Saturday, September 22, 2012

State Shifts $500,000 in Retirement Costs to Oyster River

I'll get to a roundup eventually, but in the meantime read the story about the quick and competent reaction of Oyster River High School students and staff that saved the life of a shop teacher who collapsed.   At the recent board meeting, a very emotional Principal Todd Allen told us how proud he was of everyone. -- Dean

At the school board meeting on September 19, 2012, Superintendent Morse and Business Administrator Caswell announced that the district would have an additional $500,000 expense in FY14.  The money is the increase in the employer's contribution to the state employees' retirement system.     This brings to $1.2 Millon that amount that needs to be cut for the FY14 dollar amount to remain the same as FY13.   (Actually, the figure is larger  -- there's another 1% cut needed to offset the ending of the spending down of the fund balance.  And there are some large capital expenses in our future.  I'm going to ignore both of these for the rest of this post.)    A flat (zero dollar increase) budget has been our goal since last May, when the board directed the superintendent to prepare a budget with "level funding".

Previously, the business administrator had announced that achieving a flat budget would entail $700,000 in cuts to offset contracted increases net of savings (see the budget section of the last roundup).    This was in line with inflation, which is running at 1.5% to 2% (1.75% of $38.3M = $670,000).    With the announcement of the new retirement expense, the superintendent's job just got $500,000 more difficult. While new revenue and additional non-staff savings might help some, it is likely that $1.2M in cuts will result in a large layoff of staff.    (Here's an article on how Exeter is affected by the new retirement costs.)

The increased costs appear to be the result of the state eliminating their contribution to state employee retirement plans.    The  current rates have the district contributing 9.09% of teachers' salary and the state 4.88%.   The new rates (released on September 11, 2012) have the district contributing 14.16% and the state zero.   In other words, the state shifted a cost equal to about 5% of teachers' salary to the district.

The contribution is divided into 82.5% pension and 17.5% medical subsidy.  I'm no expert on the retirement system, but I believe this medical subsidy has nothing to do with the care teachers get while their employed.   It's for their retirement or their beneficiaries.   I've been referring to it all as retirement costs, and I think that's pretty accurate.

[Math check:  Working backwards, $500,000 / 5% = $10M salary.   We often hear 80% of our $38.3M budget is personnel, so that's $30 M.  Obviously not all of the $30M is for teachers, and not all of that is salary, but I'm not totally sure how to reconcile these.   It's probably more complicated than I understand.]

I've largely avoided party politics on this blog, but to the extent bills are proposed and laws passed that affect our district and public education in general in New Hampshire, it's relevant here.  The current state legislature really doesn't like public education.   They have passed a bunch of laws: vouchers, empowering parents to dictate curriculum, cost shifting to local districts, halving the support to state colleges, and more.   Each of these laws weakens public education in its own way.    Bill Duncan at Defending New Hampshire Public Education has done an excellent job keeping track of the dozens of education-related bills percolating through the New Hampshire legislature.

Republicans hold veto-proof super-majorities in both the NH house and senate.  They are dominated by the Tea Party folks who were swept into office in November, 2010.   It's hard to come to any conclusion other than these Republicans are harmful to public education.  I'm voting for Democrats on November 6th, 44 days from now.   If I lived in District 3, I'd enthusiastically vote for Bill Duncan for Executive Council.

Back to ORCSD.    Superintendent Morse reported that only one teacher so far has opted for the retirement incentives approved by the board.    I believe he said that the guild has requested that the offer be kept open through the end of October, which he agreed to do.   I'm sure the teachers, like everyone else in the community, want to see how the school board reacts when confronted with the prospect of large layoffs for a flat budget.   I'm not sure they'll find out by the end of October.

The board and the district have begun work on the FY14 budget, which covers July 2013 through June 2014.   Over the next few months, the board will make its decisions and produce a budget for the public's approval.   The public gets to vote on modifying the proposed FY14 budget at the deliberative session in February 2013.   The final budget goes to the voters for approval on election day in March 2013.
Tax Cap threat in the public file, click to enlarge.

