Thursday, December 19, 2013

Board Chooses Barrington, Redraw with Family Exemption, Strings, Math

In a burst of productivity, the board resolved the tuitioning issue and the elementary reconfiguration issue tonight, in addition to approving the FY15 budget last Wednesday.  I'm going to need a new banner.  (12/18/2013 video, agenda, 12/11/2013 video, agenda, minutes.)

Rejecting Newmarket, the board chose to enter into a multi-year tuition agreement with Barrington, essentially continuing the status quo.  As it has in the past, the board chose to redraw the bus line to shift students to Mast Way, but to exempt current Moharimet students and their siblings.   A strings teacher and a math tutor were added to the budget while total spending increased less than 1%.

Barrington chosen 

Tonight, the ORCSD school board approved and signed an agreement commencing in 2015-2016 to accept a maximum of 200 high school tuition students from Barrington.  The Barrington school board approved the identical agreement last week. The 10 year agreement would need to be approved by voters of both districts in March, 2014 before taking effect (recent post).

Barrington, which has no high school of its own, wants to keep its "choice" model.  Barrington students get to choose which high school to attend.   Currently the choice is between Dover, Coe Brown and Oyster River.  The taxpayers of Barrington pay the Dover tuition, which is the lowest of the three.  Parents who choose to kick in a couple thousand dollars extra to make up the difference in tuition can send a child to Coe Brown or Oyster River.

ORHS currently has around 70 tuition students from Barrington, under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding that is renewed annually.  The current tuition of $13,000 does not include special education.  The current MOU has Barrington fully responsible for the special education cost incurred by its own students.

I haven't read the actual agreement yet, so this is just relaying how it was described at the board meeting.  The newly signed agreement has a tuition of $14,000 that includes the expected special education load.  Superintendent Morse stated the agreement has Barrington paying for additional staffing to serve its own special education students beyond the expected load.

$14,000 for 2015-2016 seems like a bargain to me.  When you count special education Barrington is probably already paying more than that now.

Barrington has agreed to setting a minimum number of students each year and to pay Oyster River 95% of any tuition shortfall in the event of underenrollment.  This allows Oyster River to hire based on projected enrollment without having to bear the risk of Barrington students choosing not to come to ORHS.

The agreement states that when at least 125 Barrington tuition students enroll, ORHS becomes Barrington's "school of record."   The school of record is required to accept any students that might move to Barrington during the year.   I'm not sure what else the ominous sounding term implies, but it does seem like something Barrington wanted out of the deal.

This is essentially the status quo option (continuing with Barrington) with a couple of twists.  Barrington is agreeing send between 50 and 130 more students, to ramp up on a specific schedule, and to guarantee the minimum number in advance.  This gives Oyster River the predictability for planning it desires.  Barrington locks in the ORHS option, gets a great tuition rate that includes special education and gets ORHS as its school of record.

The Newmarket option was rejected by the board because the new enrollment projections, when combined with Newmarket's enrollment projections, cause the total enrollment to exceed ORHS's functional capacity of 915 many years in a row.  If you adjust for the 60-80 half-day vocational/technical students from Newmarket, you keep under 915.

It seems some have taken this high school functional capacity number of 915 as a magic indicator of overcrowding.  The number comes from a capacity study -- it's 85% of the maximum capacity, which counts each classroom as 22 seats (board policy) or the number of workstations in it if it's fewer.  The capacity study assumes that around 160 empty seats is full capacity.  If board policy was 23 seats max, functional capacity would be closer to 950.

Nonetheless the board made the right choice opting for Barrington over Newmarket.  The transition is going to be so smooth as to be unnoticeable.  That's in marked contrast to the Newmarket option, which would have been a large shock all at once.

Until I see the actual agreement I'll reserve judgement on how I'll vote in March.

Redraw with Family Exemption

The elementary reconfiguration issue (recent post) was resolved tonight.  The board chose to redraw the bus line, shifting Moharimet neighborhoods to Mast Way.   The board approved a rather generous Family Exemption -- what I had previously called Full Grandfathering.  With it, any students at Moharimet can finish at Moharimet. Their siblings can as well, as long as they are in the same school.  Though a bit unclear as stated in the motion, the intent was to keep kids from ever having to transfer and to keep families from having kids in both schools at the same time, but nothing more generous.  With the Family Exception, we only shift around 10 kids a year, so it takes five years or so before enrollments equal out.

The Redraw option was moribund a month ago, when the main choice seemed between K2/34 and managed enrollment.   I'm going to take a bit of credit here and say my letter helped revive what has been the district's traditional remedy.

The board mentioned, but did not take up the Mast Way Choice suggestion of my letter.  The idea there was that if a family opted to transfer their child from Moharimet to Mast Way, the district would provide transportation.  Thus every family at the overcrowded Moharimet would have chosen to be there.  The superintendent stated that currently anyone wishing to transfer may, but without action from the board transportation could not be provided.

My unofficial attempt to redraw the map to reflect the vote of 12/18/2013
Instead, to reduce Moharimet's overcapacity faster, the board expanded the map of areas to be shifted.  They began with the map that's been around for a while, drawn by the superintendent in consultation with the transportation director.  In the most surprising vote of the night, the board unanimously chose to shift the rest of the Wedgewood neighborhood to Mast Way.  Member Lane brought up Wedgewood and lamented that it was a victim of previous redistricting.  Then the board proceeded almost gratuitously to victimize it again.  No one had any idea how much the addition would affect overcapacity.  I found the entire exercise ill advised -- if it works as intended we'll end up shifting too many kids to Mast Way.


Last week the board approved a budget that raises spending 0.9%.  This does not include the effect of the new teacher's contract currently being negotiated.  Nonetheless, the board achieved its stated goal of a spending increase no larger than the inflation rate.

The board easily approved the cuts proposed by the administrators:

The board was presented with a list of ways to add to the budget:

The board chose to approve the Math Lab Teacher, which was changed to a Math Lab Tutor at a much lower cost.

The board actually went beyond the proposed 0.8 Strings Music Teacher.  Instead the board approved a 1.0 Full Time Music Teacher to concentrate on strings.  The new position coincides with an effort to reorganize the music department.  Instead of the current building-based system, the plan is to switch to a "strands" system, where each music teacher potentially plies their trade in multiple buildings.  Everyone seemed very enthusiastic about the new plan.

Maybe it was the distraction from the elementary school reconfiguration and the tuitioning deals, but the normally controversial budget process was not controversial this year.   The budget gets presented to the public on January 14th, and to the individual towns in the weeks after that.  A majority of voters at the deliberative session February 5th can change the numbers on any of the warrant articles.  The voters get final approval on election day, March 11th. (calendar)

At the end of the December 11th meeting, the board voted to authorize the superintendent to reach out to David Taylor to avoid litigation.

