Thursday, September 17, 2015

Field Warrant Articles Proliferate

Summary of the complicated new plan to finance an ORHS track and field

New field plan
Two weeks ago I worried that the field plan wouldn't be presented to the voters as a separate warrant article (ballot question).  After yesterday's school board meeting I'm worried that there will be three or four warrant articles and the voters would have to approve all of them to get the field built:

  1. The voters authorize the sale of the Orchard Lane property
  2. The voters direct the proceeds from Orchard Lane to the field project
  3. The voters direct the insurance settlement money to the field project
  4. The voters approve the remainder of the field budget, either as a one time appropriation or a bond.
It's possible that some of these aren't needed or can be combined.  Even if the voters approve all this, it's still possible that the land won't sell (or fetch the expected $295,000) or the insurance settlement comes in less than expected.  Either way the field might not go forward.

As I stare at it now, it seems the worries about complexity are overblown.  I'm not a lawyer but I think we can get away with two warrant articles, one that authorizes the sale of Orchard Lane and one that lays out the budget and financing plan and asks the voters to approve the plan and raise from taxes a few hundred thousand additional dollars to complete the financing.  

A plan distributed
but not discussed
The plan has sources of financing that don't require warrant articles.  One was a delay of planned capital improvements, freeing up funds for the field.  This part seemed a bit hastily thrown together -- two weeks ago the amount was $600,000; at yesterday's meeting there was a plan handed out on the back table (that matched the one in the agenda) asking for $700,000 from this year's budget and $205,000 from next year's.  Then during the meeting the superintendent handed out and discussed another plan asking for $350,000 this year and next "as an example".

Board member Rotner ominously talked about delaying the spending on the middle school: "I think it looks really smart not to be putting money into a building that maybe three five whatever years from now we're not going to be using anymore."  What he seemed to be implying was us taxpayers had better get ready to pony up for a new middle school soon, I'd guess via a $30M to $50M bond.  Superintendent Morse quickly changed the subject, presumably because news of such a big upcoming expenditure might sour the voters on the field.  The cat's out of the bag now.

The school board and district leadership are still exploring field financing that requires a bond and thus a 60% YES vote.  Some think that asking to bond a significantly smaller amount than last year's $1.7M will lead to passage.  I personally think a bond virtually guarantees failure -- we've tried four times and failed to get 60% each time.  I don't think there's reason to think a lower number on the bond will matter much -- most voters will understand that however it's financed the field will cost $2.3M that otherwise would not be spent, so taxes would ultimately be that much lower if the bond fails.

The alternative is a one-time appropriation requiring a simple majority.  This is the solution that Board member Day favors.  So do I.  I suggested a $300,000 appropriation, which I'm predicting will have no trouble getting to 50% at the polls.  A budget like that requires about $700,000 to come from delaying capital improvements, assuming all the other money comes through as planned.

I don't get Dr. Morse's objection to the non-bonding solution: "it stages the project over two summers or delays the project until the summer of 2017."  To me the difference between a bonding and non-bonding solution is just the wording of the warrant article -- whether it says "bond" or just "raise and appropriate."  There's no reason for an extra year delay if you don't bond.  Staging is likely a bad idea as well -- they're looking into it.

There was a lot of discussion about the multiple warrant articles being too complex for the voters, lessening the chance of passage.  There were also concerns about what happens if some of the articles pass and others fail, so we fail to reach full funding.  I made a public comment suggesting the various warrant articles ask the voters for permission to move the funds to the Track Fund.  That way if we fail to achieve full funding this March we bank the money and get the rest of the way next March. 

The superintendent promised full transparency in the field financing.  Member Rotner urged the public to come to the next school board meeting, Wednesday October 7, 7 pm at Moharimet, to air their opinions on the plan before a presumed vote. 

There was one more odd thing that came up.  It turns out that the board could spend this year's insurance settlement on the field even though the voters did not appropriate the money.  Normally, even if the district gets extra revenue or finds a pile of cash in a closet, it still cannot spend more in a single year than the voters appropriated in March.  But technically we don't actually receive the insurance settlement money -- it comes as a discount on insurance, so we're able to spend the money the voters appropriated for insurance on something else.

