Friday, July 10, 2015

Is our district run by used car salesmen?

Since the school board voted to close Hoover two years ago, people have debated just how much it would cost in annual operating expenses to keep Hoover open. The most well-supported analysis I’ve seen is from Michael Tilley, who estimated in 2013 that the annual cost of keeping Hoover open would be just under $200,000. But no one knows with certainty, because the board never sought the information and the district never provided it to the public.

Recently, enough people have been raising the question that the superintendent felt compelled to respond. He sent the following message to a school board member:
Good morning.

I have been approached recently by several members of the community regarding the base line cost to operate an elementary building. They have asked this in relation to keeping Hoover Elementary open and opening the new east-side elementary school. After asking clarifying questions, I think I have the information that they are seeking and I wanted to share it with you first.

All buildings require the following staff: Principal, Teacher Librarian, Guidance Counselor, Building Secretary, Media Secretary, Custodian(s), and Maintenance. Averaging these costs from all elementary buildings throughout the District, the combined costs for these staff are approximately $475,000.

All buildings also require Regular Education Teachers, Special Education Teachers, and Specials Teachers. These numbers are dependent on the number of students in the building and therefore are not included in the above cost total.

All buildings have utility and supply costs. Again, averaging these costs from all elementary buildings throughout the District, the cost for utilities and supplies are approximately $175,000.

The combined total is $675,000. Please keep in mind that these figures are in 2014-15 dollars and will go up for next year bring the total for next year to @$700,000.

The bottom line in response to the questions asked is for the District to keep Hoover Elementary School open AND open the new east-side elementary would require a minimum of $700,000 in additional general fund expenditures every year.

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Steve
The superintendent does not seem to care much about the district’s credibility. Here are all the reasons to question his analysis.

  • First, 475,000 plus 175,000 does not equal 675,000. The superintendent later corrected the arithmetic and revised his cost figure downward by $25,000. An excusable error, maybe, but funny how all the errors in his message tend toward inflating the cost estimate.

  • The superintendent’s reasoning is: The average cost of operating an elementary school is $675,000. Therefore it costs $675,000 to keep Hoover open. I would hope that most ICCSD students could spot the logical flaw.

  • Of course, the use of an average obscures the fact that bigger schools cost significantly more to run than smaller schools. For example, “All buildings require . . . a Guidance Counselor.” Except Hoover gets only 60% of a guidance counselor, since it shares its counselor with other schools. The superintendent makes no adjustment for that fact. How many of the other staff members that he identifies have less than a full-time equivalent at Hoover, and a significantly larger expense at bigger schools? You won’t find the answer in the superintendent’s message, which acts as if all elementary schools have the same number of non-teaching staff.

  • Is it really possible that the district would move over three hundred students to other schools without increasing the assignment of guidance counselors, custodians, support staff, etc., at those schools? That’s the implication of the superintendent’s analysis. It’s almost certainly not true, but it helps make Hoover look more expensive, so in it goes.

  • In fact, the district certainly knows what it spent on staff and other expenses at Hoover last year. It could easily produce that figure. There is no better basis for estimating what Hoover would cost in the future. That the superintendent chose not to disclose that figure, and to use a district-wide average instead, speaks volumes.

  • The superintendent includes $175,000 for “utilities and supplies.” Yet if Hoover closes, the students won’t disappear. Wherever they go, they will require additional heat, air conditioning, plumbing, and electricity. The need for “supplies,” whatever they might mean—cleaning supplies? paper goods for the bathrooms? books?—will also follow the students.

    The district is not planning to simply cram all the ex-Hoover students into existing spaces and make them share existing supplies; it is building new buildings to accommodate the district’s growing capacity. The new buildings include not only the new schools, but also the planned additions to existing schools, such as the planned 125-seat Lemme addition, which will be entirely unnecessary if Hoover stays open. Those new buildings will cost millions of dollars to build, which is a whole separate issue from operating expenses. But they will also, of course, require ongoing utilities and supplies.

    Maybe there will be efficiencies, or maybe not. (New construction, believe it or not, is not always superior to old construction.) But the superintendent doesn’t inquire. He simply counts the entire cost of utilities and supplies as if it will disappear if Hoover closes and the kids go someplace else.

