Sunday, April 27, 2014

Polarization and Value-Disagreements

Some concerned community members (here and here) have complained about the atmosphere and level of discourse at the last Cluster 2 redistricting meeting. Based on the discourse leading up to the meeting, I expected it to be inflammatory. I expected both those opposed to the particular redistricting lines (I expected this contingent to be the largest) and those in favor of economic integration by means of redistricting to be geared up for a fight. Although I hate the following sort of either/or thinking, I need to say it in order for you to understand what I'm arguing for: if I were presented with 'we can have the second map with its economic integration, or the status quo', I'd choose the second map in no time flat.

I also confess that I like to argue (surprise, surprise, I know). So I was looking forward to the Cluster 2 meeting. I knew going in that I shouldn't expect much in terms of a good, value-based debate. I've written about this particular problem previously. As such, I expected participants to focus on factual disagreements (this course of action will destroy the neighborhood v. it will not; balancing FRL rates will not reduce the achievement gap v. it will likely make a significant contribution toward reducing it) and challenging ambiguous concepts (a mile walk isn't truly walkable v. many people walk that distance to school regularly OR FRL rates are a good indicator of economic integration v. they miss many salient features), rather than substantive deliberation about underlying value-disagreements.

Admittedly, it is hard to deliberate about values and ends, particularly with people we barely know in only about an hour. Still, I did think that it would be possible to work with my table to find middle-ground solutions that, for the most part, would allow us to support each of the most important underlying values of both sides in the argument. So, I went into the meeting with the goal of getting our table to discuss ways of accomplishing economic integration at the same time as preserving, at least, a small perimeter (say, 0.3 miles or some such) around a school.

Our table of six began the discussion at the either/or level. At least 2 people, me included, took the position that the second iteration of the Cluster 2 map was better than the status quo, and we'd choose it over the status quo, whereas at least 2 people seemed to take the opposite view. After realizing we weren't going to get very far with this fundamental disagreement, we started entertaining concerns that could be addressed while still accomplishing each of our goals. I'm not sure what we ultimately accomplished, but I was relatively pleased with how the table was able to identify the benefits and the challenges of the Cluster 2 map while looking for ways to improve upon it without sacrificing economic integration. I believe it also allowed us to see, albeit darkly, what our value-disagreements really were.

In the absence of quality, value-based deliberation, I think this sort of middle-ground thinking is about the most we can hope for. I believe it is better than continually reiterating one disjunct of the either/or: either this particular proposal or the status quo. We truly have nothing to talk about if that's our approach. Furthermore, it allows us to see what is valuable and good in our interlocutor's position, even if we ultimately think that position misguided. People who disagree probably have noble intentions, just as we do, and they are most likely no more evil than the rest of us.

Of course, I also recognize that there comes a time, and it should happen very soon, when a decision needs to be made. I think Nicholas Johnson's post gives insight into how that decision ought to be made with deliberate expression of the values and goals embodied in the policy, and with a clear awareness of which ones are most important in our social context.

Postscript: Here are three reconstructed, value-based arguments that I heard last Thursday at the Cluster 2 meeting. Note that none of them interact with the others except at the level of supporting different final conclusions about redistricting. Furthermore, I believe that the relevant factual and conceptual elements in each argument can be sufficiently established and clarified (respectively). I have my own opinions about the relative weights of these values, but we would do well to address them as expressions of a difference in values rather than as an expression of malfeasance.

Policies should respect individual choices and personal preferences. Many families have made choices about where to live based on the school currently associated with that area, and I would not choose to redistrict us now because of the disruption it would cause us. So, I will continue to support the view that it is wrong to redistrict my family.

Socioeconomic imbalances in our schools result in great differences between our schools in terms of academic resources, parental involvement, teacher-workload, and so forth. Any difference is only justified if the difference benefits those members of our society who are least well off (i.e., the poor and those with special needs). The differences resulting from socioeconomic imbalances benefits those who are most well off and harms those least well off. Therefore, we should redistrict to better balance socioeconomic levels.

