Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Future Search Begins Thursday

The long-awaited search for the future of education in Oyster River will take place this Thursday and Friday, April 4th and 5th.  Future Search consists of a pair of four hour dinner meetings.  The original plan, proposed last summer by then new superintendent Dr. James Morse, had 100 stakeholders meeting to discuss how to achieve the vision and mission of the district.  I have no idea how many people actually volunteered, were accepted or will attend.  I don't know if it's too late to volunteer now.

I can hear you thinking: obviously Rubine doesn't know anything, so why am I still reading?  Good point.  I do know packets were mailed out at the end of March.   I scanned the packet that  my wife received. The mailing also includes the 2013 Annual Report of the District.

Update 4/2 5:30 pm: I just got a call from someone who ought to know telling me that there were no volunteers, that the participants were selected by the Future Search committee and that if you were not invited you may not attend.  Now I really want to go.

Update 4/3 11pm: The superintendent announced at tonight's board meeting that Future Search is a posted public meeting (which enables a majority of the board to attend) and that he's prepared a table for the uninvited public.  It sounded to me like they're not really rolling out the red carpet for the uninvited but if they show up they won't be turned away.  He reported that more than 120 invited people are planning to attend.

I didn't see the words "Future Search" in the packet.  (In a comment below Julie calls it "Futures Search" which appears in the minutes from September; other times it's called "Future Search."  I think the website she refers to is www.futuresearch.net.)  The meetings are referred to in the packet as "The ORCSD Education Planning Conference."   The cover letter states suggestions generated at the meeting will be forwarded to a "Strategic Planning Team." I hope this doesn't mean that the district is going to ignore the strategic plan generated a year and a half ago.  I'm sure many of the participants who produced that plan will be at Future Search and will do their best to not let that happen.

The packet includes a menu that looks pretty good (though "whipped topping" is worryingly vague).  It also includes information (mostly already out) about tuition students, reconfiguring the elementary schools and the Common Core standard.  Football wasn't mentioned, but I'm going to go out on a limb and bet the subject comes up.

The packet includes a "Leadership In Action" briefing series from the New England Secondary School Consortium.  I hadn't heard of them before, but they seem to be education reformers with good intentions like increasing graduation rates, decreasing dropout rates and assuring graduates are college ready.  One of their big pushes is for "Proficiency-Based Diplomas," i.e. diplomas that indicate students have demonstrated proficiency in the areas of the learning standard, rather than just having put in their time.  I guess this is what counts as progress in education.

I'll be staying home with the kids.  If I could go, I would make the following points, from the perspective of a taxpayer:

Declining enrollment means lower taxes.    For years I've been hearing what a tragedy declining enrollment is, as it will cause cost per student to increase.  It will, because there's a large fixed cost in running a school district that will be divided among fewer students.  But overall, and this is an obvious but often overlooked point, it costs less to educate fewer students.  Not proportionally less, but less.  Fewer students from the district means more slots available for revenue-generating tuition students.

Tuition students are a good deal for the taxpayers.  The real issue with declining enrollment is loss of programming.  If we want to offer our students a wide variety of subjects and electives, we need enough students so that classes are sufficiently full.  Tuition students are the solution.  Obviously they fill the available seats.  They also come with tuition, typically around $12,000 - $13,000.  That is probably below our cost per pupil (even when adjusted for transportation, special ed and other things not included in tuition), but way above the marginal or variable cost per pupil.  When you compare that to a student from the district, who imposes costs without any offsetting tuition, you can see why tuition students are a good deal.

Tuition students may affect property values.   There's one problem someone pointed out to me about the fact that tuition is lower than average cost per student.  It makes a loophole. Right now, every homeowners' property value is higher than it would otherwise be because the home is in desirable school district.   It's an important reason why homes generally cost more here than in Dover or Newmarket.  But if families realize they can get an Oyster River education more cheaply by moving to Newmarket (where houses cost less and taxes are lower compared to adjacent Durham) they're going to do that.  This will result in district property values decreasing while Newmarket's property values increase.   I don't think the problem exists as badly for Barrington (where families have to pay part of the tuition themselves) and is less acute in Deerfield, where the inconvenient distance from our high school probably attenuates the effect.  There are some mitigating factors (e.g. there's no guarantee a tuition agreement will be renewed) but it's a concern.