  • Even the superintendent’s average cost figures are in the form of assertions; we’re supposed to trust him that they are accurate. But given how hard he is striving to inflate the cost of keeping Hoover open, how willing should we be to trust even those numbers?

  • Look at this document from 2011. It shows the operating cost of Hoover that year, minus the amount spent on teachers, to be $306,878. Again, only a portion of that figure can be saved by closing the school, so Tilley’s $190,000 figure still looks pretty reasonable. But the superintendent tells us we can save $675,000 annually by closing the school.

  • Look at this document from 2013-14, just three years later, right after the board voted to close Hoover. It shows the operating cost of Hoover that year, minus the amount spent on teachers, to be $420,152—a full 36% increase over the 2011 figure, right when it became in the administration’s interest to make Hoover look expensive. The lack of any consistency in how the numbers are broken down does not inspire confidence. In any event, if you only have $420,152 to work with, how are you going to find savings of $675,000?

The level of hucksterism in the superintendent’s message is just embarrassing. Does this administration care about providing accurate information so the board can make good policy decisions? Or does it just care about selling its own agenda, complete with Madison-Avenue-style puffery?
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8 comments:

Chris said...

When people raised some of these objections to the superintendent’s message, this was his response: “I agree that there are many variables to be considered. The bulk of the costs are staff related and these averages are within fairly tight ranges so there is not likely to be any significant disparity regardless of building size. There is a greater range of variability with the utility costs based on the size of the building and the energy efficiency of the building; however, the Business Office is confident that the use of the average for the district takes these variables into account.”

How an estimate based on an average can “take into account” a great range of variability is unexplained.

When people objected that there is a big difference between, for example, 1 and .6, and asked why the district didn’t simply use the actual cost figures for Hoover, there was (to my knowledge) no response.

Michael Tilley said...

In my earlier analysis (based on 2012-2013 school year), Hoover was particularly efficient because of its relatively large class sizes at various levels. Its class sizes have gone down since then, and so, in those circumstances, I would guess that the cost savings would be larger now than they would have been in 2012-2013. I've not done the evaluation with 2013-2014 data, so I don't have an exact figure.

As such, my guess is that it significantly higher than $200K, but also well below $700K.

Chris said...

Michael – thanks for the update. Hoover’s enrollment did decrease from 361 in 2012-13 to 311 in this most recent year. Some of the decrease was almost certainly *caused* by the closure decision, as I wrote about here, but if the district is serious about using its new capacity numbers, then it makes sense to use the cost of keeping Hoover open with about 304 students in it, which is roughly where it was last year.

But I’m not clear on why that means it would cost more to keep Hoover open than if it the enrollment were still at 361. I understand how it would be less efficient on a per-student basis, but in terms of absolute savings, which category of expense would be higher if we were to keep Hoover open at 311 rather than at 361? Wouldn’t running a building with 311 kids in it be cheaper than running a building with 361 kids in it? And some of that decrease must have been reflected in the reduction of Hoover to .6 of a guidance counselor, no?

Maybe the idea is that you could employ fewer teachers if the kids would be moving to classrooms where the average class size is larger? I could see how that would be true, to at least some small extent, if Hoover’s class sizes fell below the district average, but there’s at least some reason to wonder whether that actually happened. As I recall, in 2013-14, Hoover had some of the largest class sizes in the district. The decrease in enrollment may just have brought Hoover closer to the district average class sizes, which means there wouldn’t be much teacher savings in moving the kids to other buildings, unless the district plans to economize by increasing average class sizes (which it could do without closing a school). That could be why the superintendent’s message seemed to concede that there would be no savings in teacher salaries from the closure.

Moreover, if the district announced that the benefit of closing schools was to enable it have fewer teachers (and thus higher average class sizes), I’m not sure anyone would see that as an argument in its favor.

Michael Tilley said...

Chris,

I was referring to per-student amounts. That's probably the best way to think of it, since the district receives funds per-student. So, having the same expenses but 50 fewer students is a significant loss in revenue to cover the expenses.

