Sunday, October 27, 2013

Will Second Graders Play Moh Cafe?

The board met last Wednesday, with the main issues being the elementary school reconfiguration and the Moharimet cafeteria.  The meeting has been pretty well covered already, with Seth doing a great job live blogging it on Facebook, Kim Haas writing about it in Fosters and the meeting itself uploaded to YouTube.

But I want to give my readers more.  Insight.  Context.  Animated gifs.  Here goes.

Moh Cafe

Let's start with the cafeteria.  Architect Steve Blatt was retained to generate an initial proposal.  I put it in context so you can see how it's sited:
Moharimet addition in context (click to enlarge)

The proposed extension to the gym (in blue) starts to go into the woods by the church. Board member Turnbull asked about adding an additional 10 feet to the cafeteria, to add 40 seats to the proposed 120. This would push the extension into the setback where we'd need permission from the church to proceed, which isn't out of the question.

click to enlarge

Here's the plan as presented.  I added some length estimates to give you a better idea of the scale.

Rather than adding additional cafeteria space, we are adding additional gym space, and converting the gym space in front of the stage to the cafeteria.  This unexpectedly turns out to be cheaper than the alternative (constructing cafeteria space) which would require expensive kitchen renovations. The proposed accordion partition between the cafeteria and gym can be retracted to create a large auditorium.

The lower figure in the plan is a cross section which indicates the changes in ceiling height.   The gym currently has 17 foot ceilings.   This will be lowered to 12 feet (still pretty high) in the cafeteria space with a drop ceiling.  Here's my animated gif showing the cafeteria space before and after the renovation.  I lowered the ceiling and moved the tables closer to the stage.

The cost for the extension is now estimated at $570,000, up from $500,000 originally.   It is estimated there will be $460,000 of construction to create 1,700 square feet of new space, at a luxurious cost of $270 per square foot.  At that rate the additional 10 foot extension costs over $200,000.

I look forward to Open Mic at the Moh Cafe.  The board and voters have to approve it first, then construction would commence in April, 2014 and complete by October 2014.

Redraw the line or reinvent elementary education?

About 30 people attended Wednesday's meeting.   Most of the comments were from parents whose children would be moved to Mast Way under the "redraw the line" plan (superintendent's proposals).  These parents seem to have rapidly developed an appreciation for an innovative education proposal -- making Mast Way K-2 and Moharimet 3-4.

Stare at this for a while to get an idea about what redrawing the bus line does:

Proposed bus line redrawing.  Click to enlarge.

Seth tells me the community now wants K-2/3-4.  I don't know, but I'm skeptical, having attended all the meetings on this topic.

The typical thing the district has done when the imbalance between schools gets too great is to redraw the lines and grandfather current families.  The grandfathering allows any family currently in Mast Way to have all their children finish at Mast Way.  (Different variations of grandfathering are of course possible.)

The grandfathering is great if you have a moderate imbalance which you want to gradually correct over time without disrupting too many families.   It doesn't work in the current case because the imbalance is so acute that the gradual change that results from grandfathering would let the imbalance persist for years into the future.

We could do a modified grandfathering, where we allow a one year transition.  The parents of current Moh third graders would be allowed keep all their children at Moh.  With this proposal, no students would have a single year at one building, which seems worthwhile.

So, if we do redraw the line, we should have a policy that redraws and grandfathers every five years or so, so we don't find ourselves in this mess again down the line.

As for costs, it's about a wash.  Two extra buses ($80K each) and one-time setup costs are expected for K-2/3-4.  Then presumably two extra drivers are needed to actually drive the buses.  The savings come from being able to get closer to the maximum class size (policy IIB) of 18 (K), 20 (grades 1,2,3) or 22 (grade 4) when the entire grade is together.  This might reasonably be expected to require 0.5 fewer teachers per grade level.  This staffing reduction, if achieved, should offset the additional transportation costs.  Other efficiencies are expected from having each grade in a single building. 

I think the decision is slated to be made at the November 20 board meeting.  Lots of things are supposed to be decided at that meeting, and I think the board may add additional meetings to spread the decisions out a bit.

Strategic Plan

The board approved the broad goals generated from the revived Strategic Planning Committee.  They are included in the agenda.

I was on the Finance and Operations Subcommittee.  The bulk of the work in the that committee (not sure about the others) was producing documents that supported and expanded upon the goals.  However, these documents will not be approved by the board.  I had commented at an earlier meeting that this approval procedure disrespects the work of the subcommittee members.  Apparently to placate me, the superintendent included these F&O summary documents in the agenda.  Despite the inclusion, the board did not take up approving these documents.