The next regular board meeting is on a Thursday, January 2.  Anybody out there want to run for school board?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Redraw with Grandfathering and Choice Under Consideration

The board had a long meeting last Wednesday December 4 (agendavideo).  I showed up to make a comment but I never got the chance as the board immediately called a recess to (non)meet with a lawyer and I had to leave before they resumed.  The LRPC, warrant and counseling reports discussed below can be found in the agenda.  There's a regular board meeting 6:30 tonight (12/11) focused on the budget.

Congratulations to ORHS for making the AP Honor Roll.  The College Board recognized our success in maintaining high scores while expanding our AP offerings.  We are one of 477 schools in US and Canada and one of 70 schools in New England to be so honored.

Board member Charle reported that the middle school composting has incredibly reduced lunchtime waste from 86 pounds to 5 pounds!

Tuitioning.  Tuitioning wasn't really discussed at the meeting, though there was a slide in the enrollment projections that tells the new story.  The new ORHS projections have enrollment increasing then declining.  They do not get below current levels for 12 years (2025-26).

The new projections make a union with Newmarket likely to slightly exceed the working capacity of 915 in the peak years.  I don't stress about that like some do -- the 915 number was computed by assuming that we operate at 85% of the rather small school board policy maximum of 22 per class.

If our high school enrollment isn't shrinking for 12 years, tuitioning to maintain existing programs (beyond the status quo) is not really necessary.  I was all for helping our neighbors over in Newmarket while helping out the Oyster River taxpayers, but Newmarket is acting like we're profiteering because we want them to pay their share of the heat.  I also think there are a few serious problems with the draft contract.  I believe it was reported that the FY16 tuition is now down to $14,000.   I read the contract as requiring the tuition to be further reduced when high school cost per pupil declines, as it certainly will when we take 250 tuition students.   Furthermore, the contract doesn't allow for frequent enough opportunities where either side can start the clock on ending the arrangement.  I don't want us to be stuck for 15 years if things aren't working out.

At this point, given the lack of declining enrollment obviating the need, the very iffy return to the taxpayers after the price reductions, the concerns with the contract and the lack of enthusiasm from Newmarket (including their dreadful cost estimates), I'm currently inclined to pass on Newmarket.  We still have a few years to worry about declining high school enrollment in the year 2025 -- we don't have to rush into a bad deal this year.  Newmarket's problems aren't going away.  My best guess is they're likely to just pay the $2 million to fix their current building and go on.  Sooner or later they'll have to decide whether or not to build a school.  It will still be cheaper then for them to tuition their kids and we'll still be their neighbors.

I'm not sure what the difference is between what Barrington will propose and the status quo where we already get 75 or so Barrington students, but either way I currently see sticking with Barrington as the best option.

Elementary Reconfiguration.   The superintendent reported his advisory committee was making progress on coming up with proposed criteria for a Managed Enrollment plan as well as a proposed K-2/3-4 policy.  In addition to those two options, the board approved Member Rotner's motion to have the superintendent explore Redraw with Grandfathering options.  Member Turnbull asked that the idea of Moharimet parents being given the choice to send their children to Mast Way be considered.  Member Lane expressed doubt that a future board would be able to carry out a Redraw with Grandfathering policy enacted by the current board.  (I found that argument odd.  Much of the board's work is enacting policy for the future -- why would a Redraw policy be any different?)  It was gratifying to see the board acting on my letter.  The goal is to decide at the December 18 meeting, but I'm skeptical a decision will be made then.

Warrant.  Business Administrator Caswell presented the first draft of the warrant.  The warrant is the school district election ballot for March 2014.  There is an article asking the voters to approve the (as yet unknown) tuitioning proposal.  The warrant is further complicated due to the attempt to begin construction on the Moharimet Cafeteria in the current school year.   One warrant article asks the voters to appropriate $1 for Moh Cafe in the current budget.  This establishes the budget line, so is essentially the voters giving the district permission to do the project.   The money comes from the LGC premium holiday (expected to be around $500,000) and $100,000 from liquidating the Capital Reserve Fund (see previous post).  The fund liquidation is done in a separate article that doesn't mention the cafeteria in case Moh Cafe is not approved.  The whole thing will be very confusing to the average voter who hasn't paid much attention.

New Enrollment Projections.  Lisa Allison, head of the LRPC, presented the updated projections to the board.   Compared to last year, the new projections still show a decline, only delayed by a few years.  This is a result of the surge in enrollment this summer of around 60 kids, mostly elementary (and those mostly to Moharimet) and middle school.

The projections have a great bearing on the two grave decisions the board needs to make soon: the elementary reconfiguration issue and the tuitioning issue.   Lisa and the committee do such a thoughtful and diligent job on the difficult work required to produce these important forecasts.  Thanks so much Lisa.  We're very lucky to have you heading LRPC.   I will now proceed to quibble.

Ms. Allison increased the error ranges on the enrollment predictions.  This was the result of changing the method of calculating the expected deviations.  In the past, backcasting (using the new model on historical data) was used to calculate the range.  Backcasting is a kind of data fitting that will almost always underestimate the expected deviation.   The new method compares the past forecasts to past actual enrollments as a percentage and reports the mean absolute deviation (MAD) for each horizon (number of years out forecasted).  This results in what is likely more accurate estimates of the error - the expected deviation from the prediction.

Ms. Allison says the new error ranges are larger, but to my recollection they seem about the same.  It's hard to check as the new district website still seems to lack the old reports. (I didn't find the new report either except in the agenda.)  The new ranges are perhaps more properly thought of as estimates of the accuracy of the committee rather than of its latest model.

I don't want to geek out too much further, but the typical way to do confidence intervals is to estimate the standard deviation of your prediction and double it.  The idea is that a bell curve has 95% of its area between -2 and +2 standard deviations from the mean, so you can expect that 95% of the time your actual observation will be within -2 and +2 standard deviations of your prediction.

When you're getting your estimate by averaging fewer than say 50 points, like we are here, you actually should use the T distribution which has fatter tails (a higher likelihood of large deviations) than the bell curve.  That means you have to go out more than 2 standard deviations to get 95%.  Similarly, MAD is an estimate of standard deviation known to be biased low -- it underestimates standard deviation.

Bottom line, to produce a 95% confidence interval for the projections we need to more than double the reported error ranges.

I learned my statistics on the street, so I could be wrong.  I am always worried there's a square root of N factor I'm leaving out.

