Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Who cares about KPERS?

As a young teacher in Bazine, Kansas, I had no idea what KPERS was, nor did I care.  A retirement plan?  I was worried about having the cash to make the payments on my brand new Honda CB900F.  But now no-shave November means being reminded daily that grey has replaced the brown and 30-some years and several motorcycles have passed since I didn’t care about KPERS.  Some of you may be able to relate.

If only I had paid attention back then to my KPERS.  I made my 4% contribution like clockwork, because I had no choice.  But policy-makers (and advocates) in Topeka were not as diligent.  They didn’t have to be.  In years that the market performed well, they didn’t feel the need to contribute their full share.  In years when the market didn’t perform, fingers were pointed, studies were done, inquiries were made, and the can got kicked down the road.

The following chart shows Per Pupil Funding adjusted by CPI. (2012-13 is the base year.)  Fourteen years ago KPERS amounted to a CPI adjusted amount of $242 of per pupil funding in Kansas.  In 2012-13 that amount is $742 per pupil, nearly tripled. (Column H)  For those of us with a vested interest in the solvency of KPERS, that is worth noting.

It is also worth noting that , for the most part, an underfunded retirement system is not the work of those currently serving in legislative or executive office in Kansas.  It is a decades old problem.  In fact, testimony was provided in a KPERS committee hearing that the statutorily required amount hasn’t been funded for the past 19 years. And to be fair, was anyone besides a few policy wonks arguing for increased funding to the KPERS system 20 years ago?  And it is a problem that has to be addressed.

There are more arguments about KPERS funding that should be explored because the answers are not as clear.  Some argue that it is not appropriate to count KPERS as part of the expenses that are included in providing an education to students.  This argument is really about whether a strong retirement system helps recruit and retain a quality teaching force.

It is also arguable that “catching up” for past mistakes shouldn’t be counted as part of the cost of educating current students.   These points are more nuanced.  The costs of today are delayed because of our past shortsightedness.  Should students and teachers of today be slighted because of past political decisions?

An argument definitely not appropriate is comparing school district budgets that include KPERS funding to budgets that did not include KPERS funding.  This has been a technique used by those who desire to show that expenses for education have increased dramatically since 2006.  That is the year that an accounting change shifted credit for funding KPERS from the state to the local level.  Comparing those before and after numbers is simply misleading.

So who cares about KPERS?  We all should. In my opinion, a strong retirement system may not help recruit young teachers with dreams of fast motorcycles and other fancies.  But it definitely helps retain quality public education staff in Kansas.  Let’s give credit where credit is due for trying to fund the system, but lets not shy away from funding schools at appropriate levels and not trying to argue that past mistakes should affect our current students.  The rest of the chart shows a true picture of educational funding adjusted for inflation in non-KPERS areas as well.  What do these numbers mean to you?

Me? I am looking forward to someday drawing my KPERS, and I might just use some of it to buy a new motorcycle!
Some things never change...

Monday, November 25, 2013

More than one way to skin a cat?

One of my favorite movies is “A Christmas Story,” and my favorite line from that movie is “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” When I was a kid, I had a BB gun and a dad who could weave a tapestry of his own.

One of the printable sayings my dad used was “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” You don’t hear this saying much anymore, probably the work of PETA. In my young, literate mind, I often wondered just what kind of twisted person had done the research on this. Even to an avowed dog person this seems a little bit excessive.

This week I ran across an article called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” (Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307 ). OK, I don't really read the Yale Law Review, but I read an article that led me to the article in the Yale Law Review. The researchers set up an interesting experimental design that showed how political opinions affect our ability to do basic math operations and draw inferences. And before you get too smug, liberals and conservatives both did it. If the math didn't match their preconceived opinions, they were more likely to get the answer wrong.  Apparently, there is more than one way to skin the data?

I think this research may have implications for how we speak as well as how we do math. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the Kansas University Economic Policy Conference about education funding. At the conference, I was quoted as saying "state aid for Local Option Budgets (LOB) has been cut."  That statement is incorrect and I should know better.  But as my dad use to say, there is more than one way to skin a cat, so let's look at the question of LOB funding in its entirety.

1. The Governor's Budget, approved by the Legislature, funds LOB aid at the same level for the past few years. No cuts in funding.

2. Some districts have had declines in assessed valuation or increases in enrollment that would qualify them for more LOB aid according to the law.

3. In an effort to increase money to the classroom, many districts have chosen to increase their LOB levies, increasing the amount of LOB aid for which they qualify.