After some site visits in Cambridge, the field committee came to an agreement on the fill.  You'll recall last year the community was divided over the use of tire crumb rubber as infill in the artificial turf.  The most vociferous combatants were UNH Professor Kevin Gardner, for tire crumb, and Dr. Bob Barth, against.   They were both on the fill subcommittee, and amazingly they came to agreement that EPDM, Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer, was the fill of choice for us.   It was reported that the vote to recommend EPDM was unanimous in the eleven member committee.

Athletic Director Parker showed this model of the
turf and recommend fill at yesterday's meeting
The committee left the price off the slide -- an obvious omission.  At the meeting the cost was reported to be $260,000 more than tire crumb for the initial project.  This is $40,000 less than budgeted.  Maintenance costs were not reported.

While I'm griping about the slide, I'll descend into a spelling flame. "Affects" is a verb -- you want the noun "effects."  And "its" not "it's".  And a space before "degrees."  Call me naive, but I expect better from educators.

By the way, 3 to 10 degrees seems pretty negligible compared to some of the temperatures thrown around last year.  I remember people talking about 130 or 140 or even 170 degree fields when the surrounding temperatures were 80 or 90.  Maybe in cold New Hampshire this heat effect is mostly desirable.

The board voted unanimously to accept the committee's recommendation.

In other news, ORCSD was given a "District of Distinction" award by District Administration magazine for the achievements of our Sustainability Committee.  Chair Cristini Dolcino accepted the award on behalf of the committee with a statement.  A plaque commemorating this national recognition will hang in the SAU office.  The board also renewed the charge for the sustainability committee.

There was some controversy over the superintendent's plan to fill the Assistant Superintendent position from within the district.  Dr. Morse's chief concern was with filling the position quickly, so there can be some transition overlap before Assistant Superintendent Eastman moves on at the end of October. Board member Farwell persuasively argued that as a top notch district we need to select the best candidate from a broad pool of applicants.  Due to the unfortunate timing of Assistant Superintendent Eastman's departure, the best candidates have already committed themselves for the current school year.  Board member Klein suggested hiring an interim AS.  Eventually the pieces were merged and a plan formed: quickly promote a current staff member to Interim Assistant Superintendent while starting a search for a permanent AS who'll come on board next school year (in July).  This seems obviously the best plan to me.  It does have the downside that the interim person already has a job that will presumably need to be filled, also temporarily.  What the superintendent will do is anyone's guess as no vote was taken.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Field Fiat

At tonight's school board meeting Oyster River Superintendent Morse put forth a $2.3M plan that puts a new artificial turf field directly into next year's budget.  Last March the warrant article for the $2M project failed to get the required 60% of the votes.  State law dictates a 60% threshold is required to approve the $1.7M bond portion of the funding.  The plan presented tonight does not appear to put the field issue as its own ballot question, but as part of the large budget appropriation.

New field funding plan (the Goal should read "with NO Bonding")

The $2.3M budget is a $300,000 increase from last year's plan.  The additional money is intended to go into a higher quality fill than the rubber tire crumb fill in last year's field budget.  A committee is expected to give the board its recommendation on field fill by the next board meeting, September 16.   Now that I think about it, by skipping the bond the district saves $300,000 in interest, so this really isn't an increase over last year's field proposal.

The memo explaining the plan (right) claims "36 additional positive votes and the plan would have been approved" which is terribly wrong - 339 additional YES votes would be needed to switch the result.  (The vote was 1382 to 1147, 54.6%; with 339 extra YESes you get 1721 to 1147, 60.0%.)  "56%" isn't quite right either.  I conclude that the vote wasn't all that close and that any plan involving a bond is likely to fail.

The appraisal for the Orchard Drive Land came in at $287,000.  The disappointing appraisal was attributed (in a 130 page report!) to Durham zoning laws that prevent the parcel, which the district received as a gift in 1971, to be more than four buildable lots.  Board member Kenny Rotner, who also serves on Durham's Town Council, suggested the district seek a variance from Durham to improve the valuation.