Guidance is now School Counseling.  ORHS Counseling Director Heather Machanoff reported on the changes in what is now called the School Counseling Office.  The name reflects that the role of counselor has expanded far beyond just help with class schedules and college applications.  It seems there is a new focus on emotional and other issues that keep students from their full potential.

The students are split among three counselors alphabetically.  This is a change from the past where each counselor followed a class through the four years, requiring four counselors.

The Counseling office ran a Stress Management group last Wednesday.  They put up posters advising students to T.H.I.N.K. before posting to social networks, to only post what's True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind.  Good advice for all of us. The counselors will have four-year-planning meetings with incoming freshmen and their parents, like a fancy private school.

Apparently ORHS has officially eliminated class rank.  The news came as a surprise to the board. Class rank will still be maintained internally but will not be reported on every transcript.  Class ranks can be reported upon student request.  There was a debate between Member Lane and the superintendent about weighted class rank, with the superintendent maintaining that except for AP courses it would be difficult to assign weights to classes.  There was concern that under the old system parents were encouraging students to take easy classes (and avoid challenging ones) to improve their class rank.

Middle School Risk Survey.  Principal Richard bravely volunteered ORMS to participate in the risky behavior survey normally given to high school students.  Among the concerning findings: 42.6% of students report having felt bullied at school. (The 2.6% number  in the summary in the agenda is a typo.)  Principal Richard is determined to reduce this to zero when the school is surveyed again in two years.  The principal expressed some concern over alcohol though he did not relay any specific survey results.

Whew.  Long meeting, long write-up, and another meeting tonight.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Elementary Decision Delayed

This November 20, 2013 school board meeting (agenda) has been an important one on the calendar for a while now.  Despite the very long meeting, almost nothing was decided.

The tuition issue is ongoing, with the only real news being that what began as a common tuition framework is diverging, as Barrington and Newmarket negotiations continue separately.  Barrington is committed to its choice model, so would not send anywhere near the 250 students we may get from Newmarket.  It appears the two potential contracts will have different terms and tuition rates.

The bulk of the meeting was consumed with elementary school rebalancing.  The meeting began with a list of four options: Redraw (no grandfathering), K-2/3-4, Mast Way K and the latest purported silver bullet: Managed Enrollment.  What I currently think is the best option was not included: Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice.

This latest silver bullet follows on the heels of two previously hailed silver bullets: K-2/3-4 and Mast Way K.  Each has been recently touted by groups of parents as the answer, only to fade as the ramifications are understood.  The community is now seriously fragmented, with each option garnering some support.  The board seems pretty divided as well.

Managed Enrollment

Managed Enrollment is being advocated by a group of parents apparently led by Rob McEwan.  Rob seems to be a just-the-facts kind of guy, which I appreciate, and he's done a remarkably quick and detailed job turning the newest LRPC numbers into a projection of their plan.  Though touted as new, the main idea was proposed in the March 6, 2013 agenda (link not currently online due to district website work) as Centralized Enrollment.   It would be the superintendent's responsibility to assign new enrollees to schools.  In the Managed Enrollment incarnation, the superintendent, using some criteria yet to be spelled out, will send equal numbers to both schools.  Eventually this will balance enrollment.

The plan has a lot of merit.  It doesn't disrupt currently enrolled families, whose younger children would be grandfathered.   The plan achieves specific enrollment targets: within capacity immediately, quickly shedding the modulars and reclaiming special education space now used as a classroom, and eventual parity in enrollment.

Managed Enrollment cleverly shifts the burden of rebalancing to families that have yet to move into the district, sparing current residents.   Well, most.  It's a bit unclear whether all children currently in the Moharimet zone but not yet enrolled will attend Moharimet like they probably expect.  I think the parents' and superintendent's versions of Managed Enrollment differ on this point.

Given that Managed Enrollment appears to have a fair amount of community support, if I had preschool age children that I was hoping would go to Moharimet, I would enroll one right now, before Managed Enrollment becomes a reality.  I might even sign one up for PEP if they're too young to enroll in Kindergarten.  (PEP, the preschool program, charges tuition for students without an IEP recommending PEP.)
Of course the crucial detail of how the superintendent decides has yet to be specified.  Let's call the kids in the current Moharimet zone that end up getting sent to Mast Way "the plucked." The realtors were worried that property values would decline if the plucking was confined to particular neighborhoods.  (I actually proposed that plan on April 25th, 2013.)  Others worried that if district-wide, the plucked would feel isolated, as their neighbors all go to Moharimet while they attend Mast Way.

In addition to the property value issue, I pointed out that sending all the new kids to Mast Way may create a stigma, in which Mast Way becomes the school for those "lesser" children that have not previously benefited from an Oyster River education.   Rob McEwan countered that Managed Enrollment achieves rebalancing by 2017-2018 (I think that's the date he said), perhaps stopping the plucking quickly enough to avoid a stigma developing.  Left unsaid was why the administration would want to touch this hot potato, potentially transforming Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Eastman from a very well-liked and well-respected educator in the district into a pariah as she's tasked with awful job of telling parents their kids can't go to the school they expected.

New Enrollment Projections

As mentioned, the LRPC has put out new projections.  The elementary school projections are in the superintendent's presentation from the Elementary Reconfiguration forum Monday.  Despite having 15 fewer Kindergartners show up than expected this year, the projections for Kindergarten are almost unchanged.  45 more first through fourth graders than expected showed up this year.   The new projections increase grades 1-4 by around 50 students for the next three years (through 2016-2017), and by around 15 students after that.

50 students is around a 7% increase, a substantial deviation from last year's forecast.  The superintendent claims elementary school enrollment has now "stabilized."  The projections show enrollment around the current 700 (K-4) for this year and two more, declining to 662 in 2016-2017.  This is essentially a two year reprieve from the previously expected precipitous decline, so perhaps "stabilized" is a bit of an exaggeration.

Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice

The traditional reaction the district has taken to elementary school imbalance is to redraw the dividing line between the schools and grandfather all the families currently attending an elementary school -- once a Moharimet family, always a Moharimet family, sorta.  The last time this happened was 13 years ago. The grandfathering makes the shift of a neighborhood happen over around four or five years, as only newly entering students not grandfathered would be plucked.  It is typically accomplished without controversy, as the grandfathering mitigates the complaints from current families.

It's a shame the district has let the imbalance get so acute that a more severe reaction seems necessary.  Grandfathering is great for a moderate imbalance, which it gradually corrects with minimal impact on current families.  

My estimate is it would take two years before Redraw with Full Grandfathering got Moharimet down to capacity, claimed by Rob M. to be 389 with the modulars.  To hasten this I suggest we offer Mast Way Choice.  Any Moharimet parent that wants to send their child to Mast Way can.  The bus will pick them up and bring them home.  In other words, give each Moharimet family the choice of whether to attend the potentially overcrowded Moharimet, or switch to the more roomy Mast Way.  This way, if they choose to stay in the overcrowded school, well, that's their choice.

