Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Roger Speidel's Numbers

I genuinely enjoy Roger Speidel's public comments at school board meetings.   He hasn't been there much lately, and it's been kind of empty.   Who else is going to tell me how great the Montgomery Country, Maryland public schools are?   He never mentions their budget is $ 2.13 Billion (yes, with a "B").

It turns out his numbers are suspect -- sometimes they're misleading statistics, sometimes they're just false.

Let's start with No Child Left Behind testing.  Roger says "Oyster River ranked 18th in a State ranked 28th in the Nation educationally (bottom half)."   Here's a headline from a recent Union Leader:  "NH education ranking slips from fourth to ninth."   4th, 28th ... what's the difference?

What about "Oyster River ranked 18th" in NH?   Actually the district is ranked 10th (of 142).   6 of the districts ahead of us have no high school.    ORHS ranked 7 (of 84), ORMS 6 (of 127), Moharimet 10 (of 218), and Mast Way 32 (of 218). 

And here's my favorite:  "in the past 10 years Oyster River’s per pupil cost has gone from $374 over the State average to $3472 over the State average, a 1000% increase."   Whenever I hear this I think, "Oh My God! -- we need to cut the budget by 1000% !"      But then I realize this means that rather than collecting taxes, the district would have to pay out over $300 Million to the tax "payers" each year, which doesn't seem right.    What Roger really means is that eleven years ago we were 5% over the state average, and now we're 27% over the state average.   In other words, on average over each of the last 11 years we went up 2% faster than the state.   Bad, yes; catastrophic, no.   A few years of relatively flat budgets, assuming the state average continues to grow, would get us back in the 5% range.   (The source for my figures is page 9 of Mike McClurken's excellent report on the district.   He has graciously provided a revised version which corrects some errors.  Thanks, Mike.)

Let's try "to fill up space in the high school, Barrington students are being brought in, each at a $6,000 discount....not a good idea."  I was going to go into a long diatribe about average cost versus marginal cost, but instead I'll just quote the ABC report: "We just increase the number of tuition students to 25 per grade more than we have now, starting with 2012’s freshman class.  Within 4 years, we will have an additional $1.3 million in revenue, and more than $1 million after the variable costs of the additional students – directly reducing what resident taxpayers have to pay to support the High School by $1 million."   Working backwards, this works out to a marginal cost per tuition student of  (1.3-1)*1000*1000/(25*4) = $3,000 each !   The reason the cost is so low, besides not having to provide transportation and some other things, is that to handle the increased load we generally don't increase staff proportionally; instead we just let average class size increase.  And we don't burn any more fuel, light any more lights, etc.   Given we charge around $12,500 per, having tuition students seems a pretty great way to keep enrollment up, maintain programs and reduce local taxes. 

We could probably play this game with each of Roger's numbers, but I'll stop here.   Roger, please come back to the meeting and defend your numbers.    William Hall is OK when he tries to step in, but he's no Roger Speidel.

- Dean

P.S. Restore sanity:  please vote for Maria BarthEd Charl√©, Tom Newkirk, and Al Howland on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012.


  1. Dear Mr. Rubine,

    Since you appear so adept at playing numbers games, please allow me to put things in some perspective for you. (One of my all-time favorite sayings is "figures lie and liars figure.")

    Note the # of students enrolled in the Montgomery school system you are so jovially referring to:

    Our school system

    144,064 students

    Largest school system in Maryland

    16th largest school system in the United States

    Students from 164 countries speaking 184 languages

    200 schools

    Cost per student: $14,785

    You may argue that Mr. Speidel's figures are suspect, but I assure you the Montgomery school system operates on an economy of scale the Oyster River school system could not dream of. The naked truth is our system, which pales in comparison, has a cost per student of over $19,000. Your formula to bring our district back into alignment would cost the taxpayers of our district millions of dollars over many years. I won't mind if YOU accept the cost from your bank account!

  2. Mr. Jarvis, thank you so much for your comment. I was wondering if anyone read this stuff.

    I like and generally agree with your comment "figures lie and liars figure." This is why I tried to be careful by providing links to the source of my figures.

    I'm not disagreeing with you or with any of Mr. Speidel's claims about Montgomery County. You're obviously right about the scale of that district -- it's huge. Whether that means they get economies of scale not available to us, I don't know, but it sure is possible.

    My formula, really just a suggestion, is for flat budgets. Since fixed costs tend to rise, this is really a call for slow cuts.

    I'd be all for deeper cuts if we could figure out how to do it without affecting educational outcomes too adversely. If we're not careful, the disruption to education will subtract from our property values much more than we save in taxes.

    The rather haphazard approach taken by the current board got the community up in arms for not much in savings, and without a plan that puts our costs us on a downward trajectory. I think we need a board that can come up with such a plan and convince all factions of the community to get behind it.

    If you look up my property taxes you'll find that I'm already accepting a pretty huge cost from my bank account.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    - Dean Rubine