Letter to SC

Hello-
Thank you all for all the time you have dedicated to our schools.  I may not agree with your decisions but certainly recognize how much time and effort you dedicate to our schools.

My name is Karen McGlynn, I am a homeowner, tax payer and currently have three students in the South Kingstown school system; a 2nd grader at Matunuck, 5th grader at BRMS and 8th grader at CCMS.  I have been been involved as much as possible.  I was not able to attend the facilities workshops over the past year but have attended as many meetings as possible and watched remotely when I couldn’t attend.  

I personally support Option B, I feel the enrollment data supported the need for only 3 elementary schools.  I feel it was unfortunate an elementary school was named in the process.  I would have supported the closing of anyone of the elementary schools including my home school Matunuck Elementary.  I continue to support the closing of an elementary school, if not two elementary schools.  We are in a very difficult time, we need to become fiscally sound and make decisions to ensure we can continue to be fiscally sound.  At the same time we are looking to spend money on improvements.  The operational saving of closing an elementary school would be felt annually in our budget and savings in the overall facilities project.

At this point with the information I have have today I do not support raising my taxes.  I do not feel we are making the tough decisions to be a long term fiscally sound school system.  As enrollment continues to decrease due to birth rates and now the ability of students to attend an out of district public school our funding from the state will continue to decrease.  This is a problem that has been going on for years and we are at the proverbial crossroad. 

We need big savings, big savings can only come through consolidation.  One of the suggestions I believe is for a principal and nurse to be shared across multiple elementary schools.  I think this is a short sighted choice for a savings.  We would be better off combining these schools.  Another option/rumor I have heard is displacing sixth grade for the 2019-2020 school year allowing Broad Rock to be off line for operations savings and construction to begin with no students.  As a parent off a sixth grader in 2019-2020 I do not support this option either.  The bonds have not been approved and cost estimates for the project are not complete.  At this point in the process it feels like rash decisions are being made in order to make obtain slight operational savings.

During one of the meetings last week it was stated the 2019-2020 budget process and the facilities project are two unique projects and should be handled as such.  I agree they are unique but they are intertwined and require to be looked at in unison.  The school department is a small business and if we are planning on asking for a considerable amount of money we need to make the tough choices now and act responsibly.  As Mr. Zarnetske states we will be replacing direct services, policy/fire/teachers, with debt.  We are asking for twice as much debt as this town have ever taken on.  I think we have amazing teachers, but I do not feel we are doing what is best for the tax payers, children or teachers.

Previously there was discussions of a proposed five year plan, this committee needs to lay out a plan and communicate that plan.  I believe to get community support this plan needs to be crystal clear on what steps we will take to work towards balancing our budget as well as clearly defining the proposed education bond and how all the funds will be utilized.  Without a clear direction I couldn’t vote for the educational bond today and certainly could not recommend doing so to any of my neighbors.  I live in a community where 90% of the population do not have children in the school system, these are the same individuals who opposed sidewalks to the elementary school.  The sidewalks were viewed as “sidewalks that go to nowhere”.

With the level of uncertainty it is sad to say I spent the day researching alternatives for high school for my daughter.  

Regards

Karen McGlynn



Option D Revisited

The Town Council’s decision to put off a facilities vote until January 29 gives the community a much needed pause. It’s clear there are questions about the need for taxpayers to foot the bill for a plan they thought was to be paid for via operational savings. Let’s take this opportunity to walk down fantasy lane, back in time to the original visioning sessions, and reconsider a plan left on the cutting floor which could have done just that.

At least half of the community members present strongly considered option D as the best plan for the future of the town. It was a radical plan that would have completely reshaped elementary education in SK by closing both WES AND WKES. As a result it was viewed as too extreme for the town.

The biggest advantage of Option D was its massive operational savings, estimated at $3.15 million. The true value of these savings were never presented in the way they should have, as a 25 year outlook compared to debt service costs, but if they had, its possible many people would have taken a second look at what we could afford. Follow us down the rabbit hole (warning, there are numbers involved)….