Being able to walk to work, to school, and to shopping is a crucial value in order to promote environmental sustainability. It is good to promote activities and ways of life that help our environment rather than harm it. Since redistricting in the manner suggested does not help our environment, we should not do it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Budget Cuts: Short-term symbolic gestures and long-term sustainability

There has been significant discussion of the impending budget cuts for the Iowa City School District (ICCSD). A summary of the budget cuts are found here. I don't have much to add to the discussion about these budget cuts. The district is in a difficult situation -- partly its own making and partly the result of years upon years of the state not providing increases in the budget that matched or exceeded cost of living changes.

As I understand it, these budget cuts are a result of two major factors: first, the ICCSD has been giving raises to teachers and staff that regularly exceed the increase offered by the state in a given year -- referred to as supplemental state allocation (SSA) or "allowable growth". Second, this trend had not resulted in programming cuts because the ICCSD was receiving various grants to compensate, and those grants have been eliminated. 

Because of this situation, I don't see a great alternative to what the administration is proposing right now. My only suggestion is symbolic in the short-term, but gives a pattern for long-term sustainable growth. That is, I'd suggest that the administration make an immediate change for its non-union employees (to include central administration employees at the very top and on down) to only receive a cost-of-living raise equivalent to the mean of the allowable growth percentage for the last five years. From what I understand, there was a 4.5% cost of living adjustment across the board in the ICCSD last year, and I'm suggesting based on the last five years, assuming my figures are correct, something more like a 2.1% cost-of-living raise. I realize that this change will be rather minimal in its budgetary impact now, and it probably would be insufficient to save any of the programs slated to be cut. Nevertheless, it is a good symbolic gesture to the community and it creates a more sustainable pattern for future raise increases. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, I think it could provide some justification for adopting a similar, sustainable model for all teachers and staff. 

To be honest, I really hate to express that view -- our teachers and staff deserve better. They deserve raises that approximate, at the very least, the annual cost-of-living increases. But I don't see a way to accomplish that in a sustainable way without more regular and larger increases in allowable growth rates. That's why I think it is probably best to tie cost-of-living adjustments to the allowable growth rate in some fashion. Of course, I am completely and utterly ignorant about how negotiations with the respective unions tend to go, so my suggested model may be fraught with challenges from the beginning. 

A slight variation of this model -- and perhaps one that benefits employees in the ICCSD that are least well off -- is to have employees that receive salaries above the median (or those above the 75% mark?) salary for all full-time district employees receiving cost-of-living adjustments equal to the mean of the allowable growth percentage for the last five years minus 1 percentage point, and the amount of money saved by that change could be used to further boost raises for those at or below the median (or those at or below the 75% mark). I think this proposal would be more just and fair than a set percentage for all, but I suspect it would be harder to implement.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Operational Efficiency #7: Ten Tentative Conclusions

Based on my previous posts, here are ten tentative conclusions that I've drawn:

1. It is important to think critically about operational efficiency, particularly the way the data is presented and the conclusions drawn from it. Board members and citizens have, in some cases, drawn erroneously conclusions based on a misunderstanding of what the data indicates.

2. Bigger schools do tend to do better in terms of operational costs than smaller schools, but there are a significant number of exceptions particularly as schools reach 300 students or if smaller schools used mixed-grade classrooms effectively.

3. We need to pay better attention to when new administrative help is needed to run a larger school. There are some elementary schools where an Assistant Principal is hired, and more that have School Administrative Managers. At whatever point we decide that this extra help is needed, it will cut against the operational efficiency of a school. Financially, it may make more sense to stop just before reaching this point. It would be helpful if there was greater clarity about when the decision to add more school administrative help occurs and on what basis. I think this is a good reason that operational efficiency is more mixed between 300-student schools and 400+-student schools.

4. If a school has at least 300 students, the number of exceptions to (2) grow a great deal. The likely reason is that if a school has 300+ students, then it likely has a sufficient number to fill two classes in every grade in a sustainable way. Nevertheless, the cost of having 300 person schools is that class sizes will sometimes be lower and sometimes be higher than we might prefer, and having these types of schools likely means that the district shouldn't respond unless the class sizes are grossly out of line.

