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!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Deerfield Is Out

The Union Leader reports that Deerfield and Concord have signed a 10 year extension to their existing tuition agreement.  This happened at about the same time the Oyster River School Board voted to send a tuition framework offering Deerfield, Newmarket and Barrington the opportunity to send up to around 250 students to ORHS starting fall 2015.

Foster's and SeacoastOnline reported on our tuition framework.  The $2M cost for special education referred to in Foster's is a mistake -- $2M is intended to be the total budget to handle the increased student load, both regular and special education.  The expected level of in-school special education needed is included in the $14,500 tuition.  There is a cap on the district's exposure to the tuitioning town's special education costs, so costs beyond the expected costs must be handled by the tuitioning town.  I think it was stated that the tuitioning town needs to also pay separately for contracted services (such as Speech and Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy) for their own children.

The framework is essentially a non-binding contract proposal.  There is still room for negotiation, and nothing would happen until both boards and both district's voters approve the deal.   The board modified the framework so that tuition increases at the rate our high school CPP changes.  There's still the possibility of a problem as our CPP necessarily goes down when we accept a bunch of tuition students.  (See previous post.)  The timeline has responses by November 1 so the board can make a decision at the November 6 board meeting.

Barrington currently sends around 70 of its 400 high school students to ORHS.  Those students would be phased out (or the number greatly reduced) were we to accept all 250 Newmarket students.  The framework offers Barrington an opportunity to send more students.  As this is probably unlikely and Deerfield is out, it looks like the choice will be between Newmarket or status quo.

Board Member Turnbull opened a couple of cans of worms.  She asked if the high school could report standardized test averages separately for local and tuitioned-in students. The unstated implication is that that tuition students will bring down our test scores.  This is almost certainly correct -- School Digger 7th&8th grade combined NECAP ranks OR 16th, Deerfield 50th, Newmarket 72nd and Barrington 74th.  Historically, NH districts have not separated out tuition students when reporting such averages.

The second can of worms was Ms. Turnbull's suggestion that we explore modifying policy IIB, which states high school class sizes should be between 18 and 22 students.  She cites the current policy as a reason for high costs in the district.  The State of New Hampshire has a policy of at most 30 students per section.  In a comment I suggested that we check how well we're doing meeting the current class size policy before we change it and before we commit to tuition student staffing.  My hunch is we're less than full and could get by with less staff than proposed, but we'll have to see.

I stressed that this is a great deal for Newmarket taxpayers.   The proposed FY16 tuition of $14,500 is 10% below Newmarket's FY12 cost per high school pupil of $16,194.  If this is the actual tuition, I'll guess this ends up 20% under Oyster River's FY15 HS CPP.

Let's spend a minute reflecting on how good a deal this is for Newmarket.  The last time they paid this little to educate a high schooler was 2010! (FY10 HS CPP 14,156).  That's of course in nominal dollars. Adjusting for inflation, you have to go all the way back to 2008 when Newmarket's HS CPP was $12,140.  Assuming 2.4% inflation, that's $14,677 in 2016 dollars.  In other words, in 2016 Newmarket will pay the same to educate a high school student as they did eight years earlier.

There was some disagreement from the board table about whether this was a great deal for Newmarket. It was stated that Newmarket's CPP includes $500,000 of out-of-district special education placement expense that wouldn't be covered by the ORHS tuition.   Given 250 students, this adds $2,000 per student in costs for Newmarket, so the claim was a tuition of $14,500 makes Newmarket's cost $16,500 per student, about the same as ours.

But this isn't correct. I used the state's CPP numbers, which have all tuition expense (regular and special education placements) subtracted out.  (You can verify this by reading the state supplied CPP calculator spreadsheet.)  So Newmarket's HS CPP of $16,194 does not include their placement expense of $2,000 per.  Comparing their CPP to the proposed tuition is apples-to-apples.  Bottom line: we're offering the town of Newmarket a great deal and they'd be crazy not to accept it.  I'm currently withholding my judgment as to whether the taxpayers of Oyster River should accept it.

In other news, Siemens reported a successful HVAC and lighting upgrade for the remaining three schools.   (Recall the high school project already saves us $92,000 a year in fuel and electricity.) The savings from the remaining three schools are projected to be $83,000 per year and with the incentives the project will pay for itself in 4.7 years.  I was skeptical about this project, but it appears that Siemens has indeed made it all work.  Congratulations.

In other other news, apparently David Taylor has or is about to file papers to bring the RTK kerfuffle to court.  Since the board is already enjoined as a result of Mr. Taylor's previous lawsuits, involving the court again has potentially serious consequences. I am sorry to everyone for my involvement in this matter, and I continue to hope David and the district can work things out without a court battle.