It's my belief that almost all parents would choose to stay at Moharimet even if it is relatively overcrowded.  After all, that's what they opted for in August, when the superintendent proposed sending all the Kindergartners to Mast Way to fix the imbalance.  If that is the preference of the Moharimet parents, why are we in such an absolute rush to correct this?

If we were to do a redraw with grandfathering, we should accompany it with a new policy that ensures the bus line is considered for redrawing every five years or whenever the imbalance gets moderately large.  Full grandfathering would be the normal remedy.  The idea is to avoid getting into the current situation again, where we wait so long that the normal remedy cannot quickly address an acute imbalance.  I don't know what happened before three years ago, but the turmoil in the district resulting in Superintendent Coulter being let go, followed by a one-year interim superintendent and then an all new administration, allowed the issue to be ignored for far too long.

Letter to the Board

Here's the letter I sent the board:

Dear School Board:

I have a proposal for the elementary school rebalancing. Normally I just post my ideas on my blog where they may be safely ignored by all. But I thought this one was worth writing about to you directly.

I call it Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice. Its main merit is it is the most conservative choice, in the sense it is the most like what we have done in the past. We have to assume that previous ORCSD school boards faced much the same tensions as the current board and devised a scheme they believed would least disturb the community. Indeed, our history relates that past redistrictings were accomplished without the rancor we're currently experiencing.

In the past when an imbalance developed, we'd pick a few neighborhoods along the dividing line to shift from the crowded school to the less crowded school. We would generously grandfather the families of current enrollees -- once a Moharimet family, always a Moharimet family. This way current families got to keep their school and felt little cause to complain. But in five years the neighborhoods will have almost entirely shifted schools.

I think we should do the same thing again. We've already identified the three neighborhoods: North of Lee Circle, Mill Road and Longmarsh/FFrost. Grandfather all the current families. Newly enrolling families from these neighborhoods have to go to Mast Way. It's a slow process -- you'd only get around 10 students shifting the first year, probably slightly more in each subsequent year and it takes five years for the shift to complete (almost -- there may be residual grandfathering).

The main drawback of the Full Grandfathering is how gradual it is. The district has let the overcrowding become an acute problem that cries out for immediate relief. So I propose deviating from history by offering all Moharimet families the choice to send their children to Mast Way. We'd pick them up and drop them off just like now. If a parent is bothered by the overcrowding at Moharimet, they have the option to send some or all of their children to Mast Way. Whatever the reason, if they'd like to transfer to Mast Way, they may. I call this Mast Way Choice.

I think just offering Mast Way Choice solves an important problem. If enough parents opt to transfer, the acute overcrowding will be quickly alleviated. If, as I suspect, almost all choose to remain at Moharimet, well, that's their choice. They have voted with their very children that they prefer an overcrowded Moharimet to a transfer to Mast Way. Why should we make them transfer when they feel this way? The grandfathering will gradually work to fix the overcrowding. But in the meantime the district is respecting the choice each family makes.

One advantage of going with the method of the past is it is what people might naturally expect. Another advantage is that there is much less risk of the unknown: the consequences of any of the other plans are much more difficult to predict, as we've never done anything like them before.

Were we to implement Redraw with Full Grandfathering and Mast Way Choice, I would strongly urge that a policy be passed to explicitly state how the district will handle rebalancing in the future. For example, the policy might be to consider redrawing the line every five years, or sooner if an imbalance presents itself. Full grandfathering will be the explicit expectation for the transition. I would probably leave out any mention of Choice from the policy.

Thank you for your attention and your service. Good luck with your decision.

Very truly yours,

Dean Rubine
Lee, NH

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mast Way K Again

Mast Way K

The superintendent will hold a question and answer forum on elementary school reconfiguration on Monday, November 18th, 7 pm in the ORHS auditorium.  The board is encouraging anyone with a proposal on how to deal with the imbalance to email it ahead of time to  The superintendent (who was absent last night) will be prepared at the forum to list pros and cons of the proposed alternatives.
Parents queue up to make public comments about
elementary school reconfiguration at yesterday's
school board meeting

The elementary school reconfiguration issue continues to incite division in the community.  We're getting reports of friction between friends in Madbury.  The approximately one dozen parents who commented at last night's board meeting  (video 11/6/2013) seemed about equally split into three camps: against option 1 (redrawing the bus dividing line), against option 2 (K-2/3-4) and against both options.  The latest silver bullet is Mast Way K, in which all the kindergarten students in the district attend Mast Way.

In the Mast Way K plan, students attend grades 1 - 4 in their neighborhood elementary schools.  In other words, more than half of the K students at Mast Way transition to Moharimet for first grade.  A motion by board member Tom Newkirk was passed that directs the superintendent to present Mast Way K and possibly other options at the next board meeting, 11/20.

If the Mast Way K plan sounds familiar, it's because variations on the plan have been considered before and already rejected.  Full Day Mast Way K was first proposed in May.  That plan was rejected mostly because of the "full day" part -- the proposed tuition was thought to be too high, but there didn't seem to be much appetite for free (i.e. taxpayer-funded) all day K either.  In July, Mast Way K was proposed again, this time keeping our current half-day model.  That proposal was rejected due to a massive outpouring of sentiment against it by district parents at the August board meeting.  The main concern with that proposal was that it was to be implemented immediately, in a week, in time for the new school year.  That turned out to be too soon for the affected families to accept.

Will waiting until next fall (14/15 school year) make the Mast Way K plan more palatable?  I'm skeptical but I guess we'll find out at the forum.

When To Decide?

This issue of when to decide has also divided the community.   Some commenters made the point that as long as the issue remains open the community is under needless stress, so the decision should be made as planned at the 11/20 board meeting.  Others argued that the board and superintendent need to study the alternatives more deeply, gathering relevant educational research and investigating how similar proposals have fared in nearby towns.

I'm mostly in the "decide now" camp -- I don't think delaying will be that much more likely to result in a better decision, and the stress in the community over this is real and needs to end.  But it's the nature of boards to delay, so I think it's unlikely that the decision will be made at the next board meeting.  The 11/20 meeting is also supposed to decide what if any warrant article about tuitioning will be on the March ballot.

There seems to be some delusion that there's a great solution out there if we can only think of it.  The truth is more likely that there is no perfect solution that is pedagogically sound, quickly fixes the imbalance, minimizes transitions and keeps siblings at the same school.  Or one that has some other obviously positive trait that overwhelms its negatives.  The board will have to weigh the pros and cons of each alternative and choose the least bad one.   It's inevitable that some people are not going to like whatever option they choose.