5. If a school has fewer than 300 students, then it probably makes the most sense financially (a) to share some administrative and support positions with other smaller schools and (b) to have mixed-grade classrooms (with appropriate training and support for conducting those classes well). If mixed-grade schools are unacceptable for academic reasons, then that is a significant mark against having schools with fewer than 300 students.

6. We should control for the use of special education and at-risk funds. The "total cost to operate" a school can be useful, but it is seriously and egregiously misleading when it is compared to the per student general education allocation. Furthermore, the use of special education and at-risk funds is largely a function of board and administrative decisions (e.g., the location of Hoover's autism special education classes), and it is deceptive to compare the overall operational costs at such schools with schools that need few resources in those areas. There are various ways to control for these costs, as I discussed previously, and we should pay attention to how its done. We also need to make it clear to the administration and the board that this needs to happen when it's not done.

7. We need to be skeptical of the ability of new schools to offer a savings, even over some of our least efficient schools, at least in the first five years of the school's existence. Sometimes the total cost per child information has been used to make it seem as if they do better than they do. But that has been because of a low proportion of special education and at-risk funding at the school.

8. The $500K figure for opening a new school is not the amount that would be saved by closing a school. That figure depends on the relative operational cost of a school and other factors. The $500K figure is useful because it tells us that we need to prepare for our newer, likely to be inefficient, schools.

9. The operational efficiency of a school depends on much more than simply its size. The demographics, income levels, administrative decisions, and so forth play a much greater role than is often presented to the public.

10. Before proposing the closure of a school on operational efficiency grounds, we need to consider ways to have it become efficient (which doesn't just mean expanding it.).

Prior Posts in the Series:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Operational Efficiency #6: Won't we save $500K by closing a school?

Over the next couple of days, you very well may hear ICCSD administrators or school board directors assert that it will take $500,000 to operate our new elementary schools beyond the instructional costs. This figure is based on the projected salary of a principal, librarian, guidance counselor, building secretary, media secretary, custodian care, and utilities cost. The estimated new cost to the district is around a half a million dollars. The way that this figure ought to be used is to address the inefficiencies of our new schools when they come online (see my earlier post comparing our smallest schools to our newest, bigger school for some evidence of this fact). That is, since they will likely hamper our ability to be more operationally efficient in the short-term, it is a good idea to accumulate some unspent spending authority sufficient to, at least, cover the new cost to the district of operating a new elementary school.

As I mentioned last post, spending authority is the amount the district is allowed to spend in a given year. If the district does not spend the full amount, they are allowed to carry over the difference between their total spending authority and how much they actually spent as a one-time rainy-day type fund. We will need those extra funds when our new schools come online, and it is a good idea to prepare for it in the coming year(s).

Some, however, go well beyond this use of the $500K figure. They argue that, since each elementary school costs approximately $500K to operate beyond instructional costs, that we'd save $500K just by closing schools and consolidating those students into other school. I have heard this argument used by school board directors and local citizens, but it simply doesn't bear up under scrutiny.

I've heard that argument applied to Hills. It is said that if we just closed Hills and moved those students to another school that we'd save $500K. Unfortunately, Hills has only $250K that it spends on non-instructional expenses. Some of those -- media, custodial care, and utilities costs -- would likely be needed at other schools to accommodates those students were Hills closed. With regard to Hills, the $500K figure is actually more like $200K. 

What about another school? The $500K figure has been tossed out with regard to Hoover's planned closure too. In fact, the operational cost saving was presented as one of the justifications for closing Hoover. But the figure doesn't apply to Hoover either. In order to show this with the 2012-2013 data, I assumed that the 364 Hoover students were distributed to the surrounding schools -- 100 to Longfellow, 100 to Lemme, 100 to Lucas, and 64 to Mann. Doing this would save the district money on by eliminating the need for Hoover's administration and most of its media services (staff) but it probably wouldn't significantly affect utilities or custodial costs. The bigger schools that would be needed to accommodate the Hoover students would probably make utility and custodial costs a wash. Under this scenario, I examined how much the district would probably save. The total amount spent on administration and media services at Hoover in 2012-2013 was approximately $275K. So, one might think that the district could save that much by closing Hoover, but that wouldn't quite be accurate either since Hoover is significantly better in terms of operational efficiency than 3 of the 4 schools that its students would be moved to (Longfellow is the exception). Thus, by my calculations and assuming that every Hoover student was moved to one of these other schools, the district would save approximately $191K. Of course, if a few students opted to switch to another neighboring district (e.g., West Branch), a private school, or home school because of the change, then the amount saved goes down even more. 