Operational savings such as these, which come primarily from personnel related expenses, rise in value over the years as the district avoids increases in salaries and benefits. In general, these costs rise about 3.5% per year. Over the course of a 25 year window, the cumulative value of the Option D savings would grow to $102 million. By contrast, the cumulative debt service cost for the $75 million project currently under consideration (assuming 50% state aid) is $54.38 million. In other words, Option D would have paid for itself plus left a $54 million dollar surplus on the table.

By contrast, Option A’s 25 year operational savings total just $21.6 million. These fall short of paying the debt service by a cumulative $31.75 million. This is why taxpayers are rightly concerned. But assuming the town is willing to cover that shortfall, let’s consider what the extra operational savings from Option D could have bought us.

The difference after state aid and debt service between options A and D is $85.75 million. After debt service is factored in, this could have financed $119 million in additional construction. Coupled with the $75 million project we are contemplating yields $194 million. With that size/scope, we could have afforded to build a new High School, a new Elementary School and fully renovated BRMS as a state of the art Middle School.

Unfortunately, the value of Option D was presented without this long-term analysis, so the community was likely unaware of the immense value these savings could have provided. Of course, in order to realize the savings necessary we would have to close 2 elementary schools, and we saw what happened when 1 school closure was proposed. But the choice should be made more clear. You can keep four underutilized neighborhood schools, or you could have a new High School (and a new Elementary School). Personally, I’d prefer the latter.

Is there time to reconsider? Would a delay to the newly announced September deadline give the district a chance to reset and consider other options now that the entire community is plugged in? It might be worth the risk.

A Tale of Two Districts

Last week I wrote about the constraints that Massachusetts placed on its school districts nearly 40 years ago.  Under the same constraints, South Kingstown spending (since the year 2000) would have trended very differently. Each year, SKSD is spending $10mm to $12mm more than if normal inflation been applied over the last 20 years.  For now, ignore the additional factor that enrollment literally dropped by a third over the same time period.

School enrollment is the most dominant factor in determining a district’s spending, so take a look at this table that comes from the Massachusetts Department of Education:

: http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/statereport/ppx.aspx

The table shows every Massachusetts district comparable in enrollment to South Kingstown. This data is from FY 2017 when South Kingstown spent around $59 million. That is $4.5 million more than the most expensive Massachusetts district our size.  It is also $10 to $15 million more than many of these districts that have been constrained through legislative controls. In Rhode Island, districts often compare themselves to cohorts within the state. As such, and absent other constraints, we see an expensive drift.

Questions then arise about the efficacy of that increased spending.  Almost universally, however, we see reports like this that indicate zero correlation between spending and educational outcomes.  While some reports rely solely on test scores, multiple aggregate rankings place Massachusetts as one of the strongest (if not THE strongest) public education systems in the country.  Forbes, U.S. News and World Reports, USA Today, EdWeek, among others, all agree.  Massachusetts does a great job for its learners.

South Kingstown need not reinvent the wheel.  There are dozens of districts we could emulate.  One particular example is Longmeadow, MA. A broader comparison from various sources across multiple characteristics shows two similar districts.           

www.profiles.doe.mass.edu : www.ride.ri.gov : www.boarddocs.com/ri/soki/Board.nsf/Public : www.infoworks.ride.ri.gov/district/south-kingstown :Certified Staff Report Provided : www.zillow.com : www.city-data.com

Longmeadow spends $17 million less than us.  They have fewer buildings. They have fewer employees.  Their average salaries are lower, which may be the result of hiring practice. Replacing retiring teachers with newer people is one of the easiest ways to reduce average salary without reducing actual pay.  A notable difference is their geography, being only about 1/8 of the physical size of South Kingstown. Taking that into account, one might simply remove South Kingstown $4 million transportation cost. Regardless, with better education outcomes, Longmeadow residents are clearly getting a better bang for the buck than South Kingstown.   