The parents don't want transitions, don't want overcrowding, don't want their kids in different buildings, don't want 2-decade old "temporary" classrooms, don't want their kids used as guinea pigs in a district-wide educational research experiment and don't want to send their kids to that other school.  Most of them can have most of what they want but all of them can't have it all.  It's the board's job to decide who gets what they want and who doesn't.   Their basic choice is to make a lot of people feel a little disruption or a few people feel moderate disruption.   If it was me (and I'm glad it's not) I'd probably go with a solution that balances the two.  Which leads us to grandfathering.


I'm resisting the urge to do a detailed analysis of a multi-year simulation of all the different plans, measuring balance, transitions per student and number of times students transition two years in a row (i.e. how many times will a student spend only a single year in one of the schools).  The purpose of the forum a week from Monday is for the superintendent to answer all those questions.

But the tradeoff is illustrated in the underdiscussed topic of grandfathering.  In the past, the district has redrawn the line to correct the imbalance between schools, but it allowed families with a child in one school to finish out all their children at that school.  As David Taylor pointed out last night, this generous grandfathering allowed the decision to be taken without any of the rancor in the community we have today.  Full Grandfathering keeps siblings together and does not impose any additional transitions on any student.

So why not just grandfather today?  Full Grandfathering is great for gradually correcting a moderate imbalance without much community turmoil.  In the first year of implementation, hardly any students are sent to a different school.  Only a few new kindergartners and newly entering first graders with no older siblings in the building would go to a different school than expected.  In our current case where about 60 students need to be shifted to Mast Way for balance, only around 10 or 15 would be shifted the first year.  Since this probably wouldn't even decrease the number of K sections at Moharimet, it would have minimal effect on the overcrowding.  The modulars would remain.  The next year a similar number would shift, and now we might feel a little relief, though we'd still be about as unbalanced as when we seriously realized the imbalance was a big problem.  We'd probably retain the modulars.

After 4 or 5 years we'd be close to balanced, though the cross-district effects of full grandfathering can linger for years beyond this.  It's possible (though unlikely) that we still have a family grandfathered from the last time the line was redrawn around 13 years ago.

So full grandfathering minimizes transitions, but it doesn't really seriously address the imbalance problem for around three years.  Maybe that's fine.  If affected parents prefer overcrowding to more transitions, so be it.

There are less generous grandfathering plans that change the tradeoff.  If we grandfather only the families of current third graders, they and their siblings would stay at Moh next year.  Let's call this 3rd Grade Grandfathering.  Those in the newly drawn Mast Way district who are newly entering or currently in K-2 would go to Mast Way.  This would probably be around 30-40 students, so the overcrowding would be largely alleviated immediately, and fully alleviated the following year.  Under this plan, some kindergartners would be compelled to transition two years in a row.  Most of the burden falls on the current K-2 families which end up on the other side of the line.

Let's say you think it's more important to disrupt fewer families than alleviate the overcrowding quickly.  How about we grandfather those kindergartners who would otherwise spend only one year at Moharimet (K & 3rd Grade Grandfathering)?  Or we grandfather current second and third graders (2nd and 3rd Grade Grandfathering)?  These options take an extra year or two before the overcrowding is correct, but disrupt fewer families.  Some have fewer transitions.

In all the grandfathering plans, you would of course give the families eligible for grandfathering the option to transfer some or all of their children.  You might consider ways to cap the length of time a family can be grandfathered.  You might invite Moharimet families near the dividing line to transfer -- maybe some of them want their children in a less crowded school.

If a line-redrawing is the chosen solution, we should add a policy that assures the imbalance is checked frequently so that future adjustments to the line can be done will full grandfathering.

I've been advocating "Redraw the Line" since last spring, assuming grandfathering would be done. Since the imbalance is so acute and full grandfathering affects it so slowly, I'm in favor of one of the faster grandfathering options, say 3rd Grade Grandfathering.   But it looks like my family (my son's in 3rd grade at Mast Way) will be largely unaffected by most of the plans proposed, so I'd prefer to let the families more likely to be affected have the loudest voice.

Other News

In other news, the district launched its new website at  Thanks to IT Director Josh Olstad for the great update.  The deliberative session has been moved back one day to Wednesday 2/5/2013.   The public hearing is moved one week to 1/14/2013.  Assistant Superintendent (and Acting Superintendent this week) Carolyn Eastman gave a presentation and led a discussion on standards including the Common Core.   She also mentioned she was in charge of End 68 Hours of Hunger for the district.  This is a great local program that relies on donation to try to make sure that students qualifying for free or reduced price meals during the school week don't go hungry during the weekends.

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.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Newmarket Negotiates

In this post I try to analyze the financials of the tuition deal from Newmarket's perspective.  The conclusion I get, which is that Newmarket's budget estimates imply that it has local costs of over $7,000 per tuitioned-out student (on top of the tuition) makes it hard to see how they'll agree to any tuition deal.

I went to Newmarket's school board meeting Thursday (Foster's).  I made a public comment where I tried to make these points:

  • I want my 6th grader to go to a thriving high school, so send us your kids.
  • In 11/12 Newmarket HS and ORHS's Cost Per Pupil were about the same, $16.2K and $16.3K respectively.
  • The $14,500 tuition is a good deal.  The last time Newmarket paid this little (inflation adjusted) to educate a high schooler was 07/08, eight years earlier than the first year the tuition students will arrive, 15/16.   
  • Oyster River's Cost Per Pupil will be around $17,000 for F14/15.  You are getting a 15% discount.
  • Even if you do decide to build a high school, you can send your students to one of the best in the state right up the road during construction.
  • I think the review period should be every two or three years instead of waiting 10 years.
The Newmarket board did not approve the tuition framework at their meeting.  They plan to go back to the negotiating table to aim for a lower tuition, some guarantees about student opportunity and to fix some loopholes they see in the framework.

Newmarket Student Survey

Newmarket School Board's student representative, Ashley Hodgdon, reported on a self-initiated survey she did on tuitioning attitudes among current students in grades 6 thorough 12.  Of 287 students surveyed, 75% would prefer to build a new school in Newmarket, 10% would choose to attend Oyster River and 15% were undecided.   Reasons given by those who chose to build: keep the teachers jobs, less expensive, changing is a big gamble, bullying at Oyster River, don't want to get up earlier, Oyster River doesn't like us and loss of class rank.  Reasons from those who prefer ORHS: More opportunity, nice school, more to offer, better for the community, not enough kids to build a new school, less hallway traffic.

