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


  1. "Furthermore, as many may have surmised, no matter how the numbers are parsed, Hills currently has the worst operational efficiency in the district."

    -Um, yes, uh, Michael, I rarely comment before reading an entire article or blog, but I have to do so here...because what you say above has actually not been shown as the case, granted, using the district's own numbers...but that's a long story. Still, you need to know the corruption, hypocrisy, and, quite frankly, unbelievable background and story on the original Hills report...the one they did in most depth when they were trying to find ways to close Hills and/or Twain at one point just before and as Murley was hired here. I'd like to meet with you to look at it...I'll find it and send it to you, the numbers and factors they used you'll see even more easily than I did I'm sure, but the history of it...including the even the minutes from the committee meetings on it (something which "the district" would never be transparent enough to actually document in their minutes now) are almost beyond words.

  2. Michael, because clearly you are uniquely willing to "play" with your numbers to see things in different ways, can you do the ballpark figures of where Hills would place in the scheme of things if based on its alleged maximum enrollment capacity and/or the highest number of students it has held? See, the district's picture, or the one it allows the public to believe anyway, is that Hills has declining enrollment...but...what if it didn't? Hills didn't have declining enrollment until the district started messing with its enrollment areas AND its matriculation.
    You've picked up on one of the issues, that's the enrollment out to Riverside/Highland etc., but I have always had even more questions about that, questions the district has never really answered. At multiple points in the fight for Hills during Plugge's last two years and Murley's first, the district's numbers for Riverside/Highland didn't begin to match the information being provided by Lake Ridge and its privately funded school bus to Riverside/Highland. I honestly don't feel confident the ICCSD has a handle on the numbers and I would love to ask the ICCSD and Riverside/Highland districts for that information. (I would like to see that comparison with the ICCSD and Clear Creek Amana and again with Solon but for different reasons in both cases.)
    Next, as you've pointed out in terms that I usually phrase as "Hills is one of the higher FRL schools", by which I really mean, its enrollment areas are, so, and here is where I have a HUGE question - when "we" try to figure out how many $ the district loses to Riverside/Highland for the kids that enroll there, we're "forced" to do by Gen Ed numbers = but that isn't "real". It isn't "real" because, with Hills enrollment area being "high FRL", there is a likelihood that at least a few of those kids have IEP's. For the kids that have IEP's, it is my understanding that the ICCSD doesn't just lose the gen ed $ but the actual cost of providing that child's needs as determined by their IEP, their parents, and Riverside/Highland. So, though the district could probably provide that number, certainly they SHOULD be able to, I bet they won't. They will likely give an excuse along the lines of it violating FERPA and HIPPA, but that's not "real" either, since they would only need to provide a total number of the amount they spend over the gen ed per child$ for all ICCSD students enrolled to Riverside/Highland. The other way that I can think of is, they list line item amounts in each board meetings consent agenda items for the "Special Ed Tuition" payments they make to other districts. I have, for a while, wanted to enter those in a spreadsheet and start to examine one point Murley told me not to because he was going to have something along those lines done anyway (ha!).
    When it comes down to it though, I think that the "administration" and some board members really just want Hills and as much of rural "Iowa City" as possible to secede to another district. If they can force it by threatening the school, I don't think some of them lose any sleep over it. They can keep the kids closer to town and cut more of their busing costs...again, another case of the district "buying" its way out, or taking the "easy" route, not because it is the "right" thing to do but because an "easy" "win" to some people, particularly if they can find a way to make it appear financially advantageous, is more important than what is "right".

  3. I wonder what effect busing 100 kids south to Hills would have on its operational costs? Are bussing costs included in your analysis? Seems like that might be an important consideration given smaller schools, with the exception of Hills, would seem to have a smaller attendance area leading to less bussing percent per enrollment. Again, Hills would seem to have the counter effect given the lack of student density around the school.

  4. Julie: If Hills had students to fill its BLDD capacity figure (a general education enrollment of 189), then I estimate that the per student figure when special education and at-risk funds are zeroed out to be $5,181. That figure is probably a bit high. I'm assuming that Hills would have the highest transportation costs in the district, and I determined instructional costs proportionally to the number of students. I calculated administrative and media services cost by averaging Lincoln, Shimek, and Twain. I chose those three schools because of size considerations and FRL rate considerations. In short, I see $5,181 as about as bad as it could be at an enrollment of 189 students. If Hills had 220 students (I'm not sure what the highest enrollment at Hills has been) given these same assumptions, then it would be around the same operational cost as Borlaug.

    If you don't like the zeroing out method, then distributing special education and at-risk funds across all schools proportionally to their enrollment (assuming 189 for Hills), would give the following result: $6,276 as the total cost to operate.