Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Student Success Committee Bonding Recommendations Anything But Efficient

Real estate developments are often ironically named after what they replace or destroy in the process – think Meadow Brook or Rolling Hills for housing developments. I’ve come to think the naming of the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success followed the same process, serving as a memorial to the historical success of Kansas's public education students.

Bonding Recommendations

The committee approved their final report in a partisan vote on January 19th, with a minority report included as well. They are available through the committee’s website. Despite having “student success” in the name of the committee and final report, the actual goals were to minimize costs to the state. Everything else is either secondary or not a concern at all, and you can see the minority report for more details on many of the reports flaws. Here I will focus on the recommendations made to reduce state aid for local bonds and interest that is used to help fund new construction and major renovations. They are as follows:

  • The Legislature should repeal the current statute for state aid for the payment of principal and interest on bonds for capital improvements.
  • A new state aid statute for bond and interest payments should be created to specifically define and limit what projects may be funded with state aid for capital improvement.
  • The new state aid statute should be limited to a specific dollar amount each fiscal year to avoid unforeseen demands on the State General Fund.
  • A State building architect and project manager should be used in any new building project to reduce the costs associated with the project.
  • A special committee of the legislature should be created to oversee and approve any bond issue before the issuance is placed on a ballot before local voters, if the local school districts desires to obtain capital improvement state aid (bond and interest state aid).

As I post this, HB 2486 has been introduced. It uses some of these recommendations to create a school district bond project review board and reinstate the block grant’s new formula for bond elections held after Jan. 1, 2016. The formula provides 75% state aid for district with the lowest valuation per pupil and drops one percent for each $1,000 increase in AVPP (assessed valuation per pupil). KASB (Kansas Association of School Boards) provides a summary of the bill here. The actual bill is here. But in essence the goal is to reduce the amount of state aid allocated for bond and interest overall, as well as make it more difficult for individual districts to obtain what state aid will be available.

Returning back to the report’s five bond and interest recommendations, the requirement for a state building architect and project manager on any new building project to reduce costs is confusing. When submitting comments on the draft version of this report I asked for clarification but never received a reply, nor did they apparently feel the need to clarify this in the final report.

If the intent was to require a state architect and some type of state construction manager review construction drawings relative to state code requirements and/or make final inspections before occupancy, similar requirements relative to a state architect were previously eliminated to reduce costs. Adding such a requirement would actually increase costs to the state (and I’m not necessarily against doing this). Or maybe they intend to pull it out of public education’s already limited funding.

In the draft version of the report, the wording could potentially have been interpreted as recommending a state architect and project manager would be responsible for the design and construction management of all new construction and major renovations at every district. I’m assuming the goal would be to eliminate at least some of the services architectural firms/design teams are providing to districts on a project by project basis, reducing design and potentially construction administration costs. If that’s really the intention, it’s a poorly thought out recommendation made by individuals with little working knowledge of the building/construction industry.

The remaining recommendations are all intended to a) reduce the number of requests made by individual districts to obtain capital improvement state aid as a result of the ballot requirement, b) limit the types of projects that would be eligible for state aid and c) reduce the dollar amount provided by the state on an individual project basis. The primary goal of the Bonding by Local School Districts recommendations is to reduce state spending, regardless of the impacts on public education and student success.

Increases in Inequity

This is unfortunate, given the amount of work that needs to be done to our nation’s and Kansas’s schools. A report from the Center for Green Schools (2013) estimated that as of 2008 there was $271 billion in deferred maintenance costs nationally just to get schools back to working order and comply with current laws. Modernizing them would take $542 billion over 10 years (starting in 2013), and it should be noted that new construction for enrollment growth was not included in these numbers. 

The 21st Century School Fund estimated in 2008 that our nation had 6.6 billion square feet of PK-12 public school facility square footage (Center for Green Schools 2013). According to information made available by KASB, the 2004-2005 total PK-12 public school facility square footage in Kansas was just under 60.5 million. Using the ratio of Kansas/National square footage (0.009), we can estimate the cost to get Kansas schools back to working order at $2.48 billion and $4.96 billion to fully modernize. 

Histogram of the percentage of bond and interest furnished by state aid;
all districts are included (including those with 0%).
Referring to statewide data made available by KASB, 189 of the 286 districts had outstanding bond and interest on the books for the 2014-2015 school year. Total state aid for this year represented 29% of the total amount of bond and interest for the districts in this dataset. Of the 189 districts with bond and interest, 150 of them were making use of state aid. The percentage that state aid represented of their outstanding bond and interest ranged from 3% to 69%, with 100 of the districts over 30%.

Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic analysis, but it nevertheless shows that state aid furnishes a significant percentage of the funding for capital improvements at many districts. And a reduction in state aid will disproportionately impact less wealthy communities who have a more difficult time generating the local taxes needed to make these improvements. It will increase the inequity in school building environments across the state. It should also be noted that 96 districts had no outstanding bond and interest on the books at all for the 2014-2015 school year. An interesting question to ask is how many of these districts still have significant deferred maintenance needs, and why aren't they being addressed? Does the current drive to reduce state spending and resulting reduction in public school funding that districts can use to operate on have anything to do with that?

Impacts on Building Operations and Students, Teachers & Staff

What does a reduction in the ability of a district to modernize its fleet of buildings mean exactly? Let’s look at operational impacts first. During the 2008-2009 school year, approximately $50 billion was spent on the O&M (operations and maintenance) of U.S. school district facilities (Center for Green Schools 2013). The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that utilities accounted for approximately $8 billion of the $50 billion. Again applying the previous Kansas/National square footage ratio (0.009), the Kansas operations and maintenance costs are then estimated to have been $455 million for the 2008-2009 school year, with utility costs accounting for $72.8 million of the overall O&M costs.

Modernizing facilities and then eliminating the occurrences of subsequent deferred maintenance would reduce O&M costs over the long term. The constant band aid fixes and periodic major equipment failures/replacements would be greatly reduced and O&M staff would have a greater ability to operate in a proactive vs. reactive manner. This increase in operational efficiency also eases the stress on O&M personnel and custodians, who are often understaffed to begin with.

Modernization will also result in energy savings and reduced utility costs. For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll assume an average of 30% utility savings across this state if every facility was fully modernized, though in actuality the design level savings would likely be greater. This would then calculate out to an estimated annual utility savings of $21.8 million for the state of Kansas. But this just scratches the surface in terms of increased efficiencies.

Decades of multi-disciplinary research have demonstrated the impacts the built environment have on building occupant productivity/performance and health. And a large body of that research has been conducted within education environments. Below is a brief summary of some of these impacts:
  • A study of Chicago and Washington, DC schools found that better school facilities can add 3 to 4 percentage points to a school’s standardized test scores, even after controlling for demographic factors (Schneider 2002).
  • Based on actual improvements in design in green schools and based on a very substantial data set on productivity and test performance of healthier, more comfortable study and learning environments, a 3-5% improvement in learning ability and test scores in green schools appears reasonable and conservative (Kats 2006).
  • Compared to little or no daylighting, classrooms with appropriate daylighting may increase the rate of student learning by a) 20% in math and b) 26% in reading (Heschong Mahone Group 1999).
  • Office workers were found to perform 10% to 25% better on tests of mental function and memory recall when they had the best possible view versus those with no view (Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. 2003).
  • Discomfort represented by non-optimal temperature ranges have been shown to decrease occupant performance / productivity on either side of the optimal temperature range (68OF – 72OF) by up to 9% (Seppänen et al. 2006, Wargocki and Seppänen 2006).
  • Schools with high IAQ total scores and a high Healthy Greenness School Index (GSI) were more likely to have high student attendance rates (36% and 22% respectively) (Lin et al.). 
  • Schools with well-maintained air filters were also 42% more likely to have good 4th grade academic performance (Lin et al.).
  • An analysis of two school districts in Illinois found that student attendance rose by 5% after incorporating cost effective indoor air quality improvements (Illinois Healthy Schools Campaign 2003).
  • When conversational noise was reduced and speech privacy increased, a) the ability of office workers to focus on tasks improved by 48%, b) the performance of tasks relating to accuracy and memory improved by 10% and c) the physical symptoms of stress such as high blood pressure and increased heart rate were reduced by 27% (Sykes 2004).
  • For acoustics and sound impacts, also see Julian Treasure: Why architects need to use their ears
  • Study of Taiwanese 8th graders found that the addition of visible, leafy plants at the back of the classroom (6% of floorplan area) resulted in a) significantly stronger self-reported feelings of preference, comfort, and friendliness and b) significantly fewer hours of sick leave and punishment records (+50% less) (Han 2008).
  • Increasing one’s degree of personal environmental control has been found to provide average measured workforce productivity gains of 7.1% for lighting control, 1.8% for ventilation control and 1.2% for temperature control (Kats et al. 2003).
Let’s assume an overall net productivity/performance benefit from full modernization of all existing Kansas PK-12 school facilities, averaged over the state’s student and teacher/staff populations, of 3%. The average is likely greater than this, but let’s be overly conservative. For students, that’s an overall average of 3% better performance on the various standardized tests that are taken (not that I’m promoting their use as a primary measure of student success). 

