Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fear and Loathing at the Tuition Forum

Last Thursday, Superintendent Morse held a forum on the tuition issue.  No one was injured.

Due to the importance of the issue to the entire community, ORCSD spent around $600 mailing invitations to every homeowner in the district. That's on top of the $3,500 we spent on the tuition survey.  Only about 100 people attended the forum, including 6 board members.

The survey, again presented by Dr. Andy Smith, showed 2/3 of the district in favor of tuitioning, but I'd estimate the audience was more like 2/3 against.  The meeting was recorded, so catch it on DCAT (cable channel 22) or just click on the play button above, at ORCSDVideo or Vimeo.

I've already gone on and on about tuitioning (see 1 2 3 4 ...) and I'm not going to repeat any of that here.  Instead, let's start with things I learned at the forum:
  • We vote.  As a tuition deal is expected to be a multi-year contract, it must be approved by the voters.  Dr. Morse didn't say, but I'll guess that it will be a warrant article on the ballot in March 2014.  The board seems to be trying to make their choice by this November.
  • The choice may be easy.  Newmarket has reportedly expressed a willingness to pay the full Oyster River cost per pupil for tuition.  That's probably a couple thousand more per student in tuition than we'd get from the other towns.  I want those kids. This is great news for the taxpayers of Oyster River. 
  • Deerfield deal isn't exclusive.   If we accept the bulk of Deerfield students, there would still be 5-10% of Deerfield public high school students who would not attend Oyster River.
  • Barrington would be grandfathered.  In the event the district went with a non-Barrington option, current Barrington students would be allowed to finish.  81 Barrington kids are expected next year, up from 63 currently.  How we would all fit was left unspecified.
  • 30% for taxpayers.  The economic details of tuitioning were left pretty vague, though "15-20 staff" are needed for the 290 students.  The superintendent dangled new programs (like free all day K) as possible uses for tuition revenue, but said he'd return at least 30% of tuition to the taxpayers.  (Special education tuition appears to be included in the calculation.)
  • The false "we're subsidizing" lives on.  One of the more common complaints from the audience is ORCSD taxpayers are subsidizing the other town when we charge them tuition lower than our cost per pupil.  I'll say it again: the tuition we get from a new student is lots more than it costs to add that student.  The difference lowers district taxes and enhances programming.  It's obviously not a subsidy if it saves the taxpayers money.  The most you can say is it's unfair, and even that goes away if another town actually pays our cost per pupil (see above).
  • Rumors are flying.  Apparently Barrington's building a high school and the Newmarket deal will never close, according to people willing to pass on rumors from the podium.
To me the ugliest parts of the meeting were the various insinuations from people at the podium that those people in those other towns aren't like us and their kids will wreck our school. Most of the speakers were not really presenting facts, but simply expressing their fears.  They're right to question the demographics and experience of the students in the other towns.  I try to get them some answers below.

Teacher Lou Mroz is fiercely protective
of ORHS and is vehemently against
tuitioning more students.
Click to watch
Mike McClurken had some.  He reported Newmarket ranked 12th and Oyster River 10th in the recent high school math NECAPs.  (Barrington and Deerfield don't have high schools so their high school NECAPs are not reported separately.)   

Lou Mroz, a long time ORHS teacher and district resident, made the most well-informed, passionate and credible case against tuitioning.  "Oyster River is special," he said and he counted the ways: safe, no fights, rare bullying, very accepting.  Mr. Mroz respectfully disagreed with the superintendent, saying in his and his colleagues' experience "a higher percentage" of Barrington students at ORHS "experience social and academic issues."   He claims "90% plus" of his students are against tuitioning students in.  He foresees a decline in property values if we do.  He actually said, "Raise my taxes."   You have to give him credit for putting his money where his mouth is.

I don't know if there is anything to these fears.   It's not like our neighboring towns are Chicago.  I want to believe those kids in the other towns are mostly good and that our staff is competent to handle the few bad apples in a way that preserves the great ORHS culture.

I put together some facts from  I'm not sure how helpful they are.  It seems the presence of UNH students in the data makes it hard to interpret.

I'm guessing most of the 41.5% of people in Durham living under the poverty line are UNH students.  A good chunk of the 11.4% in poverty in Newmarket are probably UNH students as well (note the low median age).  I didn't find 2012 NECAP rankings posted yet on the DOE site so I used School Digger rankings for middle schools (and I put Oyster River's rank under "Durham").