The money from the capital account comes from delaying planned capital improvements, in particular a generator at the middle school and something else I can't remember.  The superintendent reports Facilities Director Rozycki enthusiastically supports the plan and sees little downside from the delay.  The district is about halfway through the backlog of $4M of building problems identified in early 2012.

The insurance settlement refers to ongoing payouts from a judge ruling LGC had overcharged customers (including Oyster River and its staff) for health insurance.   LGC's successor HealthTrust didn't have the money to pay the judgement in one shot, so it's being doled out a bit every year.  The plan puts two years' worth of the payouts toward the field.

The $300,000 track fund is mostly private donations collected over the last couple of decades and I think includes $50,000 the district itself has contributed.

At the last board meeting I suggested that instead of bonding $600,000 that the board just put it on the ballot as a one time appropriation.   I meant it to have its own ballot question, so the voters can register their choice.   The advantage of a one time appropriation is that it only requires a simple 50% majority.  Similarly, at tonight's meeting board member Denise Day suggested that the shortfall from the land sale of $300,000 be placed on the ballot as a one time appropriation.

I like the idea of including the question of the field as its own warrant article.  Four times in the past a majority of voters said YES but the majority never reached 60% so the bond always failed.   This time, if the same majority votes for a one time appropriation of around $300,000 (possibly less depending on fill costs) the article would pass and the project would go forward.

I'm less enamored with the idea of including the field in the large budget appropriation.  Opponents to the field would be forced to vote against the full budget to register their disapproval of the field.  Combined with the substantial number of voters who vote NO on the budget anyway, this might be enough to tip the balance into NO territory triggering the default budget and a whole to-do.  I'm not sure if the superintendent intended to do it this way, somewhat bypassing the voters, but it seems to me a very bad idea.   It's up to the school board anyway, which I believe will let the voters directly decide on the field with a simple majority vote on election day.

In other news, Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Eastman has quit, tendering her 60 day notice.  She's off to big-time greener pastures that she told me about but I didn't think to get permission to write about.   Her legacy will be how she proactively embraced Common Core and Smarter Balanced and moved the district to a comprehensive assessment system that quickly focuses teachers on individual students' needs.  I've gotten to know Assistant Superintendent Eastman over her three years here and I'm going to miss her very much.  Thank you for all your great work Carolyn.  Fortunately, Carolyn will still be a district mom.

Today was the first day of school and the superintendent announced that 381 students are enrolled at Moharimet.  Recall two years ago the overcrowding at Moharimet had gotten out of hand, with 407 students in a school with nominal capacity 389.   Back then I estimated it would be "two years before Redraw with Full Grandfathering got Moharimet down to capacity" -- score one for me.  This is in contrast to last November's Long Range Planning Committee report that forecasted 411 students would be enrolled at Moharimet today, off by a distressing 8%.  Board member Rotner asked that the LRPC look into the discrepancy.

Let's recall a quick history of how the board eventually settled on Redraw with Full Grandfathering, our traditional elementary imbalance remedy.   I think the distractions of tweets, lawsuits and almost full administrative turnover in 2011 & 2012 let the creeping problem go unaddressed, maybe even unnoticed, for a couple years.  It didn't help that the LRPC was forecasting a substantial 6% enrollment decline, with the December 2012 forecast for FY16 Moharimet (that's today) of 358.  Then the new superintendent spent an extra year getting everyone riled up deciding while the problem got even worse.   The superintendent liked a K-2, 3-4 split, a pretty bad idea that didn't really solve the problem.  It was soundly rejected by the community early on but the leadership inexplicably kept pushing it.

There's also news about the budget.  I'm happy to report that the board is considering my ideas to include revenue and not exclude certain expenses when setting budget goals.    But the real surprising thing to come out of the meeting is that the superintendent thinks he can fund Full Day Kindergarten and a new field and still keep growth below a nominal 3%.  I'm sure I'll write more as the budget develops so I'll just say good night now.