- A: Fill the High School: Tuition in around 300 kids, maintain (or increase) programs, lower taxes. We would still have to manage future declines in enrollment, perhaps by accepting even more tuition students as slots become available or at the middle school. With this option we'd have to further choose between Deerfield/Barrington or Newmarket (and they'd have to choose us).
- B: Close a School: Stop tuitioning in students, close a school, reap an initial sharp reduction in taxes and programming and a further gradual reduction as enrollment continues to decline. We'd have to decide which school to close, which would be entertaining to say the least.
- C: Status Quo: Keep tuitioning in Barrington students only, which won't much affect the decline in enrollment. Programming gradually shrinks, taxes stay about the same.
I've been advocating for plan A pretty much since I started blogging here over a year ago (see Roger Spiedel's Numbers 2/22/2012). My main problem with the survey is it didn't distinguish between plans B and C. First I'll report on the survey, which found an overwhelming preference for plan A, tuitioning 300 kids into the high school. After that, I'll explore what plan B, closing a school, looks like.
UNH Professor and district parent Dr. Andy Smith reported on a phone survey of district residents about tuition. Students were excluded from the survey -- the goal was to survey taxpayers.
Given the potential bias introduced in question 6 (see below), I'll just report questions 1 through 5:
- 85% of respondents thought ORCSD schools to be excellent or good and 7% fair or poor. 96% of families with students thought the schools to be excellent or good.
- 65% said the reputation of Oyster River schools was very important in their decision to move to the district, 14% said somewhat important and 25% said not important. Among student families, 89% said very important.
- 27% thought the high school facility was too big for the number of students, 43% said about right, 4% too small. Among high school families, 29% said too big and 56% said about right.
- 65% thought we were already tuitioning students (a well-informed district!), 4% thought we weren't. 83% of high school families knew we were.
- 67% favor tuitioning students, 9% oppose.
- One last thing, from later in the survey: there was no real preference between the Newmarket option and the Deerfield/Barrington option.
“As it turns out, Oyster River High School was built to accommodate 900 to 1200 students, but the current enrollment is only 620 and is projected to decline in the coming years.”915 students is 85% of the capacity of the high school when calculated using ORCSD board policy for maximum class size (22 students) and represents a realistic full enrollment. I have a problem with the "1200" used above. 1202 is the capacity calculated using NH State rules for maximum class size (30 students). Since no one is really talking about relaxing the current class size policy, the 1200 is b.s. that makes the high school sound much more empty than it really is. Probably because of this, the remainder of the survey shows an even more favorable sentiment toward tuition than the already overwhelming 67% to 9% above.
“In order to help cover some of the costs of the high school and to maintain the curriculum offered at the high school, the Oyster River School Board is currently considering the possibility of tuitioning in about 290 students from Newmarket, which would make the enrollment of the high school still lower than the size it could accommodate.”
“Would you support or oppose tuitioning in about 290 students in from Newmarket, or don’t you have an opinion one way or the other?”
Plan B: Close a School
What happens if we don't tuition in any more students? If we believe the projections, enrollment declines to the point where the student population can fit into three buildings. A school can be closed (and even sold) and the taxpayers save money.
It's too bad the survey didn't bring up the possibility. I personally don't think this plan would be very popular with the community. First there would be the fight about which school to close. Then a bunch of layoffs as a building is shuttered, sapping morale. Then comes the continued slow decline in enrollment, which we manage with more layoffs. Along with that may come a decline in property values, as the contracting school district is less attractive to potential homeowners. Eventually there's a new problem when enrollment rises again but we've sold a school.
But as it's a real alternative to tuitioning students, we should at least consider it. Here's how it works: By not accepting any tuition students our total district enrollment drops below 1957 students. Now the district no longer needs Moharimet to serve so few students. We close it, laying off almost all of the non-teaching staff. We lay off some teachers, but not as many as you might think -- there are still children to teach. Maybe four. We might squeeze out a couple more positions if the consolidation allows class sizes closer to the maximum. Then we reconfigure to grades K-2 at Mast Way, 3-7 at ORMS at 8-12 at ORHS.
The main benefit is that the three remaining buildings are utilized at near capacity. Like I've argued for tuition, the most efficient way to use a school is to serve as many students as possible.
I think closing a school is a non-starter, due to non-economic considerations. But to explore the economics, I made the spreadsheet and graph below to try to quantify the different plans. To model the situation, I needed a capacity for each school. I used the functional capacity from the recent study, which is 90% (85% for ORHS) of the capacity assuming every class space is filled at maximum ORCSD board policy. It is intended to be a realistic estimate of full capacity. For the amount of money we would save when we closed a building, I used the recent ABC report, which has a budget summary by location.
The remaining issue was how to model what to do with the difference between enrolled students and capacity. I decided if we had too many students, we would tuition the overflow out at $13,000 per. I modeled available seats as being filled with tuitioned-in students, each saving the district $7,000. Alternatively, if you don't like the idea of tuitioning in students, you can think of the $7,000 as the amount saved as enrollment declines one student.
Obviously this model is quick and dirty and not intended to be incredibly accurate. The goal is to get a feel for what the decision space look like. Here's the result:
Coincidentally, our 2013 enrollment is 2013, which is two points to the left of the 2000 grid line. For a given line, each point to the right of the 2000 line represents the enrollment projected for the next year. The rightmost point is enrollment of 1628 for fiscal year 2023. (I think the enrollment projections include 60-80 Barrington tuition children which I didn't remove.) This chart is in current dollars.
The steeper slopes represent the overfilled condition -- the district has to tuition out students. One less student means one less tuition to pay. Even if the community were willing to close a school we might not want to tuition out our children, which means waiting until there's space. That point, when enrollment equals capacity, is indicated by the knee in (two of) the lines. The less steep slopes represent available capacity in the district.
You can see that by dropping the 60-odd Barrington tuition students, we can immediately get to the point where we can close Moharimet. According to this (admittedly crude) estimate, we'd save 2% in taxes compared to keeping all schools open. (I left out the "close Mast Way" line it's about the same as the Moharimet line but less attractive to close, as Mast Way serves more students at less cost than Moharimet. And I don't want to close Mast Way.)
Want more savings? You can wait 7 years and close the middle school instead of Moharimet resulting in 4% savings predicted here compared to tuitioning. If you are willing to tuition out you can capture some of the savings sooner.
Why is the "All Open" savings at the current enrollment -5% instead of zero? This assumes the unused capacity in the district (almost 300 in this case) is used for tuitioning in students, saving money.
I didn't take into account the money the taxpayers would get from selling a school. I don't know how much Moharimet would bring in. A few million? What bothers me is that many potential buyers are competitors to the district. I like competition fine, but I don't see any need particular to help our competitors along. But who else other than a private school needs a school? I suppose there's some chance of a project that turns the school into a kind of community center, like the Tuck building in Exeter. Given that enrollment is tough to predict, the district may be better off holding the building and leasing it (or parts) out.
So, this quick analysis indicates that closing a school can indeed be the choice that results in the largest tax savings. To me, it's a big headache that probably doesn't result in very much more savings compared to tuitioning. It doesn't seem worth the decline in programming. The real question is whether we would be perceived as a district in decline. If so, the likely result is a decline of property values that for many people would swamp any taxes saved.