The second sheet (MSnecap8yrs) shows the full 8 year history for the middle school NECAP ranks in the towns.  What I call Middle School NECAPs is what School Digger computes from the 7th and 8th grade NECAP scores.  The 8 year averages turn out to be pretty close to the most recent year's outcomes, perhaps excepting Deerfield, whose recent rank is 50 but whose average rank is 60.

Here's all the demographic and test score info you can pull out of School Digger.  It includes free/reduced lunch percentages, which someone at the podium asked about.  The chart is slightly confusing because Deerfield doesn't really have a middle school -- it has a PK-8 school.  In the comparison, green is good, orange bad.
Click to enlarge

Here's a recent Concord Monitor article on high schools, declining enrollments and tuitioning.

My Doubts

At this point I'm still in favor of tuitioning and leaning toward Newmarket, especially if they are indeed willing to pay our cost per pupil.  However, thinking about the forum did raise some doubts in my mind:

LRPC Dec 2012 Enrollment Projections.
Anyone else notice some rows don't add up?
(Probably due to fractional kids, rounded for the table.)

First of all, while district enrollment is projected to decline pretty steadily, high school enrollment is forecasted to stay pretty constant.  In the status quo scenario (Barrington students only) high school enrollment is not projected to dip below its current level for eight years.  If things are fine now and there's no problem for a decade, why change?

I graphed the enrollment projections in a way that makes it easier to see that high school enrollment stays pretty steady for eight years (and actually grows for a while).  You can see the currently declining elementary enrollment work its way into the middle school starting FY17 and finally get to the high school at FY21.  I included the total enrollment on the same graph by using the axis on the right.  I added two lines not in the table above -- the red is the high school local district projection (no tuition students included) and the yellow is the implied projection of Barrington tuition student enrollment.  The yellow line wiggles a fair amount, which leads me to believe the LRPC must have done some Barrington modelling as well.

I wondered why this effect wasn't more apparent in the LRPC's report.  Their graph used a stacked area chart with high school on top, obscuring it's flatness.  I made one with high school on the bottom that's clearer.

My second doubt comes from the demographic and test score charts above.  There appears to be some validity to concerns about the Newmarket option being worse than the Deerfield option.   Newmarket's low middle school rank puts it on par with Barrington.  But the way choice works in Barrington means we tend to get better than average Barrington students.  We'd be taking all the Newmarket students.  [There's an option that's not been discussed publicly to my knowledge where we try to persuade Barrington to send us most their high school kids (the devil you know) but there's no particular reason to believe that that will go any better than taking all the Newmarket kids.]

Third, I'm not that happy with the budget as presented, vague as it is.  On the surface it seems pretty close to what I've been talking about: 15-20 staff for 290 tuition students.  The problem is that this staffing up is not really for 290 students, but only for about 210 students.  We shouldn't count the 81 or so Barrington kids that will already be here next year for which we weren't planning on hiring much in the way of staff (one or two .4 positions if I recall).   The two big plans end up with around 290 tuition students year after next, an increase of 209 from next year.  20 staff for 209 students seems like a lot.
 I will try to clarify this point and get back to you all.

Fourth, it's a bit more complicated if we go with Newmarket because of the plan to grandfather Barrington students.  We currently have 63 Barrington kids, and expect to have 81 next year.  I don't know the details, so I'll just guess.  11 Barrington kids will graduate next week, leaving 66, 22 per grade. That means we're getting 35 new Barrington kids next year [81-(63-15)] and most of them are probably freshman, say 26, with say 3 more in each of the older grades. So when the 290 Newmarket students show up and we stop accepting Barrington kids, we'll still have from Barrington 26 sophomores, 25 juniors and 25 seniors, 76 in total.  Add in the 600 district kids, that's 600+290+76=966, 51 more students than the 915 we can comfortably fit.  Bye bye, Barrington sophomores and juniors?

That about wraps it up for now.   The latest ORTV News has a great report on tuition students.  I saw on "The Places We'll Go" that two ORHS seniors are starting MIT next fall -- pretty great for a class of 160.  There's a school board meeting this Wednesday, June 5 that doesn't seem that exciting.  Football isn't mentioned so it will probably be presented on June 19.


  1. Corrections:

    I originally referred to "former teacher Lou something." Thanks to Denise for telling me it's actually "current teacher Lou Mroz." Sorry, Lou. I've corrected and expanded the paragraphs about Lou above.

    I previously hadn't named the town interested in paying full cost per pupil. I've rewritten the post to name Newmarket.

    Anybody else having weird problems playing the video at the top? My image freezes at 12:00 though the audio keeps playing.


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