Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

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Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Ken Coleman » Wed Dec 15, 2010 2:17 pm

This is that time of year again in which people become concerned about tax bills. For over twenty years now I have watched the same debates go on and on about education cost in Merrimack. Go back 5, 10, 15 or 20 years and you can pull letters out of the paper about cutting a particular course of the High School, fees for certain activities such as sports, buying less books, using used computers, cutting music programs, cutting clubs and then cuttings staff pay and benefits and enlarging class size.

First let me address all the non pay and class size arguments. Of the cost that there is ANY hope of being able to cut, everything other than class size and pay has almost NO real effect on the tax rate. The reason for this is simple, classroom staff is the VAST majority of the budget. The other cuts end up either not really cutting money (If you cut a class offering you have to replace it with something else as the students are mandated to have a minimum amount of class time) or the amount they save is such a small percentage of the overall budget that no one sees it make a real difference in their tax bill.

5 years ago Merrimack Cares had their big anti tax vote success. What was the result? Five years later everyone is still unhappy with their tax bill. The only temporary relief was a restoring of some state aid, which is now slipping away again and then also some of the savings of the town being empted for one time tax relief.

A couple of facts:

For the last 10 years the school board has been decreasing staffing at a slightly greater rate than the enrollment has been dropping

For the last 10 years staff has only averaged (Including step) a little over 3% a year in salary increases

For the last 10 years (To the best of my knowledge for the last 5), every staff contract has had some type of decrease in benefits.

Today we have fewer administrators in the school district than 10 years ago.

The only area that is discussed that would make a difference is pay and classroom staffing. The problem with these areas is that any cut big enough to make a difference in taxes that really would mean something to people (say 10%) would result in a decrease in educational quality.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”

In my opinion, this is what has happened over the last 20 years

How about a new approach? One with the goal of long term improvement in education and cost reduction at the same time.

There are innovative approaches to education that could result in both, if we in Merrimack were willing to make the upfront investments and also more importantly accept the changes that come with these. I say this because in the past any true change or pilot program for change in Merrimack has met a lot of resistance, much of which came from the same people who think taxes are too high.

Large class sizes can reduce staff numbers and improve education, IF the school has facilities to allow for large lectures and adds technology designed for those applications.

Student mentoring programs can actually benefit both the mentor and mentee, if they are done properly (These have met with a lot of opposition in the past).

At the High School level, technology can be used to cut lab cost, enhance remote learning and in addition allow for larger class loads. But this comes at in infrastructure cost. Many businesses make this investment because the upfront costs are dwarfed by the savings. The question is would Merrimack support a 5 or 10 million dollar plan which would cut operating cost by more than that over the period?

These are just a couple of ideas, many more might come forward.

So my suggestion is for all of you that are concerned about taxes, to think change and the long term. Instead of asking the school board to cut cost that don’t result in savings or to make cuts so deep that Merrimack will not stand for them, how about petitioning the school board to forum a group to look at long term educational change?

We could do something different this year and look long term, or we can continue to cut a dollar here or there and next year have the same discussions again, just like the last twenty years?

Just my suggestion.

Ken Coleman
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"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” Ben Franklin
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Jeannine Stergios » Wed Dec 15, 2010 2:29 pm

Right now - the two major costs other than salaries, namely pensions and benefits need to be resolved. I realize the state controls the pension fund and I am hoping that several communities can form a coalition to get this issue resolved. As far as health insurance - I feel we should be more aggressive about the incremental increases. Raising the employee contribution by 1% when the fees have risen 20% isn't much benefit to our budget. We need larger contributuions to be made by the government employees just like everyone in the private sector.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Ken Coleman » Wed Dec 15, 2010 3:02 pm

Raising the employee contribution by 1% when the fees have risen 20%

I have not seen the last contract, but the last two I was involved with either rasied the contribution or lowered the plan cost each time by 10% Where did you get the 1% number?

