HCS: Map Time! How Many 2.4-Mile Cab Rides Would $50K Buy?

When WAAY TV.com published the list of schools affected by the new double-up bus scheme that will have some kids on the corner at 6 am, I was curious to see which kids were going to be bearing the brunt of sacrifice for the School Board’s colossal fiscal mismanagement.

Reporter Rebecca Shlien explains:

The original proposal stated that 675 students would be impacted and 16 buses eliminated. Each bus costs the school system $50,000, so the more they can eliminate, the bigger the savings.

Wardynski explains, “Now we think we can save somewhere around $800,000. So that improves our financial situation.”

Here’s how it will work: instead of two buses picking up students, one bus will make two trips. That means half the students will be picked up 30 minutes earlier. The others will take the bus at the normal time.

The plan will eliminate the need for half the buses at 12 of Huntsville schools. And for those students who arrive early, some teachers will be on hand for homework help and tutoring.

The cost of extra staff hours brings a total savings to roughly $600,000. . . .

Wardynski says the 12 schools were chosen based on the length of their bus routes. Shorter routes give bus drivers more time to make multiple trips.

Schools impacted by earlier bus routes:

  • Blossomwood Elementary
  • Chapman Middle
  •  Davis Hills Middle
  •  Ed White Middle
  •  Farley Elementary
  •  Hampton Cove Elementary
  •  Hampton Cove Middle
  •  Jones Valley Elementary
  •  Morris Elementary
  •  Providence Elementary
  •  Providence Middle
  •  University Place Elementary

Well, now, Providence can hardly be said to have short routes, but something else was in store for them, anyway.

Next, I wondered which Districts these schools are in. I discovered District 3 had just the one school, Farley. Dr. Jennie Robinson is the Board member for District 3. This is her third term, meaning she has long played a part in HCS debacles.

Let’s look at the Farley zone. Farley has 283 kids. Here are two Google maps:

B is the location of Farley Elementary, 2900 Green Cove Rd. A is the location at which the distance from school changes from 2.00 miles to a maximum of 2.4 miles. Look at this. It’s like an old-fashioned neighborhood. There aren’t any four-lane highways between anyone’s house and the school. Dare I suggest those kids whose moms didn’t drive them could walk or ride bikes? But no, in its infinite illogic, the HCS has been sending a bus to pick up those who live more than 2 miles away, a bus that costs (and I can’t imagine this includes driver and gas, but let’s pretend it does) $269 a day.

The second map is a close-up of how many homes are beyond the 2-mile limit, in other words, recipients of bus service.

Question Time:

Why on earth would the double up scheme be employed for a stretch of a few blocks? What is it going to entail? Picking up a half dozen kids at 7:25 and another half dozen at 7:35?

Has the HCS really been paying $50,000 a year for a bus for a few blocks of kids? OK, if they are beyond the 2-mile limit, they are entitled to transportation. So let’s take off our dunce caps and put on our thinking caps.

What about using taxis instead? Consider:

Outside the airport, taxis in the city must charge the same rate, which is set by the Huntsville City Council. Taxis must charge $2.50 for the first half-mile and $2 for each additional mile.

And that’s not a contract rate, which would be less. But let’s do the math. Two-and-a-half miles = $2.50 + $2 +$2=$6.50 a trip. Twice a day= $13. 180 days=$2340, a savings of $47,660 a year. In other words, you could bring those same kids to school in a van sized taxi for 21 years for the price of 1 year’s bus. Even if you needed 3 van-sized taxis, the yearly savings would be $42,980 a year.

There’s another dimension to this as well. Several, actually. Let’s think about the new Bus Rules, the automatic suspension of two days the second time a kid misbehaves on the bus.

When your bus ride is a grand total of 2.4 miles, it doesn’t leave much time to get in trouble. And if you do manage to get kicked off, and mom won’t drive, you walk. Big deal.

When your bus ride is a whole lot longer, longer than 17 miles if you live at the edge of the Providence [B] district [A] or 7, if you live in the middle [C] — and of course those mileages are if you made no loops through other neighborhoods, you have a whole lot more time to get in trouble. And walking from either of those locations? Gimme a break.

View Larger Map

So Dr. Jennie Robinson, District 3, you’ve kept your constituents from taking any of the hardships wrought by your fiscal irresponsibility.

After all, in your campaign last year, you said:

Putting a child on a bus for over an hour a day, disconnecting the child from the support of family and neighbors, and creating barriers of time and distance for parents also doesn’t make sense.

But at the Saturday July 16, 2011, meeting you were quivering so with excitement for Dr. Wardynski’s plan for putting the Providence sixth graders on two buses to Williams that  you were motioning to approve (or maybe you could only get in with the second) before he had a chance to present it.

And then there’s this under “What I Believe” on your website:

 Families should have a voice in education decisions that impact children.

Exactly how did that work in the Providence to Williams decision, the Bus Rules, the Bus Rescheduling? Parents are just now, after these are done deals, finding out about them.

And by the way, I don’t have a kid at Providence, and I don’t have a kid who rides any bus.

I just care about kids.

Comments appear here.


Those HCS Collateral Costs

My modem and router were fried in the storm Sunday night, but I’m back now, and I want to tell you a few of my reactions to “Collateral costs to change Huntsville superintendents, erase debt reach $300,000″ by Crystal Bonvillian in the Huntsville Times Monday July 11, 2011.