4. An increase or decrease in the aid to any one district affects the amount that is available to all other districts.  When local demand for state aid increases, but the total amount of aid does not increase, local aid has to be cut.

5. No cuts (level funding) at the state level translate to cuts or tax increases at the local level of $100 million. In other words, LOB aid is under-funded by about $100 million.

6. When LOB aid is underfunded, boards of education are forced to either make up the difference by increasing property taxes, cutting budgets or a combination of both.

7. Approximately 80% of the districts in the state get LOB aid and have been faced with this decision.

8. While it is difficult to know the exact impact on every district, KSDE has provided KASB with the following estimates of how underfunding LOB aid affects Kansas districts total property tax mill levies:
Over 10 additional mills- 17 districts
7-10 additional mills- 30 districts
5-7 additional mills - 42 districts
3-5 additional mills - 73 districts
0-3 additional mills - 72 districts

Like the math problems in the experiment, I was guilty of letting my preconceived notions on education funding affect my word choice.  There were no actual cuts to LOB aid at the state level. 

But not fully funding the LOB aid formula has resulted in budget cuts and property tax increases at the local level.  To a state level policy-maker the answer to “the math problem” is that there were no cuts.  To the local board member who has to raise property taxes or cut budgets, the answer is that there have been cuts.  Perspective influences how we do the math.  What is the answer in your district?  How much have you had to cut expenses and/or raise taxes because of underfunded LOB aid?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

9-0 at the Break!

Three months ago I announced that we are going to the Super Bowl!  Many of you expressed doubt about my prediction, even to the point of questioning my sanity.  Now the Chiefs are 9-0, maybe 10-0 by the time you read this.  How do you like me now?  Of course the premise of the previous column was to make the point about getting better every year, and every day.  We know about the Chiefs, so how has KASB been doing at getting better?  

When I started in this position over three years ago now, I travelled the state and asked our members how we were doing.  The response I got was that we have great services, especially in the advocacy and legal department.  If we were the Chiefs, these programs would be our strong defense.  (Does that make Tallman the KASB Tamba?)

The questions that I got were about our leadership programs.  What were we doing to help improve district leadership teams, to help improve student achievement?  The first step in answering this question was to ask the board if we are committed to this service.  The answer was a resounding yes as the board set a new mission for KASB of focusing on Service, Advocacy, and Student Achievement.  

This is the equivalent of ownership telling the team’s GM we want to focus on the offense too, and that is what we did.  As a long-time Denver-hater it is hard for me to acknowledge this, but when Denver added Peyton Manning and Wes Welker to their offense, production improved. The stats tell the story.  Best offense in the NFL.   At KASB, the stats tell the story as well.

In the 2010 school year, the KASB Leadership Department did 12 superintendent searches, no strategic plans, 21 onsite board trainings, and one MCREL Leadership Training.  Compare that with the past 12 months:  KASB has done 21 superintendent searches (up 9), seven strategic plans (up 7), 88 onsite board trainings (up an astounding 67) and provided seven MCREL Leadership Trainings.  Over the past three years, forty districts have trained their entire leadership team in the MCREL Leadership Model and two of the state’s largest districts have started training their staff. One hundred one districts have been trained by KASB staff on using the MCREL evaluation system for teachers, principals, and/or superintendents.  The improvement is Peytonesque.

My Chiefs don’t have Denver’s offense, but KASB has added a great offensive team to an already tough defense.  This will help us serve you better.  If you are looking to improve your student achievement, you would be remiss in not contacting our Leadership Services to see how they can help.

It also bears mention that KASB’s Insurance services performing at high levels.  To extend the metaphor, they might be the special teams of our team.  In the past year, KASB Worker’s Comp gave a refund back to past members, and added 17 members to the pool (21% growth).  Our property and casualty insurance has taken off, increasing membership by growing from zero three years ago to 17 districts now, and we keep giving new quotes.  If you are looking to improve your coverage possibly save some money in the process, give them a call.

The Chiefs may not make it to the Super Bowl, but they are getting better every day.  At KASB, there is no Super Bowl, but every day your districts are under the same microscope as championship teams.  We aim to help you avoid distractions, stay focused, and to get better every day.  We do this by getting better ourselves.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Wait! I have a coupon!

My wife loves coupons, loyalty cards, and discounts of all kinds.  Her wallet is a Costanza-like monstrosity filled with super saver loyalty cards for every store one could possibly imagine.  We have a basket full of coupons by the door and are not allowed to leave the house without one, just in case.  We have 55 gallon drums of Chex mix and bushel baskets of lettuce from the jumbo discount store that shall go nameless.  Shopping with her is always an adventure, because she invariably has a card or coupon that allows you two free if you buy five, three free if you buy the extra four, or some other mathematical discount adventure. So imagine my excitement when someone on the KASB board suggested we give a FREE PASS to convention to every district!