With the additional distractions and hardships found in a poor physical environment greatly reduced, students have more of their mental and physical energies available to devote to learning. And these positive learning benefits are compounded year to year over the course of students’ PK-12 careers, assuming that facilities are well maintained. 

Whatever the overall average impact is on productivity/performance, for those students (or teachers/staff) more susceptible physically to various negative aspects of indoor environmental quality, the percentage improvement will be substantially greater. In addition, students who are minorities, in poverty, have special needs, etc. are disproportionately impacted by facilities in poor condition, as their relative limited resources, limited outside support, physical challenges and/or psychological challenges already are a drain on their mental and physical energies to begin with.

Moving to the adults, let’s look at the monetary impacts of this average 3% improvement in productivity/performance. Focusing just on teachers, according to summary reports provided by KSDE (Kansas State Department of Education), the average Kansas teacher salary (including salary + supplemental & summer school salaries + fringe benefits) for 2014-2015 was $54,907 (Average Salaries for Classroom Teachers) and the number of Kansas teachers for 2014-2015 was approximately 34,340, using FTE numbers (Certified Personnel Report). Using the 3% average impact and 2014-2015 data, full modernization is estimated to result in an increase in approximately $56.6 million worth of teacher productivity, statewide. 

Kansas facility estimated costs and potential savings discussed in this article.
Obviously this doesn’t represent dollars that districts can recover and use for other purposes, but it does represent salary dollars spent more “efficiently”. Teachers are able to expend more of their mental and physical energies ($56.6 million dollar's worth) on their primary daily education tasks, as opposed to dealing with sub-par facilities and poor indoor environmental conditions. Adding the productivity savings to the estimated utility savings results in an estimated annual savings of $78.4 million, and this still excludes other classified staff, all non-classified staff, other facility O&M savings and health improvements. And the utility savings and average productivity/performance improvements used here are conservative estimates to begin with.

There are a lot of variables that impact student and teacher/staff productivity/performance and health. Relative to many of these other variables the impacts of the built environment are small on average, but there is a significant body of research confirming the impacts are real. We can also address the built environment relatively easy compared to many other variables. Making it harder for districts to address facility deficiencies just doesn’t make sense. 

Waste of Tax Payer Dollars

When all is said and done, these Bond by Local School Districts recommendations are poorly thought through in terms of their impact on a) student learning, teacher effectiveness and everyone’s health, b) energy and water consumption, c) associated annual utility costs, d) other operational costs and e) the increase in building quality inequity that will result across the state.

The recommendations hit school districts in multiple ways by increasing the difficulty in reducing both building O&M costs (including utilities) and negative environmental impacts on students and teachers. At the same time, as utilities and other O&M costs rise due to continued building deterioration, this becomes an additional hit on district budgets. The recommendations actually increase inefficiencies.

And that’s pretty much how you can sum up the majority of the recommendations made in the report – agenda driven, focused on reducing state spending regardless of the impacts on public education and student success, built on a very narrow, short sighted and flawed definition of efficiency, and lacking any real input from subject experts. The effort to produce this monument to Kansas student success has been a waste of tax payer dollars.


Han, K. T.  2008. Influence of Limitedly Visible Leafy Indoor Plants on the Psychology, Behavior, and Health of Students at a Junior High School in Taiwan. Environment and Behavior 41(5): 658-692.

Kats, G., L. Alevantis, A. Berman, E. Mills, and J. Perlman. 2003. The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Building: A Report to California’s Sustainable Building Task Force.

Lin, S., C. Kielb, A. Orsini & N. Muscatiello The Evaluation of Green School Building Attributes and Their Effect on the Health and Performance of Students and Teachers in New York State. Final Project Report - Proposal Number: #147 funded by the US Green Building Council. 

Seppänen, O., W. J. Fisk, and Q. H. Lei. 2006. Effect of Temperature on Task Performance in Office Environment. Publication No. LBNL-60946. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory , Berkeley, CA.

Wargocki, P. and O. Seppänen,  editors. 2006. Indoor Climate and Productivity in Offices, Guidebook No. 6. Rehva (Federation of European Heating and Air-Conditioning Associations), Brussels, Belgium.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Insanity Continues: Teacher Merit Pay Follow Up

After someone shared my previous post on teacher merit pay, the following comment was left. Given that others in the private sector likely have similar reactions I felt it was important to provide a response.

This article/editorial is the number one reason why it is so freaking frustrating to be on a school board while simultaneously operating a business division with many many employees all of whom are paid based upon their merit (read value) to the company. School system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture.