It's too bad the students aren't more open to Oyster River.  However, the question itself reveals a deep problem with the thinking in Newmarket.  The question is framed as a choice between tuitioning and building a school.  Newmarket's actual choice is between tuitioning and fixing their old school up enough to keep the students home.  The issue of whether or not to build a school is separate, and largely independent.

Second Class Citizens

The chairman of the Newmarket School Board, Kelly Foster and other board members expressed concern over how they felt Newmarket students were or would be treated like second class citizens.  There was much concern over how Oyster River was not allowing Newmarket students to be valedictorian or salutatorian during the transition.  There was resentment to the proposal that separate class ranks be maintained for Newmarket and Oyster River.  An Oyster River board member's remark about reporting separate averages for tuition and local scores was repeated as evidence of Newmarket's second class status.  There was concern that this could impact college acceptances and scholarships for the tuition students.  There was some disdain over an Oyster River tuition forum described as the parents and teachers complaining what the Newmarket kids would do to their wonderful school.

To the best of my knowledge we've always treated tuition students identically to local students. If we need a policy that covers how a student that transfers to Oyster River can be integrated into the rankings and awards, let's get it done.  I think we owe it to the Newmarket students to treat the influx as a merger of high schools, where each student has the chance to flourish and achieve as before.  If it helps the negotiations, I would support a clause that assures Newmarket students of equal opportunity.

I think what starts out as normal parental concern about a big change in the schools gets transformed into Newmarket thinking we think their kids are somehow less than ours, or vice versa.  I suppose this is bound to happen.  These worries are being stoked by people that don't want the tuition deal, but I suppose that's bound to happen too.

Apples to Apples

Chairman Foster repeated an argument against tuitioning I'd heard: that the community would spend $14,500 per student for 15 years and have nothing to show for it.  I talked to her at the end of the meeting and said that Newmarket would get the same thing they'd otherwise get: 15 years of high school graduates.  She didn't respond to that, switching instead to the argument that Oyster River is making a profit (the implication being this is somehow immoral).  I said at $2M cost for 250 new students, that's $8,000 additional cost per new student.  It's much lower than our $17,000 CPP because the heat is already on and the principal, custodians and so on are already hired.  Shouldn't part of the tuition cover a share of the fuel or existing staff?

Newmarket Board Member Nathan Lunney told me my numbers weren't "apples to apples."    We eventually agreed on what's included in NH Cost Per Pupil and what isn't.  He pointed out that tuitioned Newmarket students would have a dedicated special education coordinator employed by Newmarket, have $100,000 in increased transportation expense and still require a share of the central office resources.  Let's try to work out Newmarket's local expense for a tuitioned student.

Our ABC says about 8% of our budget is the district office -- if we guess Newmarket has about the same ratio, that's around $1.1M.  So, back of the envelope, the local cost for a tuitioned Newmarket HS student is:

Newmarket Expense  $HStotal $/HSstudent
SPED Coordinator        .1M         400
Additional Busing       .1M         400
(1/3) District office   .4M        1500
TOTAL                   .6M        2300

Adding $2,300 to the $14,500 tuition make $16,700, which is about what Newmarket pays now for a High School student.  It's easy to imagine cutting some of this local expense.  The additional bus charge is enough for a group of students to afford a taxicab to school every morning.  The district office expense seems high -- hopefully Newmarket can tighten that up too.

Newmarket Junior High

Newmarket's real problem is that once their high school students are tuitioned out, their Junior/Senior High building is not closing, it's becoming a Junior high alone.  At a previous Newmarket SB meeting the expense estimate I heard to implement this change was that the middle schoolers (grades 6, 7 and 8) could be served in the building at 60% the cost of serving the old population.  This works out to an increased cost per junior high student of .6/(3/7)=1.4 times.  (3/7 is the estimate of the reduction in the student population as the building would serve three grades instead of seven).

A 40% increase per junior high student would turn Newmarket's FY12 CPP (latest available) from $16.2K to $22.7K per student.  That would have made it the most expensive middle school in the state.  Only Profile (Bethlehem) and Sunapee Middle Schools come in close at $21.6K and $21.0K respectively.  Every other middle school in the state costs under $20K per student, with the state average at $12.6K.

I think this gets at Newmarket's real problem with tuitioning.   If Newmarket's cost per middle school student goes up 40%, their cost per high student has to go down 30% to break even.  Assuming their FY16 HS CPP would have been $17K (about where ours will be if there's no additional tuitioning), that means Newmarket needs a HS CPP of $12K.  Given the local expense estimated above, ORHS would have to charge under $10K per student.  That's not going to happen.

There's not much particular to Oyster River in this analysis.  A 40% increase in the cost per middle school student when tuitioning occurs would make any tuition arrangement expensive in Newmarket.

Newmarket doesn't necessarily have to break even on a tuition deal, they just have to end up better than they would have been if they kept their kids in the local school.  The estimate I saw for bringing their school up to code was $2M, about $4,600 per junior/senior high student or $8,000 per high school student alone.   Even if Newmarket gets a tuition deal that lowers their cost per high school student, the increased cost per middle school student means that an extra $2M will be spent in two years.   If money is the only concern, keeping all the students local in the old building (and not building a new school) seems to be Newmarket's best option.

 All this assumes (my interpretation of) Newmarket's budget estimates of what happens locally when they tuition out are accurate.  These numbers however are a bit hard to swallow.   The local cost of $2,300 per tuitioned high school student and an increase of $6,500 per middle schooler both seem high.  It's hard to see how Newmarket can do any tuitioning with these costs.

If we apportion the increased middle school cost to the high schoolers, that works out to about $4,900 per.  Adding in the estimated local expense of $2,300 means that Newmarket is essentially claiming it costs them an outrageous $7,200 per tuitioned high school student on top of any tuition.  Obviously with these estimates no tuition deal is going to be attractive.

Well this has turned out to be a pretty depressing analysis for someone like me who wants the tuition deal to succeed.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Parents, Staff Oppose Administration on Elementary Ed

Elementary school reconfiguration was the main topic of Wednesday's school board meeting.  About 200 people showed up, a result of the administration's use of Alert Now telephone network and email to inform the wider community.

The official October enrollment numbers are Moharimet 407, Mast Way 292.   Moharimet is over capacity, even with the two portable classrooms, while Mast Way has two empty classrooms.

The two options under consideration are (A) redrawing the bus dividing line and (B) changing Mast Way to grades K-2 and Moharimet to 3-4.  Option (B) was presented as a path to allowing fifth graders to move back to the elementary schools when enrollment declines sufficiently.  This is somewhat misleading -- either options allows fifth graders to be brought back eventually.

