Monday, May 20, 2013

Plan B: Close a School

As I see it, the tuition decision is a choice between three main options:
  • A: Fill the High School: Tuition in around 300 kids, maintain (or increase) programs, lower taxes.  We would still have to manage future declines in enrollment, perhaps by accepting even more tuition students as slots become available or at the middle school.  With this option we'd have to further choose between Deerfield/Barrington or Newmarket (and they'd have to choose us).
  • B: Close a School:  Stop tuitioning in students, close a school, reap an initial sharp reduction in taxes and programming and a further gradual reduction as enrollment continues to decline.  We'd have to decide which school to close, which would be entertaining to say the least.
  • C: Status Quo: Keep tuitioning in Barrington students only, which won't much affect the decline in enrollment.  Programming gradually shrinks, taxes stay about the same.
There is a district-wide meeting at the high school auditorium 6pm May 30 to discuss tuition.  The superintendent is hoping for several hundred people to turn out.  The recent tuition survey will be reported and the options discussed.

I've been advocating for plan A pretty much since I started blogging here over a year ago (see Roger Spiedel's Numbers 2/22/2012).  My main problem with the survey is it didn't distinguish between plans B and C.  First I'll report on the survey, which found an overwhelming preference for plan A, tuitioning 300 kids into the high school.  After that, I'll explore what plan B, closing a school, looks like.

Tuition Survey

UNH Professor and district parent Dr. Andy Smith reported on a phone survey of district residents about tuition.  Students were excluded from the survey -- the goal was to survey taxpayers.

Given the potential bias introduced in question 6 (see below), I'll just report questions 1 through 5:
  1. 85% of respondents thought ORCSD schools to be excellent or good and 7% fair or poor.  96% of families with students thought the schools to be excellent or good.
  2. 65% said the reputation of Oyster River schools was very important in their decision to move to the district, 14% said somewhat important and 25% said not important.  Among student families, 89% said very important.
  3. 27% thought the high school facility was too big for the number of students, 43% said about right, 4% too small.  Among high school families, 29% said too big and 56% said about right.
  4. 65% thought we were already tuitioning students (a well-informed district!), 4% thought we weren't.  83% of high school families knew we were.
  5. 67% favor tuitioning students, 9% oppose.
  6. One last thing, from later in the survey: there was no real preference between the Newmarket option and the Deerfield/Barrington option.
Various people have expressed concern about bias in the survey.  In particular, question 6 is
“As it turns out, Oyster River High School was built to accommodate 900 to 1200 students, but the current enrollment is only 620 and is projected to decline in the coming years.”

“In order to help cover some of the costs of the high school and to maintain the curriculum offered at the high school, the Oyster River School Board is currently considering the possibility of tuitioning in about 290 students from Newmarket, which would make the enrollment of the high school still lower than the size it could accommodate.”

“Would you support or oppose tuitioning in about 290 students in from Newmarket, or don’t you have an opinion one way or the other?” 
915 students is 85% of the capacity of the high school when calculated using ORCSD board policy for maximum class size (22 students) and represents a realistic full enrollment.  I have a problem with the "1200" used above.  1202 is the capacity calculated using NH State rules for maximum class size (30 students).  Since no one is really talking about relaxing the current class size policy, the 1200 is b.s. that makes the high school sound much more empty than it really is.  Probably because of this, the remainder of the survey shows an even more favorable sentiment toward tuition than the already overwhelming 67% to 9% above.

Plan B: Close a School

What happens if we don't tuition in any more students?  If we believe the projections, enrollment declines to the point where the student population can fit into three buildings.  A school can be closed (and even sold) and the taxpayers save money.

It's too bad the survey didn't bring up the possibility.  I personally don't think this plan would be very popular with the community.  First there would be the fight about which school to close.  Then a bunch of layoffs as a building is shuttered, sapping morale.  Then comes the continued slow decline in enrollment, which we manage with more layoffs.  Along with that may come a decline in property values, as the contracting school district is less attractive to potential homeowners.  Eventually there's a new problem when enrollment rises again but we've sold a school.

But as it's a real alternative to tuitioning students, we should at least consider it.  Here's how it works: By not accepting any tuition students our total district enrollment drops below 1957 students.  Now the district no longer needs Moharimet to serve so few students.   We close it, laying off almost all of the non-teaching staff.  We lay off some teachers, but not as many as you might think -- there are still children to teach.  Maybe four.  We might squeeze out a couple more positions if the consolidation allows class sizes closer to the maximum.  Then we reconfigure to grades K-2 at Mast Way, 3-7 at ORMS at 8-12 at ORHS.

