Yes 1,291   84%
  No     244   16%

Article 7: $39.3M Budget
  Yes  989     66%
  No   512     34%

All in all, an impressive show of support for the current board and administration.  I'm pleasantly surprised the voters went so overwhelmingly for a Moharimet cafeteria.

I want to thank all the candidates for running.  They were all talented and good-intentioned, and I think the community would have been well-served whoever was elected.   I think we can all be proud of this election, which maintained an positive tone throughout.  I hope I can support Michael Williams sometime in the future, though next year might be tough as the three town-specific seats are up, so Mr. Williams faces a tough race against incumbent Al Howland for the Durham seat, should they both choose to run again.

I especially want to thank Denise Day and Sarah Farwell for running a great race.  Even though they were nominally in competition for the same seats, they worked very well together as a team, which bodes well for the board.  I am so grateful I got to work with them and know them better this election season.  Thanks to everyone who helped Denise and Sarah out sending emails and facebook posts, placing signs, working the polls, hosting or attending meet and greets and all the rest.

1,588 is a pretty low turnout.   I think that and the nearly 2 to 1 vote in favor of the budget indicate the school board is doing a pretty good job and not inspiring hordes of angry voters to show up on election day.

Finally, I want to also again thank outgoing board members Megan Turnbull and Ann Lane for their service.  It's no secret I haven't always agreed with them, especially in the bad old days two or three years ago.  But I have watched them at meetings for the last three years and I have no doubt that they have always worked very hard as board members for our kids and really for all of us.  I wish them well in their future endeavors.  I hope and suspect we haven't heard the last of Megan and Ann.

Despite an early morning snowstorm, it was great weather for being outside at the polls. Here are some pictures.  Click on any to enlarge.



Candidate Denise Day with Jean and Annie in Lee


Candidate Sarah Farwell in Durham

Sarah and Sarah

A peek through the door at a light day at the Durham polls

Board Member Al Howland and newly-elected
Durham Library Trustee Diane Thompson

View from the road in Lee


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It's Election Day, Tuesday March 11, 2014

Today is Tuesday, March 11, 2014. It's Election Day in the Oyster River Cooperative School District.

I'm a busy voter; tell me what you think I should do. Vote today at your regular polling place for Denise Day and Sarah Farwell for school board. Vote YES on all the YES/NO school district questions, approving the new teacher's contract (question 3), approving a Moharimet Cafeteria (questions 4 and 5), approving the 10 year tuition agreement with Barrington (question 6) and approving the $39.3M school board budget (question 7).

Well, I have a little time to read. Familiarize yourself with the ballot by reading ORCSDcleanslate's Voting Guide for the 2014 Oyster River Cooperative School District Election.  It has explanations and links about the candidates and ballot questions.  Here's my endorsement of Denise Day and Sarah Farwell.

Why should I believe you when you tell me who to vote for?   I'm really just telling you who I'm voting for and why.  In my mind, this is not a good versus evil school board race like two years ago.  It's been an incredibly uneventful election cycle. It's pretty tough to find a substantive difference between the candidates' positions on issues. I went with the candidates that had by far the longest history and experience with the district. I think this year showed how such district experience could be of value.  So often this year we ended up with solutions based on our history, like redrawing the bus line and exempting families or tuitioning in more Barrington students.

The third candidate, Michael Williams, is an engineer and parent who first got involved with the board last summer during the elementary reconfiguration decision.  I welcome him.  He seems to have good intentions. I'll comment obliquely on his run by saying I too am an engineer who got passionately invested one summer and involved with the election the next March.   I was fortunate to get to know many of the current board members as candidates.  I have a good basis for comparison when I say Sarah and Denise will certainly be better board members than I could have been at that time.

What about the YES/NO Warrant Articles?  I'm voting YES on all of them.  I'm worried the Moharimet Cafeteria might not pass, as there doesn't seem to be an active campaign to drum up votes.  I think the Barrington tuition agreement is about as gradual an evolution from the status quo as you could hope for, but there are people out there who think there are bad consequences once the 125 student mark is reached and ORHS becomes Barrington's school of record.

What's next? The results of the election should be announced around 9pm tonight.  I'll post them here as soon as I can.  Check FORE -- they're diligent and they'll post immediately.

Are there any other websites for information?

 As much as I'd like to service all your Oyster River School Board needs, don't forget about FORE and Oyster River Community.blogspot.com (and their associated Facebook page). There's not too much excitement about the election at the district's site orcsd.org.  The last week of Foster's opinion has a few Oyster River letters, and lots of agonizing over building a new school over in Newmarket.

Anything else?  Happy Election Day. Go vote. Bring some friends.

Dean Rubine, Lee