Ken
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Jeannine Stergios » Wed Dec 15, 2010 4:53 pm

Ken

I haven't seen the most recent numbers (Have no idea where to find them) but last I heard the employees were paying 11% of their health insurance and it was scheduled to increase to 12% this year. That doesn't sound like 10% to me.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Ken Coleman » Wed Dec 15, 2010 5:12 pm

This may be true, however some of the contracts lowered the plan that they were on. The first contract I negotiated with them in the mid 80's had a 10% cost premium. After this we had another contract that in effect said that they had a choice to stay with that current plan at like a 30% contribution or go to a cheaper plan that was less than 70% of the total cost of the current plan, which meant if they chose that one the premium was back at 100% as this was still cheaper to the district. The next contract dropped the high end option and we went to a 10% co pay on the lower price plan. Since then I have not been involved in the contract negotiations, but I understand that further reductions have occurred.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Debra Huffman » Thu Dec 16, 2010 11:35 am

Ken Coleman wrote:How about a new approach? One with the goal of long term improvement in education and cost reduction at the same time.

Ken, your post intrigues me. I'm crazy-busy at work these days, but here are some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts:

1. I think for the SB to even consider forming such a committee, they might need to see a list of some of the programs that are being tried elsewhere. (You mentioned a few.) Could a small group (or even one person, citizen or school staff) do some preliminary investigation into what sort of alternative programs are being tried elsewhere, and whether any of them have shown some level of success? (Sounds like you have done some of this research, so maybe this part is already done.)

2. For many people, there is an underlying resentment of educational innovation. Since the 60's, we've seen educational fads come and go. I fear the public's attitude would be, "Here we go again. Another wack-nut theory." The people on this committee would have to have a very clear mission statement, and the general population would have to understand the potential benefits.

3. As you mentioned, Merrimack tends to be resistant to changes in education. Could this group have a prayer of succeeding? I'm not being facetious here. Volunteer burnout is a serious obstacle. If there's no hope that any significant suggestions could be implemented, then this group's work would be DOA. That would be a depressing waste of time. This should be seriously considered before work begins.

As I said, just top-of-my-head thoughts. I like your idea of stepping back and taking a wider view.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby RBarnes » Thu Dec 16, 2010 12:52 pm

Debra Huffman wrote:2. For many people, there is an underlying resentment of educational innovation. Since the 60's, we've seen educational fads come and go. I fear the public's attitude would be, "Here we go again. Another wack-nut theory." The people on this committee would have to have a very clear mission statement, and the general population would have to understand the potential benefits


Deb, part of this resentment goes far beyond just local control of schools. It's that parents feel they have no choice when it comes to their child's education unless they happen to be lucky enough to be able to afford a private school which especially in today's economy, most can't. When parents see "educational fads" they are left feeling that their children are being used as test subjects without their consent.

I've beat this drum before but I'll say it again, what we really need is a top down change of the educational system in this country. We need the government to get out of running the schools. If they wish to continue funding that's fine but they need to open the market up and allow parents to pick the school that best meets their child's needs.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby TonyRichardson » Thu Dec 16, 2010 1:09 pm

RBarnes wrote:
Debra Huffman wrote:2. For many people, there is an underlying resentment of educational innovation. Since the 60's, we've seen educational fads come and go. I fear the public's attitude would be, "Here we go again. Another wack-nut theory." The people on this committee would have to have a very clear mission statement, and the general population would have to understand the potential benefits


Deb, part of this resentment goes far beyond just local control of schools. It's that parents feel they have no choice when it comes to their child's education unless they happen to be lucky enough to be able to afford a private school which especially in today's economy, most can't. When parents see "educational fads" they are left feeling that their children are being used as test subjects without their consent.

I've beat this drum before but I'll say it again, what we really need is a top down change of the educational system in this country. We need the government to get out of running the schools. If they wish to continue funding that's fine but they need to open the market up and allow parents to pick the school that best meets their child's needs.


Or as I like to put it....

More education and less social engineering.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby MissyB » Thu Dec 16, 2010 4:32 pm

I am beginning to think that way too, RBarnes. I think if government got out of the schools, they could operate cheaper, more efficient, more effective, and the teachers would no longer be public employees.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Debra Huffman » Fri Dec 17, 2010 3:50 pm

See, this is what I mean about the importance of a mission statement. If the only result worth considering is ending gov't control of ed, and any innovation less than that would be pointless, then the study is pointless. If a lesser result would be considered a success, maybe including the value of changing benefits as well as the value of other potentially implementable results, then the study might be worthwhile.