There's still ample opportunity to express your opinion before the deliberative session.   You might consider writing a letter to the board.   For example, you might threaten to organize a campaign to impose a district tax cap if taxes look like they'll increase too much.   You could express your regret that you failed to support the lawbreaking board members in their efforts to cut costs more deeply before they lost reelection in a landslide.   You could call the 0.4% added by the taxpayers during the deliberative session a "large add back" while neglecting the fact that the budget passed by your board of cutters increased taxes by 3%. But one of your neighbors already beat you to it (see right).

I don't agree with Mr. McClurken about tax caps, and if the possibility gets more real I will certainly delve into why I think a tax cap is a terrible idea.  But I do very much appreciate Mr. McClurken's detailed and informative report.   Here's a version from last spring.  I look forward to the update.

Maybe threatening letters aren't your style.   Come to a school board meeting and make your feelings about teacher layoffs and program cuts known.   You might express your concern that deep cuts will impact school quality, test scores, and ultimately property values.   You might think keeping taxes down, programs up, and teachers employed by accepting Newmarket tuition students is a good idea.   You might think it's a good idea to raise revenue by expanding the day care and charging for full day Kindergarten.  You might have a brand new great idea.  There are plenty of chances to get involved between now and the deliberative session, so don't be shy.

- Dean

Thursday, July 26, 2012

ORCSD Tri-Monthly Roundup - May, June & July 2012

I haven't gotten around to posting a monthly roundup in a while, so I'm going to summarize the last three months here.

Did You Know?

Did you know that school board meetings since March 2011 are available for free on iTunes?  The video quality leaves much to be desired, but they're useful nonetheless.  Start here.

Did you know that the 14 top-ranked students to graduate ORHS this year were girls?   I'm looking forward to a report on why the boys seem to be underperforming.

Did you know that efforts to get a world-language teacher have apparently been thwarted for a second year in a row?  This time the problem was a snafu that prevented the Confucius Institute from obtaining a visa for the teacher to come to the US.

Did you know the Oyster River Middle School Jazz Band played at the historic Portsmouth Music Hall?   Congratulations on a great gig in an awesome venue.

The New Administration Starts Work

July is the beginning of the new school year, at least as far as the district administration and staff are concerned.    There has been a marked turnover of personnel in the administration.    Interim superintendent Lee Levesque is gone, as are his deputies Directors of Instruction Phyllis Schlichter and Danielle Bolduc.   Director of Food Service Andrea Tran has resigned.   Mast Way Principal Kris Gallo has departed as well.   I thank them all for their incredible service to the district, and wish them well in their new endeavors.   Luckily we'll still see Danielle and Andrea around, as they're both parents of Mast Way second graders.

The new team started on July 1.  Dr. James Morse took the reigns as superintendent.  Catherine Plourde, ORCSD's Special Education Coordinator for Elementary Schools (and PEP, I think), has been promoted to Director of Special Services.  Carolyn Eastman is the new Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment.    The titles have changed, but the division of labor is about the same as between Dr. Schlicter and Ms. Bolduc.   As predicted, Carrie Vaich has been hired as the new principal of Mast Way.    I'd like to welcome them all to their new positions in the district, and wish them all good luck.   Superintendent Morse will search for a new Director of Food Service, and one of Director Plourde's first tasks will be to find a replacement for her old job.

The new team (including the three continuing principals) was in attendance for the recent July 18th board meeting.   In what seemed to me two very good signs, the meeting adjourned by 8:15 pm and included the return of the second round of public comments.   This 1.25 hour meeting was a nice contrast to the first ORCSD board meeting I ever attended, one year ago this week, which ran almost three hours. 

The President Stops By

In a wonderful honor for the district, President Barack Obama campaigned at Oyster River High School on  June 25th.  In his speech, the president thanked Principal Todd Allen for hosting him.   Like many others, I had a ticket but failed to get in due to the overflowing crowds.   After his speech, the president stopped at the UNH Dairy Bar and bought a round of ice cream for some lucky patrons.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle when the town of Durham failed to get the campaign to pay the town expenses associated with the visit.   Town leaders hastily scheduled a meeting to consider "disinviting" the president (somewhat oddly, as they were not the ones who initially invited him) and were rescued from the ensuing embarrassment by an anonymous $20,000 donation.   Right-to-Know requests (including one from the Koch-Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity) have been unsuccessful in determining the identity of the generous citizen, described by the town administrator as "a longtime Durham resident who had moved out of town some time ago, then moved back, and had the means to offer such a donation."  I have to believe that description doesn't fit too many people, but I'll leave the speculation to others.   (Update 7/30: Foster's reports the total cost to Durham as $13,000.)