The main benefit is that the three remaining buildings are utilized at near capacity.  Like I've argued for tuition, the most efficient way to use a school is to serve as many students as possible.

I think closing a school is a non-starter, due to non-economic considerations.  But to explore the economics, I made the spreadsheet and graph below to try to quantify the different plans.  To model the situation, I needed a capacity for each school.  I used the functional capacity from the recent study, which is 90% (85% for ORHS) of the capacity assuming every class space is filled at maximum ORCSD board policy.  It is intended to be a realistic estimate of full capacity.   For the amount of money we would save when we closed a building, I used the recent ABC report, which has a budget summary by location.

The remaining issue was how to model what to do with the difference between enrolled students and capacity.  I decided if we had too many students, we would tuition the overflow out at $13,000 per.  I modeled available seats as being filled with tuitioned-in students, each saving the district $7,000.  Alternatively, if you don't like the idea of tuitioning in students, you can think of the $7,000 as the amount saved as enrollment declines one student.

Obviously this model is quick and dirty and not intended to be incredibly accurate.  The goal is to get a feel for what the decision space look like.  Here's the result:

Coincidentally, our 2013 enrollment is 2013, which is two points to the left of the 2000 grid line.  For a given line, each point to the right of the 2000 line represents the enrollment projected for the next year.   The rightmost point is enrollment of 1628 for fiscal year 2023.  (I think the enrollment projections include 60-80 Barrington tuition children which I didn't remove.)  This chart is in current dollars.

The steeper slopes represent the overfilled condition -- the district has to tuition out students.  One less student means one less tuition to pay.   Even if the community were willing to close a school we might not want to tuition out our children, which means waiting until there's space.   That point, when enrollment equals capacity, is indicated by the knee in (two of) the lines.   The less steep slopes represent available capacity in the district.

You can see that by dropping the 60-odd Barrington tuition students, we can immediately get to the point where we can close Moharimet.  According to this (admittedly crude) estimate, we'd save 2% in taxes compared to keeping all schools open.  (I left out the "close Mast Way" line it's about the same as the Moharimet line but less attractive to close, as Mast Way serves more students at less cost than Moharimet.  And I don't want to close Mast Way.)

Want more savings?  You can wait 7 years and close the middle school instead of Moharimet resulting in 4% savings predicted here compared to tuitioning.  If you are willing to tuition out you can capture some of the savings sooner.

Why is the "All Open" savings at the current enrollment -5% instead of zero?  This assumes the unused capacity in the district  (almost 300 in this case) is used for tuitioning in students, saving money.

I didn't take into account the money the taxpayers would get from selling a school.   I don't know how much Moharimet would bring in.  A few million?  What bothers me is that many potential buyers are competitors to the district.  I like competition fine, but I don't see any need particular to help our competitors along.  But who else other than a private school needs a school?  I suppose there's some chance of a project that turns the school into a kind of community center, like the Tuck building in Exeter.  Given that enrollment is tough to predict, the district may be better off holding the building and leasing it (or parts) out.

So, this quick analysis indicates that closing a school can indeed be the choice that results in the largest tax savings.  To me, it's a big headache that probably doesn't result in very much more savings compared to tuitioning.  It doesn't seem worth the decline in programming.  The real question is whether we would be perceived as a district in decline.  If so, the likely result is a decline of property values that for many people would swamp any taxes saved.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

All Day K Approved

The ORCSD school board approved a plan for full day Kindergarten in the district last night.   The tentative proposal is that starting this fall 60 full day K slots would be available at a tuition of $210 per week.   Half day K would continue to be offered at no charge.   In three years, the program could accommodate every Kindergarten student in the district all day.

Superintendent Morse presented the plan as a solution to the elementary school equity problem. The district would handle enrollment into Kindergarten and send most of the students to Mast Way.  The students would then attend their neighborhood school for grades 1 to 4 (so some attending K at Mast Way will attend first grade at Moharimet); no redrawing of the line between the schools would be necessary.

The program is billed as self-sustaining: there would be no additional funds required from the taxpayers.  In the first year the money will be used to create and build the program.  In subsequent years the excess of tuition over costs would be available to lower taxes or fund district projects.  When asked if the taxpayers would eventually pay for full day K the superintendent predicted for that for the next five or six years tuition "is the model."