Those significant operational savings make debt service and hard investments more readily accessible.  Several years ago, Longmeadow embarked on a project for a new $80 million high school, and recently began an investigation of a $100 million middle school.

By contrast, South Kingstown spent nearly 2 years evaluating its own facilities.  The capacity of the town to fund renovations across 6 of our 7 facilities is only around $80 million in total.  Options that might have included ground up construction on a new high school were unable to be considered given the price tag, and the capacity of the town to fund beyond what is already a heavy price tag paid for day to day operations.

How do these differences develop?  The answers are numerous, but one thing is clear, it did not happen overnight.   There are always factions pulling for school dollars. Adults working in the district, parents looking for more programming for their children, facilities in need of upkeep, these all place demands on the funding a school is awarded every year.  For years, a moratorium on school construction hindered school districts’ ability to fund major building renovations, yet did not change how much those towns would tax. With revenue streams constant and unchecked, along with the state limiting where those streams would be spent, the funds were diverted mainly to employees and buildings that were not fully needed in a steady period of enrollment decline.  In other words, it did not happen overnight. It could be fixed overnight, but not without great pains, so the solution needs to be carefully considered over the next several years.

After seeing an end goal like a Massachusetts level education at Massachusetts level funding, SK should be looking at first steps.  We need to monitor educational results as closely as we do fiscal concerns. State level initiatives are critical and have helped. The simple approach of “what gets measured gets managed” can provide strong public accountability and impetus for change.  The Rhode Island Department of Education just this year released a comprehensive district report card that will help.  The other important part- and one that is really being overlooked- is the fiscal approach.  It has tied our hands unnecessarily.

The regular budget process here in South Kingstown is unnecessarily painful.  Cuts are always the main topic of the process. These “cuts” are almost never from the current spending, only from the anticipated future spending.  Take next year’s pro forma budget for example. South Kingstown budgeted for $61 million this year and expects to need $64.5 million next year. Any funding less than that will require a “cut”, even as we add $2 million.  Prior to last month South Kingstown expected to have 3 elementary buildings operating in 2022. Should we consider the decision to keep a 4th elementary school open an expansion? Of course not.

At any rate, South Kingstown could just look to neighboring Chariho for guidance.  Chariho’s simple operational budget is $59 million.  The district has almost 250 more students enrolled and is not shrinking like South Kingstown (enrollment is expected to drop by 500 students over the next 10 years) .  If South Kingstown just takes the first step of acknowledging the need for spending restraint, within 7 to 10 years we could very seriously be discussing major overhauls that might include a brand new building which enhances the whole town.  If district leaders stick to the annual spending approach, the district will always be chasing our neighbors near and far.

Facility investments and operational spending are not exclusive considerations.  Three months ago, the district had a plan that reconciled both over the next decade and with proper direction and oversight.  It takes a shared vision and firm resolve to make and stick with a difficult decision.  Massachusetts did so 40 years ago and committed to it. Their public education system is now the gold standard.

The current approach to its facility plan puts South Kingstown in stark contrast to Massachusetts.  Since the decision to shift the plan, adding back elementary capacity, there were new iterations to the goals of the plan every 2 days.  That inconsistency provides little confidence that we can look at our operational plans and keep the consistent restraint we need.

If we can “hold the line” on spending, at virtually no risk to educational outcomes, investment in infrastructure becomes an easier proposition and these infrastructure investments will further support educational objectives.   But if we insist on a cadillac budget, while maintaining more facilities than we need, the endless division between the educational system we desire for our children and the educational system we can afford will continue to grow.  

SK School Committee Approves Stage 2 Application. Questions Remain

Last night, the School Committee was presented with the latest iteration of the facility plan. The building committee met earlier in the day to finish the updated proposal of $86mm. They subsequently removed several of the HVAC options to bring the new price tag down to $75mm. NEA president Brian Nelson advocated to add back the HVAC options, citing the educational importance of air quality.