There was a certain déjà vu quality to the meeting.   In fact, the two options were considered at an almost identical meeting on April 18, 2013.  Like the first time, parents were overwhelmingly against the K-2/3-4 plan.   In fact, the opposition against this plan the first time was so widespread I was very surprised that it was once again brought up as an option.

Teaching staff present from both schools agreed with the vast majority of audience members that the bus line should be redrawn.  In contrast, the superintendent announced that he and his administration (including the assistant superintendent, special education coordinator and principals) were unanimously in favor of the K-2/3-4 option.   The board was largely non-committal but there was some support shown for both proposals. 

Since last spring I've predicted a number of times that the final solution will be the redrawing of the bus lines.  I haven't been right yet, but I'm sticking with the prediction.  I see it as very unlikely the board will go against the vast majority of the public.

The meeting started off controversially when Chairman Barth announced that staff would not be allowed to speak.  The justification was a policy that said the primary method for staff to communicate with the board was through the administration.  The board tried and failed to overrule the chairman's decision, but eventually reached a compromise where non-staff read aloud staff letters from each school.  My personal feeling was that the everyone should be afforded the opportunity to speak at a public meeting and that the Chairman was on thin ice when she suppressed the speech of staff members, many of whom are district residents.

The superintendent took the position that there was no research supporting one option over the other.  This was in contrast to some educators, especially at the first meeting, who cited research claiming that additional transitions were detrimental to learning.   Financially, there are potential economies to be had by assigning each grade to a single building.  There are costs too, for increased busing and the initial reconfiguration

The bus line could have been redrawn in time for the current school year.  The failure to do this, together with the unexpected surge in enrollment at Moharimet, have exacerbated the crowding in the multipurpose room.  The likely consequence is that taxpayers will have to cough up a half a million dollars to build a cafeteria at Mohariment.

The superintendent opposed the grandfathering of families that has occurred in the past when the bus line has been redrawn.  His justification is that the grandfathering, in which current Moharimet families can finish out at Moharimet, negates the very equalization the redrawing is meant to correct.  At this point the problem is so acute that the gradual transition that grandfathering produces is problematic.  One suggestion was to grandfather only the families of next year's 4th graders, or perhaps 3rd and 4th.

There's not much reason for me to belabor all this too long, as the meeting was widely covered.  Oy'C'mon did a great job live-blogging it on Facebook.  Foster's had an article the next day.  The superintendent's slides are available here.  You should be able to watch the meeting on YouTube soon.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tuition Misinformation Abounds

Event note:  The superintendent will present yet another proposal for elementary school reconfiguration at the next ORCSD board meeting, 7pm October 16, 2013, ORHS. I'm thinking about bringing a "JUST REDRAW THE LINE ALREADY!" sign.

Newmarket had a town meeting and Foster's ran an editorial (then oddly recast it as a news article the next day) about tuitioning into ORHS.  The result: the citizenry is now more misinformed.  One new piece of information is that the deadlines have been extended so now the Oyster River board is expected to decide on November 20.

I'll just quote some of the misstatements and make the corrections.  For sources of the corrections I cite my past post (which links to NHDOE) and the actual "tuition framework" documents approved by the Oyster River school board and sent to Newmarket and Barrington.
Oyster River school officials got some potentially bad news this week with the announcement that the Dover School Board has approved some attractive tuition rates with Barrington for the 2013-2014 school year.
This isn't bad news so much as weird news.  We're already six weeks into the 2013-2014 school year (which I refer to as FY14, the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014).  Didn't these guys have a rate negotiated already?   It's probably Foster's getting the date wrong, but who knows.  The current agreement between Dover and Barrington will expire June 2014.  In that agreement special education was included in the tuition.   The new agreement, while it may nominally offer about the same tuition as before, presumably will not include special education so likely represents a substantial increase to Barrington taxpayers.
With its high school enrollment sliding and the number of empty chairs increasing at Oyster River High School, the School Board has been looking to stave off deep cuts in programs and personnel. The answer which up until recently seemed a sure thing was to accept tuition students from one of three high schools.
The LRPC doesn't predict enrollment will decrease at ORHS (status quo scenario) for eight years. The seats are available due to a past enrollment decline.  There's really very little stopping us from continuing in the current manner for the next decade or so.  And tuition has always been up in the air.
That number does not bode well for any long-term arrangement with Oyster River which is looking for $14,500 per head.
The ORCSD tuition discussion is about FY16, the school year that starts a little less than two years from now.  It is for a deal to send a large number of students and for ORHS be the school of record.  It includes some special education.  It's not clear at all how this number will compare to Dover's two years hence.  Historically our Barrington "choice" tuition has always been higher than Dover's.  Barrington taxpayers pay the Dover rate, and Barrington parents make up the difference.
With Deerfield off the table and Barrington pretty much out the door, Newmarket is last man standing, so to speak.
My view is that it's pretty much always been a choice of (A) Newmarket students or (B) status quo (some Barrington students), with (C) Deerfield,  (D) big Barrington increase or (E) stop taking tuition students (perhaps eventually closing a building) being the much less likely outcomes.   This really hasn't changed, except the longshot Deerfield is out for sure now.
At $14,500 Newmarket still has to pony up the money to bus students to Oyster River. With that addition, Newmarket’s total bill is expected to quickly climb to last year’s per student cost of $16,193.62. And according to numbers assembled by the Newmarket Superintendent James Hayes, it won’t be but a handful of years down the road that any early cost savings will be gone when compared to building a new $47 million school.
Wow, that's quite a load of misinformation in a single paragraph.  Newmarket is getting a great deal from Oyster River.   As I've previously argued, the NH DOE Cost Per Pupil (CPP) numbers serve as an apples-to-apples comparison for tuition.   CPP has no transportation costs included, and no outplacement costs included.

According to NH DOE, in FY08 Newmarket High School's Cost Per Pupil was $12,140.  Inflation has been pretty constant at 2.4% since the turn of the century, so I estimate this as $14,667 in 2016 dollars.  In other words, if Newmarket accepts the Oyster River tuition deal, they will be paying what they paid eight years earlier to educate a high school student, and trading up to an Oyster River education in the deal.  The FY08 $12,140 mentioned didn't include transportation, just like the $14,500 tuition.

The idea that "it won’t be but a handful of years down the road that any early cost savings will be gone" is totally crazy.  The proposal is to maintain a constant discount to Oyster River's cost over the life of the contract. Oyster River is giving Newmarket about 20% off its costs, probably (we don't really know what FY15 costs will be yet, much less FY16 costs, which get complicated by the addition of new students, see below.  For reference, in FY12, the latest year available,  Newmarket HS CPP was $16,194, ORHS was $16,304, about the same.)

