Happy Surprise For the Skeptics Among Us (Like Me, for Instance).
Monday night I attended the Citizen's Advisory Committee meeting at which the full survey results were shared. I have a visceral need to see all the raw data and it was particularly informative to hear Bill Foster from School Perceptions give the data with the perspective from other community results. I am glad my friend told me about this meeting and that I could attend it. "Bill Foster won't be presenting this at a board meeting," I was told. Hmm. So far, I haven't seen a link to a copy of the presentation on the school website either. I hope to see it soon and I will post the link as soon as I see it.
My data crunching brain has already gone into gear on this survey, causing me to submit what is likely the first of several questions to School Perceptions. This one regards the percent response reported in the survey. I remembered Mr. Foster reported that the 32.3% response rate (1148 surveys) was one of the highest he'd seen in over a decade of doing business. That alone is reason to celebrate. It appears all the overkill survey reminders did the trick! And then this morning, on my way out to yoga, I read the Janesville Gazette article summarizing the survey results. In that article, it was reported that surveys had been mailed to all 4200 homes in the district. That detail was not shared during Mr. Foster's presentation, but it also percolated in my caffeine deprived brain for a few hours. A few hours and a sufficient amount of caffeine later, it dawned on me that 1148 was not a third of 4200, but rather 27.3%. Wha??? So after I confirmed that the source of the "4200 surveys" was the Gazette, I emailed Mr. Foster to ask him how many surveys were mailed out. He's looking into the data for me and I have to say, I was really impressed with how quickly they responded to my question. Two School Perceptions people emailed me about this already, but the person who knows the answer is on vacation until Monday, so I'll keep you posted on that point.
My concerns about how the board was to use the data from the survey to create a Strategic Plan were somewhat allayed as well. The way the data was crunched seems logical, but I still need to cogitate on it some more to come up with a list of questions for Mr. Foster. I was glad to see that there was a way to quantify the information in a way that can be used to prioritize expenditure of limited resources. I am not so glad to see the focus on referendum. It really takes chutzpah to go out with your hat in your hand and ask the property owners of the highest taxed school district in the county to increase their district tax burden by nearly 12% when they have failed to fully spend all their allotted revenue in five of the last six years to the tune of over a million dollars. For those who need to see the numbers like I do, here's a brief synopsis. The total additional amount needed to fund these initiatives that the CAC will recommend to the board for referendum is $146.88 per $100,000 in property value for four years. This adds $1.47 to the already exorbitant mill rate of $12.30 (which is based per thousand in property value), or an 11.94% increase.
Another curious aspect of the survey was the question about what to do with JCMMS (Middle School). The greatest response (40%) weren't sure what to do. The remaining 60% slightly favored replacing the middle school to renovating it 34-26%. After all, that renovation thing was already done in the 2001 referendum and that sure wasn't a fix. The ambivalence was likely due to lack of information regarding the cost. When it should be done had a plurality locked up at 2020 or later (43%). Knowing that the current high mill rate could not bear the burden of another major building referendum, the survey respondents wisely selected "2020 or after." But how does that data translate to how strongly the people would support a more modest, temporary referendum in the interim? Those are some of the questions I have for Mr. Foster. I just don't think this sleepy little town is ready for that kind of tax increase, even though I agree that the areas targeted for referendum support are woefully underfunded. But why is the real question. My observation has been that their budgets were raided or unreasonably restricted over the last decade and we all own some of the fault for that. If the district took that total referendum amount required to support these initiatives and subtracted the million plus they have put into their coffers over the last six years, folks might be a little more open to the idea. In the mean time, lets run some numbers with regard to that idea.
The total sum of money stashed into district coffers in the last six years amounts to $1,095,589. Adding in the expected $165,483 surplus penciled into this year's budget, that leaves a cool $1,261,072 seven year surplus in the fund balance after June 30, 2014. Now lets look at the costs needed to address the highest priority issues facing the district according to the survey. Curriculum updates: $900.000;Safety and security: $300,000; Major Maintenance needs: $2,800,000;Technology upgrade: $1,520,000, for a grand total of $5,520,000. Now subtract the amount put into the fund balance over the last seven years to come to a total expenditure need of $4,258,928. Divide by four for the annual referendum needed each year for four years to see the total annual expenditure of $1,064,732, down from the annual expense of $1,380,000 before subtracting the fund surplus. Doing a simple ratio to calculate the new mill rate increase results in reducing that increase from $1.47 per thousand in property value to $1.13 per thousand (23% reduction), but still adding a hefty 9.2% to the mill rate for the next four years. At least it's gone into single digits. Looked at another way, using the fund balance surplus from the last four years would completely finance both the curriculum improvements (which garnered the highest priority on the survey) and address safety issues and still have a little left over, enough to hire a teacher ($61,072)! I warned you that my data crunching brain has begun to explore the possibilities for using the survey results.
And now for the downside of this proposal. Using up all the funds placed into the fund balance in the last seven years would reduce the percent in the fund balance to a paltry 7.7%, about what they had before they implemented a policy to grow the fund balance. This will make borrowing terms less attractive in a time when the ultimate goal of the district would be to keep building that value so they get good loan terms when they have to build a new middle school. I'm the first person to say this is a balancing act, but I'm not very optimistic that our town would vote for a referendum for all four of these items. Maybe the CAC doesn't intend to recommend all four, as Mr. Foster cautioned them to keep the questions to 3. The Gazette article was unclear about which specific items would be recommended to the board, so I included both safety and maintenance items. Maybe the 3 highest priorities and excluding the $2.8 Million dollar maintenance issues, which in reality came in at only 49% yes votes and 31% "Need more info/undecided." That would reduce the annual levy increase to only $680,000, bumping the baseline mill rate by a much more palatable 6%, or 75 cents per thousand in property value. That could be where the average citizen would call a compromise: Keep the money in the fund balance to borrow against at a later date and take a smaller hit for four years to get us through to 2020.
What would this mean to the owner of a $150,000 home? You'd pay an additional $112.08 a year in property taxes on top of the $1,845 you currently pay to support the schools (the bill is a lot higher but due to other taxing entities). That's an additional $2.16 a week to support our schools. How many of us spend that much on coffee alone? I'm willing to cough that much up for our schools.
Granted, I have two kids in the district (as well as one graduate). Based on our property values, our "tuition" for each kid will become $1305, or $145 a month per kid for 9 months of school. That doesn't include all the fees and such, but it's a way to look at it. But 49% of the survey respondents were not parents. Some of these folks get a bit testy about supporting schools when they get no direct benefit, in their minds. That's not true, of course, but many think this way.
Finally, what did the survey say about 4K? As Mr. Foster said, "This is a lightening rod topic." He even complimented the 4K committee for their work (I'm blushing). Every way the data was evaluated showed that a majority of Evansville supporting the district offering 4K, even Non-Parent, Non-Staff residents. Overall, 56% of respondents support offering 4K. That is a real Community value change that has occurred in the last six years or so. Going to referendum on the above items will enable the board to temporarily use fund balance to implement 4K, with the goal of replacing the funds with 4K revenue once it exceeds expenses in year 3. That depends on the district getting serious about stemming the flow of open enrollment students out of our district by getting back to being the cutting edge district it used to be. Otherwise, they'll be back with hat in hand in 4 more years because the downward spiral has continued. I'm pretty sure these are the scenarios that will develop over the next months. I am happily surprised about how useful the survey results may become over time, as long a myopic folks don't use it as a cudgel.