The price of the HS work has increased 19%, while increasing the effective area renovated from 50% to 80%. That disparate ratio suggests we are doing less work but in more space. Before AC options were removed Wakefield Elementary had the highest reported investment of the smaller elementaries with over $3mm needed there. Before contingency costs, the following amounts will be spent on each building:

  • 3.2M at WES
  • 2.7M at WKES
  • 2.1M at MES
  • 6.7M at PDES
  • 18M at BRMS
  • 47M at SKHS

Community members speaking on the topic all expressed concerns about advancing the plan with the continuing uncertainties. For instance, an updated demographic study which is required to justify utilization to RIDE has not been completed, and operational savings are likely not sufficient to relieve budget constraints given increases in debt service. These concerns were dismissed and the Committee voted 7-0 to advance the plan.

Details of the different building committee plans have still not been made public and last nights presentation from the architects is also unavailable. Hard copy versions of the evolving building committee handouts have been circulating, but to date very few documents have been posted to SK Board Docs as promised.

Financial Impact

Preliminary estimates suggest this plan will require a 0.8% tax increase in each of the next 5 years to build up debt service accounts. In addition to being a drain on the taxpayer, this also reduces the maximum PTT increase available to help the school department balance its yearly budget. In essence, this reduces the maximum PTT available from 4% to 3%.

This drop in available PTT will completely consume the expected operational savings gained via middle school consolidation. Had option B been instituted, additional operational savings would have reduced the need to increase PTT by 1.9% starting in 2023 when elementary consolidation was planned to occur. Instead, this plan leaves the district exactly where it is now, dealing with reactive annual budget fights over taxes and spending, instead of proactively planning for the future.

Unfortunately, the district is up against a hard deadline and these facility updates are important and needed to keep our schools competitive in an era of school choice and CTE competition. It is unclear if moving to the alternate timeline would risk state aid but it does seem that there is enough uncertainty in the community to justify further discussion of our future path.

Why Are We Spending So Much More than Massachusetts?

In 1980, the State of Massachusetts recognized the limitations and threats of relying too heavily on expanding property taxes to fund our public education systems.  Proposition 2 ½ was passed to limit the increases a town could levy through its property taxes each year. Named for the enacted cap of 2.5%, any town that needed to increase its levy beyond it could do so, but only through a town wide referendum.  For the last 35 years or so, Massachusetts has tamed its property taxes and runaway school spending.

Rhode Island enacted our own, lighter version, of a tax cap.  Unfortunately we chose 4% as our limit and waited almost 30 years to implement it.  During the lead up to the cap, can you imagine what districts did?  In South Kingstown, we ramped our baseline spending up between 6% to 12% each year despite losing about 100 kids per year from our enrollment.

The chart here shows how this played out over the last 2 decades. Beneath it are some bullets to clarify:

  • Orange Bars are actual spending.  Most of that data comes from this document.  More detail is also available in our financial town reports found here.
  • The Blue Bars are the simple modeling of what we might have spent if we simply bumped up our spending by ~2.5% every year since the 2000 baseline.  That’s basically the real cost of living, inflation, or CPI increases that were experienced.  According to the Federal Reserve, average CPI since 2000 has been about 2.25%.
  • The Red Trend Line is a 5 year smoothed average. The slope of that trend is notable. When it’s flat as it has been for the last several years, comparable districts begin “catching up” with our spending excesses of the past.
  • The Black Line is PK-12 enrollment data from RIDE. That steady decline is based on children born in South Kingstown and is expected to continue.

Had we simply mirrored our Massachusetts counterparts, our budget could be between $45 to $50 million, instead of the $64 million Pro Forma budget we have today. With our declining enrollment, we would have been able to manage that spending while providing inflationary adjustments to employee compensation.