For a board that usually tediously ponders every decision, the speed at which this happened was remarkable.  It was unclear whether further approval from the board is required.  Update 5/17: Chairman Barth tells me that the board only voted to allow the superintendent to explore further.   There are no minutes available yet, but from the recording board member Rotner's motion was "to give Superintendent Morse the approval to move forward with the proposal to phase in all day Kindergarten and take the appropriate next steps."   That seemed like a pretty broad approval to me at the time, and reading it now it still does.  The vote was 6-0 (member Lane was out of town).  Surely further board actions will need to happen to make All Day K real, so there will be chances to stop.

 What appears most likely is that there will be a special election this summer to approve the project for the fall.  Technically the vote would be to amend the FY14 budget just approved in March.  This is needed because even though the program will not raise taxes, the district would spend more money than the approved budget.  This additional spending needs to be approved by the taxpayers before it's legal.

The budget proposed expected FY14 revenue of $210 per student per week * 60 students * 36 weeks = $453,600.  2.5 teachers and 2.5 paras would be hired.  10% of the budget would be dedicated to scholarships. Class size would be 15 or 16.  Transportation, lunch and snack are included.  (The increase in transportation costs should be pretty small as we are already busing half day K students.  Costs come from the additional distance to Mast Way for some and from extra students that would have otherwise done private K.)

Though the initial year is proposed to have at most 60 students, the superintendent said the program could open with as few as 30 students.   Among the next steps is a survey of next year's Kindergarten families to gauge interest.

One reason the project is able to get off the ground so quickly was the existence of a five-year old report on All Day K in the district.  Apparently I was wrong when I reported after the last meeting that the solution to the elementary inequity was to redraw the bus lines -- sorry about that.

The superintendent mentioned an "executive fund" and a board meeting with the district lawyer immediately after the public meeting.  The fund seems to be some kind of scheme for getting around the apparent requirement that the taxpayers must approve the change to the FY14 budget if All Day K is to start this fall.  My free advice to the board and superintendent: whenever you feel you need to ask the lawyer if what you want to do is OK (like holding secret meetings in police stations or spending half a million dollars without taxpayer approval) you probably just shouldn't do it whatever the lawyer says.  This board, which serves under the threat of contempt of court due to past Right-to-Know violations, would do well to adhere to the well-accepted, if occasionally inconvenient, procedures of governance.

During public comments recently retired board member Krista Butts expressed concern that the tuition may be too high for some families which do not qualify for scholarships.  My recollection is that the proposed price is significantly higher than the maximum tuition at full day K at CSDC (UNH daycare) our family paid a few years ago, but I'd have to look that up to be sure.  Ms. Butts further pointed out that the proposal doesn't really solve the equity problem.  Even though adding full day K gets enrollment at Mast Way within 20 students of Mohariment, according to Krista the class sizes for grades 1-4 will still be much higher at Moharimet (and thus inequitable) under this proposal.

In other news, Dr. Andy Smith presented the results of the district-wide tuition phone survey.  67% of the public support tuitioning in 290 students, with no real preference between the Newmarket and the Deerfield/Barrington option.  Only 9% oppose.  There will be a public, district-wide meeting about the issue at the high school May 30.  Postcards were to be mailed to all homeowners in the district today.

Board member Turnbull once again hinted at an alternative to tuitioning: closing a school.  She used terms like "facilities consolidation" and "program reduction."  I'll write more on tuitioning soon -- watch this space.

Here's the video of the All Day K proposal, starting at 1:30:00.  Thanks to Alexander in the booth for getting this out right after the meeting ended.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Pay to Play

Trisha Hall at the
recent parents' forum
This is a report on the May 1, 2013 ORCSD board meeting.  I wrote this before I remembered I don't usually like just doing meeting reports.

It's decided: graduation day is definitely June 14th, 6pm on the field.  This is despite receiving the waiver from NH Education Commissioner Virginia Barry allowing us to move the date back to the 7th.  The decision was made two Monday's ago not to change the date a second time.

Please vote for Oyster River's own Neville C. for Doodle 4 Google.  Congratulations to Neville for making it into the top 10 in the country in the 8-9 group (eighth and ninth grade).