Not all tuition students are equal.  Maintaining property values requires we maintain and enhance the good reputation of our school district.  This in turn requires good educational outcomes: high test scores, high graduation rates, high rates of college acceptances, and so on. So it's in our interest to try to accept the best students we can.  I've heard some concern voiced about increasing the number of Barrington students, but as I think the families themselves actually pay part of the tuition these students are probably better than average, and the administration consistently reports no significant difference in the performance of the Barrington tuition students.  Newmarket's NECAP scores are very close to ours and thus accepting all Newmarket students probably wouldn't make that much of a difference in outcomes.  It's harder to separate out Deerfield as their scores are lumped together with other towns, but the percent of people with bachelor degrees is about the same in both towns (Newmarket 32.3%, Deerfield 31.7%).  Deerfield's 2009 median income was $74,041; Newmarket's was $54,712.

Well, this is getting long so I should wrap it up.  I do want to mention that a great place to start studying up on all this is Mike McClurken's report, website and tuition letters (3/8/13, 3/20/13) in Foster's.  I just mentioned percentage of bachelor degrees and income as Mike's report identifies those as key predictors of student performance.  Mike seems to have evolved his position on tuition students since his report, which argues that Barrington's tuition is too low, causing the district to lose money.  His current position is tuition students are good for the district.  I think his initial conclusion was based on the fact that tuition was set below (adjusted) average cost per pupil.   My view is for the district to make money they need to set the tuition above the marginal cost per pupil, which is much less.  In Mike's latest letter he touches on special education but doesn't mention what's in his report: the Barrington tuition agreement clearly indicates that Oyster River does not bear the cost of special education of tuition students. Foster's has covered the tuition issue here and here, among other places.

So, though Mike and I begin from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we've basically arrived at the same conclusion on the tuition issue.  We're also in a similar place on taxes (less is better), but who isn't?  I am especially grateful for Mike's thorough focus on education outcomes.  I suspect his reason is he understands how important they are to local property values.  I mainly want my children to have the opportunity for a good education, but here again we've arrived at a similar place.

Interestingly, Dr. McClurken has come out against football in Oyster River, based on cost concerns.  On this he seems abandoned by his normally fiscally conservative cohorts.  I noticed OyC'mon, which frequently calls attention to Mike's writings, failed to mention his letter to the editor in Foster's about football.  My personal issue with football is that I want the board to be fully aware of the consequences, both in safety and costs, before deciding.  Thus, I objected to attempts to prematurely approve the program and to mislead the district about costs.  I am otherwise reserving judgement until the report is presented.  Rather than a divide between spenders and cutters, this issue is splitting up more like it might in high school: jocks versus eggheads.

Let me place myself squarely on the egghead side and end with a link to Easy As Pi, some math rock by Jim Schliestett (music and lyric) and Dean Rubine (additional lyrics).  Performed by $ense for RPM 2013, Jim S. (guitar, bass, vocal), Dean R. (keyboards) and Lee Cruikshank (drums).


  1. First, Futures Search-- I believe this whole thing is a charge given to the Superintendent. He formed a Steering Committee. There are 6 community members, 2 board members, 2 teachers, 2 admin, a student. I think that is it. Hope I am not forgetting anyone. 3 out of the 6 community members served on the original steering committee during the previous planning process. 1 of the board members served on the previous steering committee, and so did one of the teachers.

    The Superintendent hired a consultant and she uses a process called Futures Search. You can google it and find out that this is one type of strategic planning.

    There are about 100 people who will attend these planning conferences which will take place over 2 days. Everyone who was invited had to agree to come to both sessions. The Steering Committee came up with the list of those invited. Our charge was to come up with a list of people that represent different stakeholders in our community. I believe it will a very diverse group of people and there will be lively discussion, so get ready, Ruth!

    My understanding is that we will all be assigned places to sit so that our working groups are diverse and we are not all just sitting with our friends. We will be given issues to discuss with the goal of coming to agreement or consensus on the various topics. These issues, I believe, are generated by the consultant. I have NO idea what we will be discussing.