So, to make a long story short: use the $500K figure the way it was intended. It doesn't tell us how much we'd save by closing a school. It tells us what we need to save to pay for our (likely to be inefficient in the short-term) new schools.

Prior Posts in the Series:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Operational Efficiency #5: But shouldn't we close Hills for the sake of operational efficiency?

Given the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) is concerned about budget shortfalls and saying that "Nothing is off the table" with regard to budget cuts, I've been discussing how the ICCSD calculates, analyzes, and evaluates operational costs. This post is the fifth in my series; links and short descriptions of prior posts are at the bottom.

Numerous school board members have previously expressed how costly it is to run Hills Elementary. It is the smallest elementary school in the ICCSD  at an enrollment of 101 students for the 2013-2014 school year, and it had an enrollment of 108 students in the year I have been examining (2012-2013). Furthermore, as many may have surmised, no matter how the numbers are parsed, Hills currently has the worst operational efficiency in the district. It is also something of an outlier compared to every other school in the district. 

Still, the way the district ordinarily presents the operational costs is misleading. Likely because of generational poverty within the boundaries of Hills, it has, proportionally, some of the highest special education and at-risk funding in the ICCSD. So, if you hear district administrators' say that it costs  $10,000+ per student, they aren't controlling for these funds as I've suggested they should.

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that Hills is operationally efficient by any measure. When I control for these costs and evaluate the amount of funds provided for ordinary school operations from the general education budget (see my prior post for a discussion of what I mean by this), Hills, at best, has a per student operational cost of $5,964. It is slightly more than $1,000 per student compared to the next most expensive elementary school in the ICCSD.

Based on this information, the operational efficiency argument for closing Hills seems well supported. And that is the conventional wisdom. 

There are a few things that still concern me, however. First, the $5,964 figure is still slightly below the $6,018 allocated for each student in the 2012-2013 school year. In other words, it is Hills' need for special education and at-risk funds that results in it "losing" money.

Second, it could very well be the case that closing Hills Elementary would result in the district losing significantly more money than it loses by operating Hills Elementary. How so? In the 2013-2014 school year, the ICCSD is losing 91, 52, and 10 students to the Mid-Prairie, Highland, and Lone Tree school district's respectively. That's a total of  153 students, and losing those students costs the district over $900K a year. I'm worried that we could see a significant number of the Hills community follow this trend taking their kids to other school districts. The only way closing Hills really saves money is if a sufficient number of those families decide to send their kids to another school in the ICCSD rather than sending them to another school district. Otherwise, closing Hills could very well result in a net loss to the district.

Third, the ICCSD has not sufficiently attempted alternatives to closing Hills. My previous post comparing two of our other small schools, which are well over a 100 students larger than Hills, suggest that if Hills had another 100 students, it could probably be run, especially with combined-grade classes at least as efficiently as some of our other schools in the district. The district should consider ways to make that happen. I wonder what a public Montessori, or a progressive public charter, like this one might do to help Hills. I'm not sure if it would improve the situation, but it important to consider these possibilities and to try something before making a decision that could have significant unintended consequences. An attractive Hills Elementary could be an effective way to draw back a number of families who have left the ICCSD for those other school districts.

Fourth, this post has only been an evaluation of the operational efficiency argument for closing Hills. It is an important one, but there could be academic and social reasons for keeping it open that trump this argument. 

Previous Posts:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Comparing Seven Schools
Part 3: Comparing 2 of our smallest schools to our newest, larger school
Part 4: A deeper discussion of the rationale for controlling for special education and at-risk funding

Friday, April 4, 2014

Operational Cost #4: How to control for special education and at-risk funding?

I've been doing a series on operational costs in the Iowa City Community School District  (ICCSD). Part 1 gave an introduction to my methodology and general approach, Part 2 discussed 7 of the ICCSD elementary schools arguing that 4 smaller ones were significantly more efficient than the larger ones, and Part 3 compared the newest school with two of the smallest schools in the ICCSD -- and the newer school didn't fare so well.