Congratulations to district parent and district kindergarten teacher Trisha Hall on being promoted to Moharimet first grade teacher.  The position is one of a few (4 of 17) retirements that needed to be replaced.  My boy was incredibly lucky to have Mrs. Hall for K at Mast Way.  I don't think it was stated at the meeting, but I had the impression that the vacated kindergarten position would not be replaced.  It appears to be a deft move by the superintendent to retain a popular and effective teacher while shedding a position.

Football News

Policy JJIF (Athletic Policy - Sanctioning of Sports) (page 4) generated some discussion.  Board member Rotner was most concerned about the Pay to Play passage:

Pay to Play.  The School Board supports the concept of pay to play in part or in whole of any given Board approved athletic program and will follow Board policy and transportation may or may not be provided.
Vice Chairman Newkirk transformed into an English professor, suggesting edits.  (He chaired tonight's meeting -- get well soon Maria.)  He was also concerned that once a sport reached a certain level, Policy JJIF required the district to pay for it, at least in part:
School-sponsored sport.  This is the final level of sanctioning.  The School Board assumes all the responsibilities listed above for a school sport.  In addition, the school district pays for some or all of the activity's uniforms and equipment.  The level of responsibility for uniforms and equipment may vary from activity to activity depending on the costs involved and the individual agreement between the school district and any affiliated booster costs (except coaches and insurance costs) associated with teams other than varsity and junior varsity, reserve and middle school teams. Transportation may or may not be provided.
There's similar language that requires the district to pay for the second level, school sport.

The superintendent said Pay to Play was the current district practice.  The board approved the policy for first read, with the policy committee attempting a rewrite to reflect current district practice as well as the objections of some board members.

Board member Rotner's objection was primarily that by requiring students to pay to play, the least well-off among us may be unable to participate.  There was nothing about waivers or scholarships in the policy, nor is there likely to be in the rewrite.  If sports don't serve an important educational function, we probably shouldn't have them at school.    If sports do serve an important educational function, we probably have to make sure there's an opportunity for each student to participate regardless of ability to pay.

The term "Pay to Play" isn't defined in the policy.  I thought of Alan Freed, so I looked it up.  It apparently refers to a fee paid by parents to the school to play a sport or other activity.  This may be above and beyond having families purchase equipment and uniforms and provide their own transportation.  Forbes reads like a hippy rag on this one:
... that sends a clear message to everyone in the school district, a message opposite of that intended by community-supported public schools: opportunities are available only to those who can pay the fee.  
... Is America the land of opportunity, or the land of opportunity only for those who can afford the price of admission?
Science Daily reports a survey showing 19% of families earning less than $60K decreased participation in school athletics because of costs.

As I read all this, Pay to Play means the taxpayers are subsidizing recreational activities for the children of the affluent.  I don't support this. If we're going to fund these programs, we have to fund that little extra to make sure every student can participate. The budget has $17,000 revenue for "charges for services" and another $196,000 "other revenues" -- I'd like to know how much  of that is pay-to-play and other athletic fees.

Elementary Reconfiguration Path Chosen

There was a tedious discussion about elementary reconfiguration even after the superintendent announced that he had decided as a result of the meeting with the parents to eliminate "Option 1" (Mast Way becomes K-2, Moharimet 3-4).  He requested and eventually got board consensus to focus on a modified dividing line between schools and a smooth transition process, presumably grandfathering families with children already at Moharimet.  Board member Turnbull pressed for the transition to begin in fall of 2013 (aka FY14) rather than wait to FY15 as planned.  The new plan will be presented at the June 5 meeting when we'll probably get to hear the same discussion over again.

The superintendent once again dangled the prospect of 400 students enrolled at Moharimet next year if nothing changes.  It would be way above the projected number of 375.  There are anecdotes of young families moving into the district.   The enrollment forecasts looks most dire for the elementary schools -- it would be interesting if the decline failed to materialize.  The superintendent indicated full day Kindergarten (with tuition) and universal pre-K were "winners for the district" that could happen quickly as space is freed up in the elementary schools.  (I think he attributed the idea to a parent at the forum.)

In other news, there will be a meeting about the tuition student issue on May 30th.  In addition to the usual ways the district reaches out, a postcard will be mailed to every homeowner in the district advising of the meeting.

In closing public comments Krista Butts urged the board to address the elementary school inequities.  Brenda Worden came with an extensive proposal for the district to provide day care for the third week of August, when apparently all the competition closes up to disinfect.  The board came up with a big list of agenda items they'll be too busy to get to.