    I do not think that the previous work will be disregarded. I think it will be used as the foundation for what we are doing now. Planning should be ongoing, and it has been a couple of years since we have done anything in this area.

    I do not think that we will talk about football. I hope not! My understanding is that at this conference, and with strategic planning in general, we are to work on broader issues. Thus, I don't think it is the role of this conference or even a strategic planning committee to decide something like "we should add football." Rather, such a group or process might say "we should have more athletic opportunities for our students" then it is up to the administrators and community to work out those details of what athletic opportunities might be appropriate.

    So, now Newmarket... I am in the camp of being quite concerned about my house value. I might not be selling anytime soon, but I have kids going off to college and I may need to leverage this asset to help pay for that!

    I have some questions that perhaps Dean or your math-oriented friends can answer. I hope I can even articulate it... If we decide not to tuition in any students except for keeping our deal with Barrington, and the projected enrollments come to fruition, how much would it cost me in my taxes to maintain programming at all schools and is this amount more than the decrease in my projected house value? Am I making sense? In other words, if we maintain programs with lower enrollments and it costs me, for example, $1000 more in taxes but my house is now worth $50,000 less? I know it is circular because if my house is worth less then perhaps my taxes are lower. In any case, do you see what I am trying to get at?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Julie. It's always good to hear from someone who knows what's going on. I'll fix "Futures Search" above when I get home.

    To answer your question, to maintain programming in the face of declining enrollment without additional tuition students, taxes just need to stay about the same. More correctly, they need to grow to accommodate contract increases and other costs going up, which works out to increasing at about the inflation rate. You can still reduce staff a bit to offset some of this. The bad part is the classes start to get really small, which probably has some negative educational consequences.

  3. Now that you say it, Dean, it is so completely obvious. I feel like an idiot. Duh. So, then, from a financial perspective, for me, the status quo would be a better deal (than Newmarket) because my taxes won't really be affected but my house value will be.

    Educationally, I wonder about any negative consequences. I would like to hear more about these. I think the talk is that low enrollment classes would be cut and this could effect our elective system at the high school. We already cut low enrollment classes, from time-to-time. I am sure it is a huge bummer for those kids. They are are given other options, which I know are not always ideals, but there are options. VLACS is another option, so is taking a class at UNH (free for OR kids!). Though, there are probably times when there are no other options available.

    You know me, though, I am not always satisfied with the status quo and there are programs I would like to see funded. So, I should probably be asking if we want to add programs or spend money to strengthen others, how much will that cost if we don't tuition students into the ORHS? And then compare that to potential loss in home value? Any way to get a number for potential home value loss if we tuition all the students from Newmarket?

    Also, do we know what we might net with tuitioning the students from the various communities? We talk about making all of this money but what are the costs? We have to add teachers, guidance counselors, etc... What other services will we need to provide? Would we "make" enough to support new programs? And, then, how would the new programming look with such a large, new population in our school?

    A lot to think about.

  4. I'd estimate that the district has to hire one person per every 20 or so new students, plus some supplies, etc. If we generously call that $100,000 per 20, that's a cost of $5,000 per child. Since we charge $12,000 or $13,000, that's about $7,000 per tuition student that the district taxpayers don't have to cough up. (An ABC report a year or two ago had the cost as $3,000 per child and a $10,000 profit per, which seems optimistic to me.) Personally, and I know you'll hate me on this one, I don't see the research to support the small class size policy we have, so I'd be in favor of letting class size grow a little bit and maybe hire fewer than one per 20.

    Your other questions are too deep for me to get into right now. To me the real problem is we are driving the less affluent out of the district and preventing them from moving in because of the taxes. I think the root of the problem is that property taxes tend to be regressive as the more affluent spend proportionally less of their income on housing, which is then taxed at a flat rate. I have the impression that Lee changed everyone's assessments over the last year or two in a way that makes the taxes a bit more progressive but I need to look into it in more detail before I say for sure.