I thought this was too bad, as we had come up with some good stuff, and some controversial stuff worth discussing.  I'm going to include here the summary section I was responsible for drafting.  To give due credit, I started with the old research report by Jenna Roberts and Lisa Allison.  The entire subcommittee provided much feedback, and we went through several drafts. Wayne Burton contributed additional language.   Here the link, but you won't need it as I'll just paste the entire thing right here:

Goal 3: Financial prudence should guide all of our decisions to be among the best performing schools in NH

A community holds no greater responsibility than the education of its children. Given we have New Hampshire’s flagship public university within our borders, it’s no surprise that there is broad community support for public schools in Oyster River. Consistent with the community’s aspirations, this support has systematically led to high achievement from our students. For example, ORHS boasts a miniscule dropout rate, sends graduates to four-year college one third more often than the state average and scores 12% above the national average on the SAT.

No one should be surprised that achieving these results comes at a higher than average price. The major financial burden for funding the school system falls on local property owners. Every effort must be made to optimize the use of each tax dollar collected. We owe it to the taxpayers to maintain and improve our great outcomes for the least possible cost. In order to do that we have to measure both outcomes and costs, and compare ourselves to other districts in the state.

Objective measures of our performance (NECAP, SAT, AP, college attendance rates, awards, national rankings, etc.) while not everything, are necessary to assure us that we are indeed achieving outcomes among the best in the state. We must prioritize projects that improve outcomes. The entire community benefits from maintaining Oyster River’s status as an excellent school district.

We must also compare our costs to common metrics such as the CPI. As you can see, our real cost per pupil has decreased slightly since the peak of 2009. We agree with the administration’s proposed FY15 goal of zero real growth, a continuation of our belt-tightening trend.

Our achievement is even more impressive when you consider that school costs generally climb much faster than the broader CPI. Compared to the state average, we have been declining since our peak in 2006. We encourage the board and administration to continue to grow at a rate substantially below the state average.

Cost Per Pupil (as defined by the state) does not reflect transportation costs and debt service costs, which nonetheless we should of course attempt to minimize, nor does it account for non-tax revenue, which we should attempt to maximize. This plan does not recommend actual targets for cost controls as the committee feels the board needs flexibility so it can make the judgements not to sacrifice education or capital improvements in pursuit of reducing the taxpayers’ burden.

Financial prudence means spending the taxpayers’ money wisely. The ORCSD can be commended for bending the cost curve down recently through implementing a retirement incentive program resulting in a savings of $565,000; an energy savings program yielding $92,000 and a reduction in health insurance costs in FY 2014. To their great credit, all unions agreed to some form of reduction in benefits, most recently the union representing the custodians and secretaries. Economies were realized in the Transportation Department which now operates with fewer staff, consolidated routes and common pick-up points. We encourage the administration and board to continue to seek cost reductions. Increasing non-tax revenue is also encouraged, including facility rental fees, aggressively seeking grants and tuitioning.

Attracting and retaining a high quality teaching staff, which now includes about a third more masters-qualified teachers than the state average, results in an average teacher salary about that much higher than the state average. Our current (unofficial) policy is to hire the best possible person without regard to price. If we want our staffing costs to rise at the nominal rates in the various contracts, we need to hire staff at the lower rungs of the seniority ladder as more experienced staff retires, in an effort to keep the average seniority constant. We recommend a focus on the potential of new hires and leveraging our current staff’s experience by having them mentor new staff.
Prudence also dictates we attempt to maximize class size up to the limit of our policy (generally 22 per class). We made some strides with the retirement incentives. If we carefully determine the correct staffing needs, tuitioning offers an opportunity to get closer to the upper limits without morale-sapping layoffs and elimination of programming.

Declining enrollment, if it happens as predicted, should lower the burden on taxpayers, as there are fewer students to educate. Tuitioning is an opportunity to gain revenue from unused seats, lowering the burden on taxpayers and increasing the efficiency of the schools all while enhancing the educational opportunities for our students. The necessary hiring for an increased student load already allows us to expand educational opportunities for students. We encourage the board to use any revenue above these costs to help reduce the burden on taxpayers.

Our local community is an incredible source of volunteer labor and expertise. We endorse efforts to encourage more volunteer participation. Our talented neighbors, including those at the university, are wonderfully willing to donate services and skills many of which we could never reasonably hope to purchase. An extra bonus accrues when the students get involved. By graciously accepting the community’s generosity, we can save money and maybe learn a few things too.

Particular recommendations from the detailed plan include goals-based budgeting, multi-year budgeting, prioritizing important items in the CIP, adding transportation and food service in the CIP and encouraging students to use the food service and bus transportation, the latter by increasing the parking rate, which simultaneously leads to increased sustainability.

We need to trumpet our accomplishments and to make efforts to involve the greater community in the schools, through theater, concerts, lectures and so on. These make the district a more enjoyable place to live and have the serendipitous effect of increasing property values.

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