The soon-to-be second grade class at Hoover will be quite small, and some of the larger upper grades are matriculating on. I think that partially accounts for the comparative financial inefficiency.

I agree with you that it is hard to know whether it is a school board induced trend because of the decision to close, or whether it was coming beforehand. There is no way to know for sure.

As for class sizes going up: it may go up in some cases with larger cohort sizes and reduce the need for teachers, but the idea is to reduce extremely large and extremely small classes. But the savings do come when reducing extremely small classes allows the district to not have to hire an additional teacher (doubt we'll see cuts anytime soon).

Chris said...

Thanks, Michael. I think I still have to disagree that per-student costs have any bearing on the question of how much it costs to keep Hoover open. As far as I can see, per-student costs are useful (with many qualifications that I know you’ve recognized) in comparing how efficient different schools are. But to determine the cost of keeping a school open, the only relevant information is how much the district will spend if that school is kept open, and how much it will spend if it is closed. Total costs, not per-student costs, are what matter in that calculation.

I agree that, in theory, if class sizes become too small, it’s possible to realize a savings by redistributing the students to other schools in a way that permits the district to pay fewer classroom teachers. But this is largely illusory, since it assumes that attendance zones are fixed. If Hoover’s class sizes were genuinely below average, the district could easily fix the problem when it redraws the boundaries next year. As long as the school can be filled without reaching impractically far, it makes little sense to destroy existing capacity and rebuild that capacity elsewhere at great cost. It’s clear that Hoover’s classrooms can easily be filled to capacity, as evidenced by the fact that the district will have to build a three-million-dollar addition onto the immediately adjacent school (Lemme) if it closes.

That’s basically what happened with Hills. In 2011, the enrollment there had fallen to 98, and the administration argued (using some of the same flawed reasoning) that the district could save $750,000 annually by closing it. Now the board has redrawn its boundaries—stretching them much farther than they’d have to stretch Hoover’s—and the district projects an enrollment next year of 172.

Julie VanDyke said...

Stop stealing my best lines Liebig ;-)

Chris said...

Apologies to the straight-shooting used car salesmen who would be rightly aggrieved by this comparison.

Julie VanDyke said...

http://www.press-citizen.com/story/news/education/2015/07/23/iowa-city-community-school-district-superintendent-contract/30578931/

-Where is the 360 degree evaluation process reflected in this, you know, other than maybe discussing that they didn't have enough time to figure out how to do one before giving him another contract let alone a raise?
-Where are the teacher's safely anonymous evaluations of his performance as an alleged leader?
-Where are the staff's safely anonymous evaluations of his performance as an alleged leader?
-Where are the public's safely anonymous evaluations of his performance as an alleged leader?
-What was that committee discussion on only evaluating him every 3 years was it? When is that going to come up again?
-When is the public going to be allowed to weigh in on the performance of the superintendent?
-When is the public going to be allowed to weigh in on the performance of the district's administration?
-Why isn't the Press Citizen asking these questions?
Marla Swesey, former Board President (and Equity Director founded bully against Board Director Tuyet Baruah (Dorau), if I remember correctly, had said the public would have some overall information on the results of the last public survey on his performance used as part of his evaluation and contract renewal at that time...but though the survey eval of him happened, the public never received that overal feedback on the survey results, magically...though the public was at least allowed to evalauate him that time around, years ago now?
-Why didn't that happen?
-Why didn't the public have the opportunity to evaluate him this time, or for the last what 2-3-4 years?
-Again, why doesn't the Press Citizen ask these questions in their reporting on the school district ...which ...seems ...to ...lack ...objectivity ...and ...effort ...to ...report ...objectively?

Our board will review and likely vote on our superintendent's contract renew this evening at 6:00pm...if there's anything you think they should know their email address is here: board@iowacityschools.org

and their website is here: http://www.iowacityschools.org/pages

Superintendent contract on agenda tonight is here...it's pretty scary in my opinion...particularly with no 360 degree evaluation included and no visible input from teachers, staff, of public that I'm aware of...

http://www.boarddocs.com/ia/iccsd/Board.nsf/files/9YQT6N75DC53/$file/Superintendent%20Contract%202015-16.pdf