The tax side of the equation is often the most visible and contested, but it is this spending side that really drives the trends. The budget cycle is very predictable and almost always loses sight of the longer term objectives. It is not unique to the public sector either. But the underlying assumption is always that last year’s budget was perfect, and next year’s must require an increase because of inflation. Plus we’ll need to grab a little extra because we’re losing money from the state. Sound familiar?

Suppose alternatively that we take a 10 year strategic approach. From a board level (Town Council or School Committee), it is not necessary to examine every general ledger account and predict what it might look like 10 years out. All that need happen, is for the approving body to take the long term vision and limit the spending increases. In our case, if we simply keep spending level, we’ll reach competitive levels in 7 to 10 years. And rather than weather the annual “Cut List”, we ask our operations people to do the “Keep, Stop, Fix” approach to all of our spending. When they recommend “stopping” something, listen and help them navigate any political fallout from such a recommendation.

The plan that was in place prior to the 2018 election created the framework to address the biggest factor limiting our ability to maintain and overhaul our facilities. The abrupt departure from the key spending containment elements (consolidating at the middle school and elementary school levels) of that plan inhibits our ability to fund the needed improvements to our physical structures. There is a very real argument that South Kingstown has a greater capacity to pay for these things as one of the wealthier towns in Rhode Island. But it always comes with a tradeoff. Do we raise tax revenue by selling off our pristine coastline for development? Do we ignore our forest management obligations? Do we force our seniors out of of town by pushing tax levels beyond their ability to pay? All of these and many more are the consequences of the decisions we make in our schools. We might argue their severity, but not their existence.

In upcoming pieces, I will show a comparison of a similar sized district in Massachusetts. Ultimately I will tie this in to our Facility discussion and why the single driving factor limiting our investment is our operating expenditure. In November, South Kingstown Schools jumped from a strategic plan to a tactical, reactive one. As such we’ll need to reconsider our major investment decisions.

Classroom Size Ratio: Dangerous Waters?

Many state and local policymakers all over the country have been championing the causes of small class sizes, also known as CSR, for years. The current majority of the SK School Committee was elected on a platform doing just that; keeping class sizes small by keeping Wakefield Elementary School open. There is some research showing that it can and does have a positive impact. The most positive studies have shown that reducing classroom sizes can accelerate learning by up to 6% over a 4-year period.

The problem is this: While research shows that it can and does make a difference, it’s not the only way, and it’s an expensive way to go about it. The study by the Brookings Institute found the improvement listed above required cutting of class size to 15 from 22, while operating costs for buildings and programs don’t drop or even increase. And there’s no guarantee that the results will be the same.

These statistics are reflected in Rhode Island….and South Kingstown. Like many other RI districts over the past two decades SK has seen a steady drop in enrollment, and a steady increase in per student spending as budgets have continued to grow, a situation naturally lending itself to smaller class sizes. As a result SK now has the 2nd highest per pupil spending amounts in the state (among schools with between 2000 and 4000 students) at $19,719 and a Classroom-Student ratio of 14:1, well within the parameters of the previous study.

That seemingly perfect setup hasn’t translated to the highest level of success seen in that study (conducted in Tennessee, by the way). The latest RICAS results show that while higher than the state average barely more than half of SK students are proficient in math and reading, results that more closely match studies done in Texas. Even worse, spending rates are rapidly approaching- if not already at- the tipover point where even a max raise in the PTT (that is anything but a guarantee by the Town Council) can maintain spending levels to this type of funding. And the already looming current pro forma budget for 19-20 has a staggering potential projected per pupil spending of $22,000.

Do you see the problem?

From the Brookings report: “When school finances are limited, the cost-benefit test any educational policy must pass is not, ‘Does this policy have any positive effect?’ but rather, ‘Is this policy the most productive use of these educational dollars?’ “…”There is no research from the U.S. that directly compares CSR to specific alternative investments, but one careful analysis of several educational interventions found CSR to be the least cost effective of those studied.”