Enrollment Predicted To Fall

The Long Term Planning Committee reported on their enrollment projections at the May 2 board meeting.   They forecast a decline of 400 students (20%) over the next 10 years.    They reported that NESDEC (New England School Development Council) projects we'll have a 300 student (15%) reduction over the same period.  The loss is skewed toward elementary and middle schools; elementary school enrollment is predicted to fall an incredible 35% over 10 years while high school enrollment is projected to decline only 6% (8% if tuition students are excluded).     Interestingly, the LRPC predicts an increase in district enrollment for the coming school year.  It's not clear that increase will actually materialize as the LRPC predicted 73 incoming first graders to Mast Way but as of May 16 only 46 had enrolled.  (I hear it's up to three classes now, but I don't have an exact count.)  Low kindergarten enrollment at Mast Way this year has resulted in the wonderful teacher Trisha Hall being reassigned to Moharimet. 

The reported causes of the overall decline include a statewide trend, a decline of residents of prime childbearing age (25-39) in the district and policies of the towns that discourage residential development.   The tax burden was not explicitly mentioned, but it likely plays a role in the decline of the childbearing demographic.   A rather hard to read version of the LRPC's report is available starting on page 21 of the meeting agenda; a more readable PowerPoint version is here.

Superintendent Levesque reported on May 16 that he initiated talks with Newmarket to explore accepting 280 high school tuition students.   Talks with Deerfield were mentioned as well.  Neither possibility was included in the LRPC projections presented at the previous meeting.

A report on full day kindergarten is included in the May 2 agenda, though I cannot recall a presentation at the meeting.   The report is dated June 2008, and mentions a projection from the LRPC for an increase in K-4 enrollment to 754 in 2017-2018.  The LRPC now projects a decrease to 555 for that, which tells you something about forecasting.   The report touts the benefits of full day K, and how various towns in the area are moving in that direction.  One board member suggested the possibility of beginning by charging tuition for the extra half day, increasing revenue to the district while providing a day care alternative to parents.  
The board discussed exploring full day K further at a future meeting.


At the May 2 meeting, the scary structural problems with the high school reported in January by Acadia Engineers & Constructors (AEC) that had a board member asking if we should evacuate were reviewed by Foley, Buhl, Roberts and Associates and turn out not to be all that serious after all.  Why the two consultants reached such opposite conclusions I do not know.

At the May 16 meeting, Siemens reported the overhaul of the high school HVAC system was proceeding very well.   Due to the more efficient use of fuel, the deft capturing of available incentives, and a fair amount of equipment that Siemens has given to us free of charge, the project is expected to pay for itself in an astounding 1.1 years.

At the June 20 meeting, needed capital improvements of $800,000 for roofing and $70,000 for paving and sealing were discussed.   I believe this is in addition to the $4,000,000 of improvements discussed in April.  It's not clear to me how much of this maintenance is included in the regular operating budget.

I was concerned about continuing our relationship with Aramark after the maintenance problems with the high school HVAC were discovered last year.   But we've signed a much more comprehensive contract, and they really seemed to have stepped up and brought the management of the facilities to a very professional level.   They have gone beyond what the contract called for in a number of ways .  Thanks Mr. Cherry and Aramark.

The 2013-2014 Budget

In a report at the May 16 meeting, Business Administrator Sue Caswell estimated that if staffing were to remain constant, costs in the 2013-2014 school year (the next budget to be approved) would increase around $700,000 mostly due to mandated raises in collective bargaining agreements.  In the rest of this section I will express dollars as percentages of our current $38.3M budget.   So $700,000 is 1.8%, calculated as 2.6% for raises in salary and benefits minus 0.8% in unspecified savings in operating expenses (partly fuel, I guess). [Since salaries and benefits make up about 75% of the $38.3M, what I called 2.6% represents about a 3.5% raise to an employee.]   I understood Ms. Caswell to say this estimate did not include raises for non-bargaining-unit employees or contracts that need to be renegotiated this year, namely ORESPA (custodians and secretaries) and ORAA (administrators). 