Not that ending gov't control of ed isn't an interesting topic, but if that's the mission, then I think it's a much different task from what Ken was suggesting.

Wasn't it Ken?

(PS, to people who have been commenting lately about the quality of discussion on the forum: Ignore posters who annoy you, just as you would tune them out in a meeting. There are jerks everywhere of every stripe, but you don't have to let them stop the conversation.)
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby MissyB » Fri Dec 17, 2010 4:25 pm

I think ending government control of education is the opposite of what Ken may have been suggesting. I don't think this the economy to put the kind of money Ken was suggesting into the schools. I don't know what the period of time he is talking about, but technology changes fast. I am not sure that we would save more than the cost of infrastructure upgrade if we continually need to update the technology.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Debra Huffman » Fri Dec 17, 2010 5:21 pm

"I don't think... I don't know... I'm not sure...": Ok, so Missy B would be one vote against Ken's suggestion.

Perhaps others will weigh in.
Last edited by Debra Huffman on Sat Dec 18, 2010 11:42 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby MattPublicover » Sat Dec 18, 2010 7:32 am

The idea of ending government involvement in education may sound nice to some, but it is as unrealistic as the idea of giving up democracy and adopting a consensus form of government. Would make for a good novel, but is so far from possible that it's not worth talking about. There are many countries that have better success at educating their children than does the United States. Every one of them has government involvement in education to one extent or another. In my opinion, the reason our kids do not learn as much in school as kids in many other countries is because of the overall degeneration of our society. By degeneration, I mean America became wealthy and powerful in the post WW II era, we became materialistic, self satisfied, fat and lazy. Read de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America,", written in the 1830s. Americans then were exceptionally industrious, self-reliant and frugal. We are not those Americans any more. If someone does not have enough money to pay their bills, they don't look for a second job to earn the extra money, they look for charity from the government. And they get it.

What does all that have to do with the quality of education? It shows up in the attitudes we have towards our public schools. If a teacher is strict and grades kids accurately based on their mediocre performance, many kids will get lower grades than their parents will tolerate, and the parents complain to the teacher and administration, rather than making their kids study more and work harder. Many countries send their kids to school for more days in the year, or more hours in a day (more schooling does tend to lead to better education); in Merrimack, an attempt to modify the calendar by one day produces public outrage, from the public as well as the teachers union.

Why is it that we tolerate laziness on the part of students and parents? Because the penalty of a poor education (a lifetime of poverty working in low-wage jobs) is not as scary as it used to be, or as it should be. We as a society have worked so hard to avoid public censure of the unsuccessful in the name of tolerance that kids are not as terrified of graduating without a satisfactory command of basic math and reading as they should be.

We all want the result of a good education for our kids, but too many parents, here and throughout America, are not willing to do their parental job of supervising the effort. When did Americans decide to abdicate 100% of their role in educating their own children to the public schools? The system was never intended to be all things to all kids, so if that's what modern parents expect from it, of course they are going to be disappointed in the educational system.

Bottom line is, we're not going to get away from government involvement in education. I for one would not want to throw away that baby with the bathwater. But I would like PARENTS to reassess their role, stop thinking that they can just close their eyes and expect the School Board to solve all their problems. I would like to see, not a nationwide movement (why should I care what they do in Wyoming or Arkansas?) but a LOCAL reassessment of what we want from our Merrimack schools. I would like to see more time spent on the core subjects and perhaps reduce some of the fringe things that have been added to the schools. I would like to see more classroom time with our Merrimack teachers, most of whom are good, hardworking, dedicated professionals, and if it produces better educational results, dammit, I am willing to pay for it. Until we truly understand what we expect from our schools, it is hard to change things. What I am talking about is modifying, not starting from scratch. We are missing the mark, but not by as much as some commentators seem to think.

A forum about long-term educational ideas, as suggested by Mr. Coleman? I'm for it.
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby tim dutton » Sat Dec 18, 2010 9:39 am

Matt,

That was great and so true!
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Re: Long Term Educational Improvement and Cost Savings

Postby Debra Huffman » Sat Dec 18, 2010 11:39 am

Wow. That was a great post, Matt.
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