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.