Ms. Caswell further estimated that compared to a budget where spending is unchanged, an additional 1% would need to be cut for taxes to remain unchanged.  My understanding is that for the past few years we have been slowly spending down our fund balance.  The fund balance is the cushion that lets us deal with expenses beyond what was budgeted for.   The reduction in fund balance over a year results in spendable money that did not have to be collected in taxes that year.   However, after this year the fund balance will be at a level where it would be imprudent to reduce it further, so we can no longer perform this trick, thus the 1%.   There are other differences between money spent and taxes appropriated, namely non-tax revenue (tuition, state and federal grants, school meal income, etc.), but I believe those were assumed to be largely unchanged for this estimate.

The board voted to ask the administration to produce a flat budget, that is, a budget in which we spend the same amount in 2013-2014 as in 2012-2013.  (The minutes say level funding is a two year goal, which I'll assume means flat in both 2013-2014 and 2014-2015.)   This really means cutting 1.8% to offset the union raises, and I'll guess at most 1% for other cost increases.   We're aiming at a nominal increase in spending of zero dollars, so most of the cuts are going to offset inflation.    Even if such a budget was ultimately approved, taxes would still need to rise 1% due to the flattening of the fund balance, and may go up or down from there depending on changes to the non-tax revenue.

I think the above figures refer only to the operating budget.   Another issue is capital expenses, which come out of separate fund (but ultimately from mostly the same taxpayers).   Based on a report from architect Gary Goudreau, I've previously estimated that we need to spend about 1.75% per year to do necessary capital improvements.   Adding the aforementioned roofing and paving over the same six year period, brings it to 2.1% annually.   If we wanted to keep to total spending flat, this 2.1% would need to be offset further cuts.  It may be possible to spend down the existing capital improvement fund so that some or all this 2.1% would not have to be appropriated as taxes in March 2013, akin to what we'd been doing with the fund balance.

As I hope I've made obvious, there's much I'm not sure about here, so take this section with a grain of salt.   I'll try to do more homework, and feel free to straighten me out with some comments.   As I get more certain, I'll update the wording here.

At the May 2 meeting, the board approved a new, more restrictive charge to the ABC somewhat similar to the one I suggested in the April Roundup.

A letter from the Lee Selectmen reminding the school board that taxes are high was distributed at the May 16 meeting.   I'm sure the ORCSD board is too polite to remind the town governments that the superior school system is a major reason why property values remain high, that the school board has a larger constituency than each town, a larger budget than each town, is fully aware they are spending the taxpayers' money, is intimately familiar with the enrollment projections, and that each member takes his or her responsibilities very seriously.

Transportation Report

At the June 6 meeting, the ORSCD Transfinder Committee made some recommendations on how to improve the bus system.   You may recall that Transfinder is the company whose software we use to optimize bus routes.  The company also offers consulting, and the district engaged them last year to produce a report which I can no longer seem to find.   On January 4, 2012 the report was presented to the board and the ORCSD Transfinder Committee was formed to follow up on the report's recommendations.

The report suggested that middle and high school students within a mile of school could walk or bike.  (State law allows for a two mile radius.)  We already do this for some addresses.   The committee explored possible walking routes and found that many were unsafe due to the lack of sidewalks, crosswalks, stoplights, streetlights, and driver visibility on curvy, tree-lined roads.   A similar finding applies to bus stops.  The committee had some recommendations to improve safety along some routes to increase the number of walkers, but largely felt that transportation director Huppe had done a good job in maximizing walking given current conditions.   Elementary students are given door-to-door service, which was felt to be appropriate.

The committee explored increasing the time between bells at the various schools to allow for fewer, longer routes, increasing efficiency.   The tradeoff is that some students would end up being on the bus for over 40 minutes each way, which is obviously less than ideal.

A survey estimated middle and high school ridership at 56% of students.    The ridership decreases as the students get older.   The main reasons students gave for not riding the bus were that they live too close, it was not convenient for afterschool activities, it takes too long, it requires waking up earlier, and they had no friends on the bus.

The bus fleet was also examined by the committee.   There is one 18 and one 21 year old bus still in use -- since 2004 they are spares used mainly in sport season.     15 of our 34 buses are over 10 years old.   The current district plan is to purchase two or three buses a year (at $80,000 a pop) until all are under 10 years old.  By my math this plan cannot succeed.  Even if all the buses in the fleet were already under 10 years old, an average of 3.4 new buses per year would be required to keep it that way.