  5. So Dean, is this the "it takes a village" concept of educating children at ORCSD? You are advocating tuition students because the "apparent" cost to us as taxpayers is lower because it is a shared amount? I get it. The cost to district taxpayers for my two children is $20,000 each. But the cost for tuition students is $7,000 each because that cost is shared between us and "out-of-towners." Sounds like a great way to rationalize keeping teachers on the payroll. With that line of thinking, we should import the entire student body. What are your thoughts of just making the cost of educating our children the same as everyone else in the state, including tuition students? OK, that is probably unrealistic. Tell you what, I'll split the difference with you. That would save us about $8,000,000 per year. And by the way. Property values are a function of the free market. Competition for our homes is what ultimately drives the value. The best thing you can do for your property value is to help restore the fiscal health of our school district.

    I am happy to see there is at least an attempt to talk about the fiscal challenges of our school district on your blog, even though it looks like there is still a lot of reverse logic going on. Let's keep the conversation alive and maybe at some point we can all be proud of the result.


    Calvin Jarvis

  6. Cal, I don't really understand your comment. The cost to have four schools open with the heat on, a district administration, principals, guidance counselors, custodians, secretaries, SROs and so on is alot of money, before any student or teacher walks in the door. The more students we get to divide that cost among the lower the cost per student will be. If there were no tuition students, we district taxpayers would have to pay the entire fixed cost.

    Any student, tuition or district, will have the same marginal cost, which I estimate at $5,000 per. (This ignores special ed, which the district has to pay for for its own students, but not for tuition students.) Each tuition student by my estimate saves the taxpayers $7,000. The one problem I saw in the financial realm is the property value thing I mentioned in the post. Therefore I think it's in the taxpayers' interest to take as many tuition students as we can while addressing the problems as best we can.

    1. I'm not trying to make things confusing, Dean, and you are absolutely correct that everything you listed above costs a lot of money. Are you suggesting that ORCSD has the honor of spending 25% more for buildings and administration, then any other school district across the state? You are suggesting that if we subtracted salaries and benefits from the operating budget, the costs we expend for buildings and maintenance is out of line with any other district? I think you need to take the time to look IN DETAIL to where our district is out of line with costs vs. other school districts. Salaries and benefits make up 80% of a 38.8 million dollar budget at ORCSD. (that's 31 million, Dean, not the 8 mil you threw out as a number in your "geeky math" post you made last month) Our budget is out of line because we have allowed ourselves to be a "destination" school, where not only do we employ teachers at salaries high on the pay scale, we employ them at a ratio of about 12:1 instead of the district "goal" of 22:1. If I am out to lunch with any of these numbers, please set me straight.

    2. I've read Mike M's report many times, and I am intimately familiar with the high facilities costs. I'm not any happier about it than you, Cal. I think I was one of two people who objected to the $700K HVAC deal. Like I said above, of course we should address our high costs. That doesn't mean we should ignore revenue.

      The personnel cost trope is true, but doesn't capture what I'm trying to get at here. Lots of those people aren't teachers. What matters for tuition students is how much it costs to take one, given we're already paying for schools two-thirds full. I think I've conservatively estimated that at $5K. If you have a better estimate, let's hear it.

      I think the $8M was meant to be the variable cost of teaching 2000 students, which was $4K per (I was using $100K per 25). I've gone more conservative here at $5K per, but the argument is essentially unchanged.

    3. I went over to Mike M's site and extracted his salary numbers for teachers from last year. 176 teachers at an average salary of $63,000. That's 11 Million in salary and who knows what for benefits. 176 teachers is a ratio of 11:1. Teachers are not my problem. I love teachers. My sister is a high school calculus teacher in VT with 28 years service. But we (us, the district) let things get out of hand about 10 years ago. I only remember one time when I was in a class with less than 20 kids, before shop classes in high school. We started one year with 28, and they split us 14-14 in 7th grade. My third grade teacher Mrs. Wright (rest her soul) never needed a math coach to help teach multiplication tables, and third grade math. She didn't even have a calculator in those days.

      I agree with you that where we are today, we have to be willing to look at revenue streams. But I have a philosophical problem with the notion that because of our poor fiscal management in the past, and now our weak constitution, we can't right our own ship, and do the taxpayers of our district a service and restore the cost of our own kids educations to the norm (In my opinion, the tuition issue would be a moot point, because young families with toddlers and young school-aged kids would start flocking back to our district, keeping the pipeline flowing, and arresting the declining enrollments.) Isn't that what we ultimately want?