Instead of spending more money reducing already low CSR, we need to consider why the perception exists that our class sizes are too large. That may have more to do with class size variability (especially in the elementary schools) than average CSR. There are many large classes (23-25 student) classes, but there are also 12 -13 student classes and at least one split grade class. These discrepancies cause inequity, are not good for the children, and are the result of dividing a shrinking number of students into too many facilities. While closing an elementary school likely would slightly increase CSR, it would have also reduced this variance, such that the difference between the smallest classroom and the largest would have been reduced.

It’s unfortunate, but we need to face the fact that small class sizes alone are not the answer, and are driving us into the financial river like lemmings to the drowning. We need a better way. We need an honest look at enrollment projections, and a sober consideration of how our facilities, programs, and housing options are not attracting families and students and how to change that. Over the next several weeks, this blog will take a deep dive into these issues. Feel free to join the conversation.

The Educational Fad Diet: Too Shiny To Be Effective

There’s a reason why people still fall for fad diets.

They’re magnificent! Easy! And bring AMAZING results! Do next-to-nothing and still look great! That shiny packaging can be hard to overcome, but it never tells the entire story. It never speaks to how the results may vary, how you gain weight as soon as you don’t precisely follow the directions, and how it’s never just one thing to focus on that really, truly works.

In the end it always comes back to making smart choices, eating right and exercising. You know, the stuff no one wants to do and shies away from doing? That stuff.

Boooooorrrrring……but effective.

So it is with classroom sizes and facilities. For years elected officials at the local, state, and even Federal levels have shied away from the seemingly large cost of facilities in favor of small classroom sizes as the best means to increase academic performance and achievement. However, just as only cutting carbs to lose weight hurts the body in other areas, focusing on just one area of education negatively impacts other areas, especially in operating costs and educational support for students.

Consider this: A 2015 study from the Pennsylvania State University found that nearly 3/4 of U.S. schools were built prior to 1970. Of those, 1/3 required significant renovation or replacement to stay current, and nearly 6 in 10 schools had at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition of security, ventilation, or acoustics. All of these things are cited in the study as major factors in student and teacher achievement and retention.

The 2010 NESDEC facility study prepared for South Kingstown confirms this need, stating that, “When school facilities are clean, in good repair, safe, and designed to support high academic standards, there will be higher student achievement, independent of student socioeconomic status.” The study goes on to list numerous ways that a balanced and healthy school district not only benefits but grows the community it exists in.

Now consider this: Even though the district is staring down the barrel of $22,000 per pupil spending, and has a very small teacher/student ratio, the youngest building in South Kingstown School District, Broad Rock Middle School, hasn’t been renovated in the nearly two decades since its construction. None of the elementary schools have been renovated for nearly 30 years. Defections of students to neighboring schools and programs is already trending upward, with projections showing that student populations will continue to drop without significant change.

No matter how you spin it, that’s a major problem. Like it or not, education can be a very Darwinian process. SK is losing students and tax revenue at the time it can least afford to do so. This trend must be reversed, and soon.

The currently abandoned Facilities Plan B, while making an always-painful choice to close an elementary school, went a long way towards addressing those issues, maximizing operating costs with a balanced approach to class sizes, as well as providing desperately needed renovations and improvements to schools in SK.

The sudden and hastily-made adoption of “Plan A”, and the subsequent and equally sudden and substantial changes to it that are now being discussed need to be carefully scrutinized to see if they can have the same effect. If not, it must be abandoned, no matter how much it plucks at the heartstrings.

While a nice (and yet again singular) gesture, the recently announced marketing committee will not help reverse the trend and will inevitably go the way of the other fad educational diets if it has nothing to use as a selling point. The district and town need a school district that is well-balanced and effective in its spending if it is to survive as a functional unit. Most importantly, the students of South Kingstown need it to live fulfilling and productive lives.