Newmarket's alternative, an expensive renovation to a condemned building while constructing a new building, will cost much more.  If we estimate the renovation cost at $500K per year and the new building cost at $2M per year, that is adding $10,000 per high school student (assuming 250 students), or $5,700 per when you include middle school students, or $3,300 each spread over every Newmarket student.  Any way you count it, building a new school is an enormous new expense, adding around 20% to school taxes over there.  Taking the Oyster River offer is getting a discount that takes eight years off the price, around 20% per student (7% off Newmarket's school tax).  So Newmarket can turn down Oyster River and pay 27% more -- seems silly of them.

Another way to think about Newmarket's problems is their superintendent's statement that it will cost 60% as much as before to keep Newmarket High open to serve just the middle schoolers.  (Assuming equal grades) the cost to Newmarket for a middle schooler just went up 40% (.6*7/3).  The Oyster River taxpayers are helping to soften the blow by lowering Newmarket's cost to educate a high schooler by an estimated 20%.
According to a Power Point ( presentation earlier this year, Oyster River expected an enrollment for the current year of approximately 600 students, declining to 555 by 2022-23. Assuming an agreement was already in place, and with Newmarket included, those overall numbers would range from 846 for 2013-14 to 836 for 2022-23.
I already talked about how the status-quo enrollment is not predicted to decline for eight years at the high school.  There's already some indication enrollment is shrinking slower than predicted.  The newspaper numbers do not include the Barrington and other tuition students we currently have (around 70).
While the addition of Newmarket would require some increase in staffing, OR officials calculate the fees garnered from a tuition agreement would quickly recoup that cost, leaving a profit to be returned to taxpayers — $400,000 a year by one estimate.
Foster's has made this error a couple of times, which is odd as the real truth reinforces their point.  They corrected it in the "news" version of the editorial.  Actually the promised return to taxpayers is 25% of gross tuition, around $900K or 2.25% of the current budget (so about that much off your school tax bill).   This doesn't include 10% of tuition dedicated to capital improvements, $360K, which will save taxpayers another 0.9% when spent on things that otherwise would be bought using taxpayer funds.  The savings to taxpayers could be even greater if we tightened up the needed staffing (currently estimated at $2M total, regular and special education) and omitted the fund for new projects, which I've been calling the slush fund, instead returning all the excess to taxpayers.

The idea of a win-win deal is to have something for everyone.  Newmarket gets a place to send their kids and a huge discount.  The students get more programs.  Oyster River taxpayers get a bit of a break.  Almost everybody is happier than if no deal takes place.

What's especially odd is Foster's apparent disgust that the deal may be in the citizens of Oyster River's interest, i.e. that they may actually turn a profit.  I thought Foster's was conservative -- profit is good, is it not?  The weird thing is their implied argument is that Oyster River is being greedy because we are not charging $8,000 per student ($2M new costs / 250 new students) even when ORHS's CPP is currently over $16,000 per student.   Sometimes I think Foster's couldn't care less how they make their arguments, as long as the conclusions degrade Durham or Democrats.
But without Newmarket or another school district, the numbers head in the other direction, meaning staff layoffs and program cuts which the Oyster River School Board has been told will be significant.
Again, the enrollment contraction is a wave of low birth rate years, just now hitting the elementary schools, with the decline not hitting the high school for 8 years.   The Oyster River school district can continue along the way it's been going, which has been to keep a tight rein on costs lately as enrollment declines, and the burden on the taxpayers will stay about the same, without much in program loss.    If we don't tuition in a large number of students in FY16 we still have time to consider what to do about declining enrollment.
The threat of these cuts and the loss of programs appears to be a driving factor in public support for accepting tuition students from other districts on a long-term basis. A poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, showed strong support for a tuition agreement and very little opposition among Oyster River School District residents. 
We will be curious to see if that support holds up now that Newmarket has a better bargaining position at the negotiating table — one which might allow Oyster River to maintain class sizes and programs, but not turn a profit on the deal.
It pretty much has always been a choice between Newmarket or status quo, so their bargaining position hasn't changed much.   I will advise taxpayers of Oyster River not to take the deal if there's no tax relief in it for them.  Why should they?   80% of them don't have kids in the schools.  It already seems unfair to Oyster River taxpayers that the tuition is less than their local cost per pupil.  The profit, as Foster's derides it here, at least makes the deal a win-win, if still unfair. The deal will likely hurt their property values without the tax relief.  Test scores on average will go down.

Newmarket was being offered a lifeline that it would have been a mistake for them to decline when the tuition was $16,324. At $14,500 this is just a no-brainer for them. If nothing else, it gives them a place to put their kids while they build a high school.  But if they can't appreciate what a good deal they're getting, it may be best just for us to pass and see what comes down the pike.
Approximately 35 people, representing a “real cross-section of the community” showed up to say they would like to tuition the high school students somewhere else, to support building a new school and to learn about other options, Hayes said.
Some people in Newmarket could really use an Oyster River education. Apparently if the superintendent has his way they're going to be too pig-headed to accept one for their children.  My source says 25 people showed up for this meeting, and much of the aforementioned misinformation and more was relayed.

A 2% annual tuition increase was again brought up at the Newmarket meeting.  This is misleading.  The actual rate of increase proposed is the growth of the ORHS High School CPP figure.   The exact language from the framework is:  
Each subsequent year the tuition rate will change by the percentage of the actual change in the appropriated operating cost of Oyster River High School based on the prior fiscal year.
There's a helpful spreadsheet included in the framework that illustrates a big problem I have with this clause.   In particular, the calculation gives Newmarket yet another huge discount!

The problem is in the adjustment for the first year, which is "Percent change in appropriated budgets from FY15 to FY16."  Our CPP will spike down in FY16 -- this gain in efficiency is one reason we're taking tuition students.   We want to retain it for Oyster River and not just transfer it to Newmarket. 

Let's be concrete.  Suppose our FY15 HS CPP is $17,000 for 700 high schoolers.  To keep it simple, let's say we get 250 additional Newmarket students at a cost of $2M.   Assuming a lately typical 2% growth of costs for our kids, our FY16 HS CPP would be (1.02*17000*700+2000000)/(700+250) =  $14,882, a 12% reduction.   According to our formula, we would then lower Newmarket's tuition another 12%!   We definitely should not do that.  One fix would be a minimum tuition increase of 2% or the CPI or even 0%.

The other problem is that the discount compared to ORHS CPP remains constant.   I would like this gap to close over time because otherwise Newmarket will have no incentive to join the cooperative, as they can get the seats more cheaply though tuition.

I also don't like the very long period before the agreement can be cancelled.   I would add options at 3 years and 6 years (or even more frequently) for either side to give their 5 year notice.

See you all at the next meeting!