Incredibly, despite the age of the fleet, the district was given a commendation by the New Hampshire School Transportation Association for passing 100% of state police inspections.   I think at the meeting it was said we were the only district in the state to receive such a commendation.   Congratulations to Lisa Huppe, her staff, John's Auto Repair, and Kustra's Auto Body.

Well, that about wraps it up for now.   I left out the discussion of the Common Core, which would have made this update an even more effective cure for insomnia than it already is.   We have some exciting and controversial budget battles in our future, so enjoy the summer calm while it lasts, and stay tuned.

- Dean

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mast Way Principal Search Nears Completion

Principal Carrie Vaich at Mast Way
Two principal candidates visited Mast Way on Tuesday, June 12.   Each spent 45 minutes meeting with teachers and 45 minutes meeting with parents.  Outgoing interim superintendent Levesque and incoming superintendent Morse were in attendance.

Rumor has it that Carrie Vaich has emerged as the leading candidate for the position.   Ms. Vaich is currently the principal of Winthrop Elementary School in Hamilton, Mass.   She lives in Barrington.  A quick Internet search finds she was job searching last year too. She told parents she hoped she would serve as Mast Way principal for many years and that she did not intend to use the position as a stepping stone in her career.

I think it's pretty likely that she'll be offered and will accept the position, so let me be the first to welcome her to Oyster River.  I commend both superintendents for filling the rash of administrative openings so well and so quickly.

Here is the information the Mast Way PTO provided the parents about Principal Vaich.    Thanks, Sarah and Sarah.  The scribbles and crinkles are my contribution.

While it would be desirable to hire a permanent principal next week, it is by no means essential. Hiring an interim principal and continuing the search over the next year remains a possibility.   After the superintendent salary controversy, I'm encouraging prudence and a return to more typical (meaning lower) salaries for all new hires.

I'm going to skip naming the other candidate to visit Mast Way.   Next time maybe you'll go to the meeting yourself.

Today was the last day of school.   The PTO hosted a going away party for Kris Gallo.   We all wish Kris the best of luck as principal of the brand new Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Concord, NH.
The PTO dedicates a plaque honoring Principal Gallo

Mrs. Burke's first grade class invites Principal Gallo to breakfast
I haven't gotten my act together to get a monthly roundup out for May, so let me just congratulate Catherine Plourde as the new Director of Special Services (basically taking over for Phyllis Schlichter) and Carolyn Eastman as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment (taking over for Danielle Bolduc).   It looks likely the entire team will be in place when Dr. James Morse takes over on July 1.   (Friday night update:  I'm wrong about no more hiring -- I just heard about another major resignation that will be announced at the Wednesday board meeting.)

- Dean Rubine, Lee

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Restore public comments at the end of meetings

There's a petition started by David Taylor urging the school board to restore the second public comment section at the end of the school board meetings.   I encourage everyone to sign it.  Regardless on where you stand on the school board issues, I think we can all agree that additional public input can only help.

During the election, the candidates, who are now the new board members, campaigned on what good listeners they would be, especially in contrast to the then current board.  I know this, because I repeated it many times on this blog.   I was pleased when the board moved the first set of public comments to the start of the meeting, allowing them to hear from the public before they had their own discussions on the issues on the agenda.

 I was however dismayed when the board eliminated the second round of public comments.  It was a chance for the public to comment on what just transpired at the meeting.   Without the comments at the end, the public is forced to write letters, or to wait two or three weeks until the next meeting before they can voice their opinions.

The meetings of late have been largely uncontroversial.   Not too many members of the public have been attending.  I take this as a good sign -- the public thinks the district is in good hands and trusts the board to run things.   At the most recent meeting, I was the only member of the public to stick it out to the very end.

Presumably the main reason to eliminate the second round of comments is to shorten the meeting.  Given the recent attendance, it's pretty evident that restoring the second round would only add a few minutes to the meeting.  I urge the board to stand behind their campaign rhetoric about what good listeners they'd be, and restore the second round.   I think if we get enough members of the district to sign the petition, the board will see the light.

- Dean

Software testing from here down, please ignore. - Dean

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