That’s right- every member district gets to send one person to the KASB convention for free!  A $250 value with no strings attached; no super-saver card to clog your keyring or weigh down your wallet; no buy two get three free math problems; just a free pass.

Of course, we hope that our one free pass will entice you to send more than one person to the convention.  The two great keynote speakers in Kevin Honeycutt http://kevinhoneycutt.org and David Zach http://www.davidzach.com will speak about Shaping the Future for our students.  Break-out sessions by Kansas board members and educators, and tours and site-visits will allow you to see what other districts are doing for their students, and give you a chance to connect with other board members.

On Sunday, the delegate assembly will elect a new KASB President, and consider legislative policies for the 2014 session and beyond.  We anticipate important discussions on employment rights, education funding, and constitutional issues.  It will be important for the every Kansas district to express the views of their local communities by participating in the delegate assembly.

Look for a flyer or email, or visit our website to learn more about the convention. And now for the disclaimer- we have an ulterior motive.  We think that board members know that a team approach works best, and that having more than one person attend from each district will increase the power of the learning exponentially in every district.  We think the power of teams from every district will increase the power of the whole, and that there will be more interaction in the halls, at the breaks, and more opportunities for you to learn from each other. We think that giving one free pass will prime the pump of learning for board members in Kansas.  

We will look for you in Wichita this December, and if you need a discount card for one of the local restaurants or shops just let me know, I am pretty sure I can hook you up.

Friday, October 18, 2013

We’re Number 49! Roll Tide!

The Kansas Supreme Court met early this month to hear oral arguments in the Gannon School Finance case.  For those of you who have never visited the court room, I always expect to see Captain Kirk emerge from an elevator (aka turbo lift) and take the center chair.  It looks a little bit like the bridge of the Enterprise. (Apologies to you Next Gen fans.)

But I digress…

It was interesting to witness the Justices grill both sides with tough questions about their arguments, and they played no favorites as they posed hypotheticals to test the limits of ideas and arguments.  The lowlight of this process was when a Justice asked if Kansas was ranked 49th, would that meet the requirements of the constitution?

Yes, the state’s attorney replied, being 49th would be “good enough.”  Followers of this column and of the Tallman Education Report know that Kansas in fact ranks 7th in a composite measure of student achievement.  It is interesting that when state policy makers argue about school funding, independent charter schools, vouchers and other “reforms,” their claim is that 7th isn’t good enough.  But in the highest level of jurisprudence in the state, the argument is that 49th is “good enough.”  (Just for a point of reference, Mississippi is 50th.) That’s a little bit like Nick Saban arguing to his Athletic Director that if they can just beat Kansas every year, it would be good enough.  Roll Tide.

A few days before the court hearings, a board member from southeast Kansas shared a poem by Charles Osgood with me.  It is called "Pretty Good," but it could be called "Good Enough."  It offers an excellent lesson.

Pretty Good
By Charles Osgood

There once was a pretty good student.
Who sat in a pretty good class
And was taught by a pretty good teacher.
Who always let pretty good pass.

He wasn’t terrific at reading;
He wasn’t a whiz-bang at math;
But for him education was leading
Straight down a pretty good path.

He didn’t find school too exciting,
But he wanted to do pretty well.
And he did have some trouble with writing,
And nobody had taught him to spell.

When doing arithmetic problems,
Pretty good was regarded as fine;
Five and five needn’t always add up to be ten.
A pretty good answer was nine.

The pretty good student was happy
With the standards that were in effect.
And nobody thought it was sappy
If his answers were not quite correct.

The pretty good class that he sat in
Was part of a pretty good school.
And the student was not an exception;
On the contrary, he was the rule.

The pretty good school that he went to
Was right there in a pretty good town.
And nobody there ever noticed
He could not tell a verb from a noun.

The pretty good student, in fact, was
A part of a pretty good mob,
And the first time he knew what he lacked was
When he looked for a pretty good job.

It was then, when he sought a position,
He discovered that life can be tough,
And he soon had a sneaky suspicion
Pretty good might not be good enough.

The pretty good town in our story
Was part of a pretty good state
Which had pretty good aspirations
and prayed for a pretty good fate.

There was once a pretty good nation.
Pretty proud of the greatness it had.
But which learned much too late.
If you want to be great,
Pretty good is, in fact, pretty bad.