While I think this person’s first sentence is addressed in my original post, I shall reiterate some of the points previously made and slightly expand on them in an attempt to provide additional clarification. I should first state that I’m also a school board member, and I also work in the private sector. Part of my role involves managing other employees, as well as managing the firm’s internal 360-degree review and engagement assessment processes. Given this, I have some experience in trying to understand, “measure” and improve the value that employees bring to a firm.

This person’s basic assertion is that we should be paying people based on their merit, or the value they bring to the organization that employs them. Setting aside larger scale influences such as regional economic factors impacting costs of living + living wage issues, competition within and between industries for employees, etc., I don’t necessarily disagree with this assertion. But, as I pointed out in my previous post, the key is to figure out how to define and measure this value.

Most businesses in the private sector come at it from multiple angles, with specific measures varying by both the type of business and the type of employee. The underlying definition often involves how well the employee contributes to a company’s profit margins and growth (though this is increasingly being considered from larger societal and generational perspectives). A key thing to note, however, is that businesses generally don’t rely on one primary measure of this perceived “value.”

Measuring value may involve the number of calls made per hour for a call center, or the number of “widgets” assembled per hour for certain manufacturing jobs. Customer service reviews may play a role. In various types of consulting firms, profit margins on individual projects that one worked on and/or managed may play a role. Reviews from immediate supervisors, employees and even those one manages can also come into play. Increasingly, the contribution an employee makes to his/her community via volunteering is a consideration. And the list goes on.

Both education and experience are also commonly used to establish various minimum required levels for promotions and pay raises (as well as initial salaries). It’s just not as commonly spelled out or as formal as it is in education and other government jobs, but it’s there nevertheless.

In addition, more and more firms are also attempting to assess and improve their employees’ levels of engagement. This often involves seeking employee feedback on everything from the work environment and hours, to salaries, benefits and amenities. The employees end up having a say in how they’re compensated.

Even focusing on the relatively narrow definition of profit margins and growth, most businesses still seek to use multiple measures when determining an individual employee’s contributions. While it varies by industry, company and employee, the number of variables impacting profit and growth are too many to focus on one primary measure or even a few measures. It wouldn’t be fair to the employee, nor would it tell the whole story to the employer.

So if that’s the case for businesses, how hard must it be to measure a teacher’s contribution to student success when a) there are a large number of potential ways to measure student success, b) we don’t all agree on how the various indicators of student success should be measured or weighted and c) there are a significant number of varying factors impacting student success beyond a teacher’s control. We certainly can’t focus on a single measure, especially one as limited as test scores. Nor can we only use the review of a single principal. They can’t fully capture a teacher’s contribution to student success, and therefore can’t provide an indication of the teacher’s value, or merit.

Which is why, as I pointed out in my last post, I believe we have to start by providing teachers and staff with a competitive base pay and benefits package, with starting salaries and raises based on education and experience. This base pay also needs to be competitive with other professions and reflective of teaching's actual value to society (and reflective of local/regional costs of living), with raises, added pay and/or bonuses based on a combination of experience, continuing education/professional development, additional duties taken on and reviews. And those reviews should be more encompassing like the Danielson framework or national Board measures (as a teacher pointed out to me). In my opinion, this is what an acceptable form of “merit-pay” looks like.

Until there is broader recognition within the education community that quantitative measures like test scores or graduation rates are both reflective of actual student success AND can be tied to individual teachers, they shouldn’t be used to assess value. At the very least they should only account for a very small percentage of all that is evaluated. Teachers should also have a hand in designing how that system looks and works in their local districts, helping to tweak and modify it as we would move forward.

Moving on to this person’s second sentence, [s]chool system management nor accounting resembles little that is seen in a successful business venture, I would suggest he misunderstands the primary mission of a public school district – to provide equitable, good quality education for ALL students served. While there are certain aspects relative to efficiencies on an annual basis and some management practices that school districts can incorporate from the business world, you can’t operate a school district exactly like a business. Education for ALL doesn’t equate to maximizing annual profit margins and growth. Anyone who doubts that should spend some time reviewing the generally miserable track record of private charter schools.

This post is already longer than intended, so I’d encourage this person and anyone else with questions to sit down with their district’s superintendent and finance director to get a better understanding of how a school district’s management and accounting differ from a business, and why. It’s fairly apparent that many of our legislators haven’t done that.

I appreciate this individual’s willingness to serve his community. However, as a board member and private sector consultant I find his response and apparent ignorance of what it takes to successfully educate all kids in an equitable manner equally “freaking” frustrating.