  7. This might be a good place to talk about price versus cost. The price, meaning how much tuition we charge, is set by the market. It has alot to do with the perceived quality of our schools and what the other schools charge. We can charge about what Coe Brown does, a little more than Dover, and so on. If we set our price above what the market will bear, we'll have few or no takers, as the parents or towns will choose cheaper alternatives.

    The cost is determined by the district, a result of a bunch of decisions made by the board, the administration, the voters, and the cost of fuel, supplies, labor and so on. It doesn't really have all that much to do with the price of tuition.

    Financially, it makes sense for us to take a tuition student if the price we get(the tuition) is greater than the cost to take one. I've argued that it is for us. That doesn't mean we shouldn't work to get our costs down. If I thought the cost to take one exceeded the tuition we'd get, I'd argue that we shouldn't take any.

    1. So here is where we get down to brass tacks. You make a poor financial decision for the district if you choose to opt for tuition students, vice reduce staff where feasible (meaning consolidation of classes, not "elimination" of programs) unless the increase in revenue realized by the tuition students can exceed the savings realized by reducing staff. Example: I choose to keep teacher "X", who costs the district, say $80,000 salary and benefits. My strategy is to add "Y" number of tuition students at $7,000 savings each to the taxpayers, to fill teacher "X's" class. If I don't succeed to get 12Y tuition students, it would have been a better deal for the taxpayers to reduce costs by a known value ($80,000) than to keep the salary expense and add the tuition students. Life is never as simple as word problems, I know. But do you see where I am coming from? My point is we get much more bang for the buck by reducing costs than by trying to fill our schools with tuition students. If we added 500 tuition students (highly unlikely) we would only save ourselves $3.5 million.

    2. Let's imagine we're overstaffed by one teacher. We can lay him off and save $80,000. Or we can admit 20 tuition students at $12,000, for $240,000 in revenue and make $160,000. Seems an easy choice.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. We got a good product here. Let's not be skittish about peddling it.

      Cal, when Newmarket High closes a bunch of people will be laid off. You can pop some champagne. But those kids still need to be taught. Our choice is: (A) lay off teachers in a death spiral where costs never decline as fast as enrollment and everyone but you is miserable. Soon we'll be looking to tuition our kids. Or (B) say we're gonna be the winners here, take as many kids as we can fit, make the money and keep our programming and our spirit.

      If you want to look at it callously, we get to reap some of the benefit of Newmarket's problems. Nothing stops us from continuing to cut costs going forward, and I'm all for it. But I want to do it as a thriving, successful institution that makes people want to move to the district.


    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. My take is that our first responsibility should be to our district, then worry about importing tuition students at a discount. I see where my misconception was for cost per student, and I got rid of that post.

      I don't think we will close our schools down in a "death spiral" by hitching up our belt a little. (After all, we got ourselves into this fiscal mess).

      Ultimately, our solution will be a combination of reducing costs, and adding revenue. Everyone needs to recognize there is nothing off the table. I personally don't think tuition students alone will put enough dent into our costs to be the whole answer.

    7. As a hypothetical example, if our cost per student is $19K for our 2000 students and we can take 200 tuition students at a cost of $5,000 each, our new cost per student is (2000*19000+200*5000)/2200 = 17,727. It's progress. Of course we work to reduce the numerator too.

      I would love to believe we were overstaffed by 15 teachers. We could take 300 tuition students and we wouldn't have to pay out much more in costs (art supplies, maybe), and the burden on taxpayers would be $3.6M less.

    8. What we see over and over is that schools are just more efficient the more kids you can get into them. When a school that can't make it evaporates, those kids get absorbed into already open schools in districts able to take them. Fewer open schools means the total cost of education will be less. The district that sends the kids and the district that takes the kids get to split the savings.

      The question is where to go from here. Now is when Newmarket and Deerfield have to decide. It's our chance. students need to be taught. We might as well be the ones to teach them. It's a good deal for us that at least alleviates problems of enrollment, cost per student and rising taxes. Of course it doesn't solve all problems forever, but it's a big step in the right direction.