A concerned reader has argued that I am distorting the numbers. The problem, according to this reader, was that I was inappropriately controlling for special education and at-risk funding. As I argued previously, there are three separate funding categories for general education, special education, and at-risk funding. The state allocates a certain amount per student for general education purposes (that figure was $6,018 for the 2012-2013 school year), a different amount for special education depending on the needs of the students in the district, and another amount for at-risk funding (which is only funded at 75%, so 25% comes from the general education budget). The reason I wanted to control for special education and at-risk funding is that it is misleading to compare the $6,018 figure to how much a school costs to operate in general. It doesn't take into account the sources of those funds.

Why is it important to take into account the source of funds? The primary challenge our district has financially is not the ability to raise funds. Rather, it is a problem in being allowed by the State of Iowa to raise funds. In other words, the primary limitation is related to spending authority. The idea behind spending authority is that it ensures that all students in the State of Iowa basically get the same type of education -- and wealthier areas don't get more funds simply because they are from a wealthier area. And that's a good thing.

For the most part, ICCSD's special education funds and 75% of its at-risk funds come from sources that don't count against the spending authority related to the $6,018 figure. Furthermore, they are not a true measure of how costly it is to operate a school. Rather, they are a measure of how costly it is to operate that school given certain decisions about special education and at-risk funding that the district has made.

But why should we control for these funds? It turns out that special education and at-risk funds aren't equally distributed at all in our district. I know what you are thinking! Surprise, surprise! So, to really compare our schools apples to apples, we need to control in some way for this variance.

Now, my well-informed and well-meaning reader was concerned with my method of controlling for these other funding sources. In short, I had zeroed out special education funds and at-risk funds for all 19 of our elementary schools. This concerned reader argued that this isn't the best way to control for those sources and it advantages the smaller schools. I thought there was something to my interlocutor's point, so I crunched the numbers a bit more.

In my first attempt, I took the mean of all 19 elementary schools special education and at-risk funds, and I put that amount in for each school. Under this way of controlling for those external funding sources, larger schools tended to fare better. They had a larger base to distribute that average over and they did quite well because of that. Here is the graphical representation of the data:

A few notes: first, we need to be clear that the cost per student here is a way of representing the total cost to run a school and it should not be compared to the $6,018. So, it loses some of what warrants the zeroing out strategy I used previously. Second, this approach is arguably problematic because it acts as if special education and at-risk costs should be distributed evenly across the district. But doing that would result in smaller schools having a disproportionate number of students with special education or at-risk needs.

Thus, I came up with another way to control for the external funding sources. I took each of our 19 elementary schools enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment, and I allocated exactly that percentage of the total elementary special education and at-risk funds to each school respectively. Here is the graph for that data:

As one would expect, the result was representationally, virtually identical to my initial portrayal in Parts 1-3. So, you don't have to click back, here is that graph:

In other words, if you allocated special education funds and at-risk funds in our district according to enrollment, the comparative operational costs rankings for all of our schools would be all but identical. I think there are good reasons for (a) distributing those funds by school enrollment rather than acting as if the best way to control for those costs is by equally dividing it, and (b) there is a good reason for zeroing them out, particularly since it doesn't skew any comparative evaluation of our schools and the benefit is that it gives us a pretty good comparison of how much each elementary school costs our general education fund. The only caveats that I should make here are twofold: first, at-risk funding does affect the general education fund and it is a bit misleading to not include 25% of it here. Nevertheless, we still need to find some way to control for that with something like my second graph. Furthermore, our district has a so-called special education deficit. That means that we spend more in special education than we receive from the state. So, I could see how it would be helpful to distribute those excess funds across all schools as well. But once again, that graph would give the same comparative rank of our schools as the 2nd and 3rd graphs above.

In short, I thank the concerned reader for bringing a possible oversight to my attention; but my considered reflection is that it my initial portrayal along with my 2nd graph above (understanding the limitations of both) gives an accurate picture of the comparative operational costs of our 19 elementary schools in 2012-2013.