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