    9. Afternoon, Dean.

      We started on our path to merging goals for our district, and I wouldn't want to drop the ball on the five yard line. (That's an old football term I like to use). I like what you are saying above, but my gut tells me your focus is only on what can improve the situation from a teacher's perspective, not what is in the best interest of our kids and community as a whole.

      I am beginning to believe that given enough glasses of champagne, or at least some cheap wine (OK, maybe a few belts of the hard stuff!), you and I could eventually reach that state of nirvana where we could solve world hunger. Our challenges with the ORCSD budget shouldn't be near that difficult, but we need to be real and understand what's truly at stake, who this is all for (really), and what a thriving school district looks like, feels like, and accomplishes for the ones it is designed to serve, our kids.

      So let me take this limited space I have here and give you my formula for where we are and where we need to get to. I know you think of me as a heartless "cutter," who revels in the plight of teachers in Newmarket, not to mention ORCSD. I see myself as more of a "restorer", merely trying to return our district to the A-1 school system we had the reputation of being about 12 years ago, when I first moved here. (oddly enough, we were able to attain such a rep with about the same cost to our students as anyone else trying to educate their children in NH.)

      My issue is not with teachers. This is not about staffing or overstaffing. This is about money, and what is best for my kids and family. Period.

      My issue is that we have allowed our budget to skyrocket over the last decade, with no measurable benefit for our graduates. We can grit our teeth over such an offensive comment, I'm just giving my opinion.

      So while I like what you suggest above about tuition students, I see it as only addressing half the problem, so consider this line of thought, recognizing it is only me pontificating in front of my laptop, and it probably won't go any farther than this blog:

      We (some one, the School Board?) should go to Dr. Morse and say, "thanks for your FY2014 budget. Now put together a budget $5 Million less and show us what that looks like." (that's right, not a paltry $500,000, $5 Mil!) He gets to figure out how to do it, that is why he gets paid his big-bucks. I don't care how he does it. Sell property, reduce staff, negotiate salaries, consolidate classrooms, whatever it takes. Just make it happen, and see where the chips fall.

      Then, once our budget is at $34 million, bring in 200-300 tuition students and add them to the high school student body. Now the tuition brings in even more revenue because our cost per student has already been substantially reduced. You know what the cost per student is for 2300 students at $30 Mil? $13,043!

      Then, (I hate to even mention this unmentionable) Tell Dr. Morse to build us a long-overdue athletic field, complete with goal posts! You want to see a thriving institution we can all be proud of that would be a centerpiece for our community? There you have it in 500 words or less.

      Hope you can read this free of myopic vision.


    10. Cal, we need to make the decision about tuitioning students now. It's a net positive for most everyone so I'm in favor. I'd be willing to try to minimize the hiring involved by stretching the teachers right to our upper limit in class size. There's room there now I think. Tuitioning is a way to solve overstaffing without the painful downsizing and accompanying loss of spirit. It's a way of going toward having the best schools at the least cost to the taxpayers. Efforts to cut costs directly should proceed in parallel.

      Where Dr. Morse and I part ways is he views the 300 Newmarket students' tuitions as a way to expand programming. I'd be more in favor of maximizing the benefits to the taxpayers.

  8. Julie emailed me this interesting link about smaller class sizes being better. I hope she doesn't mind that I'm sharing it here.

    Thanks, Julie.

    The 7 Myths of Class Size Reduction - And the Truth

    1. 1. I read the article. Is there any way I can put a "thumbs up" symbol here like Facebook? I would venture to guess that in an ideal world, if we had one teacher for every student, the outcome for every student would be grand. Of course, in an ideal world, teachers would be willing to work one-on-one with each student for free! Do we have any takers? I would love it if we could fill Oyster River schools with highly qualified teachers at what, a 5:1 ratio, and teach our kids---if it wouldn't cost us $63,000 per teacher! I believe state and district guidelines for student-teacher ratios have a long and proven track record. Is it perfect? No, but there is a balance that must be struck, and it comes down to money. I have a moral obligation to provide the students of ORCSD a safe, and fulfilling educational experience. I don't have an obligation to do any more than that.