Those who have followed my recent posts on the so-called demographer’s so-called study the HCS Board seems to find just hunky dory will have no trouble imagining my reaction to this:

“Dr. Ed Richardson, a former state superintendent who has served as a consultant to the system, has recommended that the board continue Salmon’s contract so he could help compile additional data needed to determine which schools should close.”

All I can figure is that Richardson sees big bucks in his own future if he can get more of these consultancy gigs and is hoping for James Wilson’s Education Planners or Salmon’s Gude Management Group to be sending some lucrative contracts his way. However, the future might not be so bright for Gude, where Salmon is Senior Vice President. It “was named in a May 2010 RICO indictment in DeKalb County, Georgia.”

This same Salmon character managed not to answer any questions about his so-called study. Bonvillain notes:

“James Wilson, a colleague of Salmon’s, will also be paid $3,000 for filling in for Salmon as moderator of five community hearings on the proposed school closures. Salmon was on an extended vacation with his family at the time.”

Ms. Bonvillian, we need to have a little talk about the difference between being a recorder and being a reporter. Reporters ask questions. For example:

  • Was attending these 5 hearings a part of Salmon’s contract?
  • If not, why not?
  • If so, shouldn’t he have a) declined the job if his holiday plans couldn’t be changed, or b) changed his holiday plans? And if the Board agreed that in spite of it being Salmon’s responsibility to attend the meetings that he could send Wilson in his place, shouldn’t Salmon, and not the Board, have had to cough up the $3000 substitute fee?

Now let’s look at this [note to Ms. Bonvillian: good work here — this is what we want more of]:

“The associated costs here do not include the $277,536 in attorney’s fees the system has paid to law firm Lanier, Ford, Shaver and Payne since the beginning of the 2011 fiscal year.

“A portion of that was pay for J.R. Brooks, the longtime board attorney, to defend the system against a lawsuit filed by three fired principals in March as the system began to cut staff. . . .

“A Madison County Circuit Court judge last month ruled against the school system. . . “.

I think it is safe to assume that the Board ran their decision to fire these 3 past their “longtime board attorney” who I assume is paid for his advice and that he must have said go for it. Then the HCS gets sued, and the firm where Brooks is a shareholder gets a $277,536 fee to defend the system, and it loses.

What a deal! Get paid for your advice, give bad advice that gets your employer sued, then sit back while the firm where you work gets paid to deal with the fall-out from your bad advice.  Now if he had given good advice, in line with what a Madison County Circuit Court judge found to be legal, his firm would’ve missed out on that $277,536. Does no one else see a problem here? Maybe in the future it would be a good policy not to give work to a firm in which the school board attorney is a shareholder when the board’s attorney’s recommendations are challenged. It just doesn’t look too good.

Finally, I have a suggestion regarding this:

“The $300,000 figure also includes the approximately $99,000 the system will pay to keep Moore on as a consultant for the next six months. The board agreed earlier this year that Moore would step down as soon as the new superintendent was in place, but would stay on in whatever capacity the new schools leader saw fit.”

Now she is being paid to sit at home. But if that “whatever capacity the new schools leader saw fit” means what it says, well, maybe she could be a bus aide consultant for the first semester. Ride the buses, report back on how the kids behave, the tolerance levels of drivers, what kind of infractions should warrant 3-day suspension, etc. And this exercise in consultancy — one that might possibly even be useful — wouldn’t cost the HCS a cent.

About the HCS Board Meeting 7/7/11

I attended my first HCS School Board meeting July 7, 2011, and I was struck by how what I was seeing seemed minimally connected to what information is readily available for public scrutiny. So my assessment is based on my position as an audience member watching a  performance. I have no interest in a blow-by-blow. You can see the meeting for yourself  at the HCS site.

Best Bits

First, I was very impressed by the demeanor of Dr. Wardynski. If his actions prove consistent with his expressed commitment to basing his decisions on what is best for the students, then I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the HCS. He can’t do it alone, however.

My favorite three minutes were courtesy of a citizen’s comment. One Dr. Scales confirmed what I’ve suspected for the past month: Steve Salmon of Education Planners is no more a demographer than I am. Scales says he checked with the professional association for demographers, the Population Association of America, and Salmon is not one of its members. I just visited the website, and James Wilson also does not appear in their directory. Well done, Dr. Scales. Welcome to the world of DIY investigative journalism.

He then proceeded in about a minute to list what took me seven posts to cover, that is, the main faults of Salmon’s Facility Utilization Study:

  • No problem statement.
  • No methodology.
  • Incomplete and missing data.
  • No analysis.
  • No conclusions.
  • Recommendations are not supported by data.

Earlier in the evening, Dr. Wardynski said he would be meeting with Salmon on July 8. My fantasy is that the not-demographer has been summoned to Huntsville for a verbal thrashing.

An Interesting Exchange

The third item under Work Session on the agenda reads: “Bus Rules — p. 55-56.” Now, whether you look at the Bylaws published on the HCS site or those designated as revised 4/21/11, “citizen comments germane to an item on the Work Session agenda may be allowed,” but citizens have to sign up to speak before the meeting. (Questions about these Bylaws were raised during the meeting, and my impression is that there is no consensus regarding which ones are in effect. I’ve looked at Minutes for meetings prior to 4/21/11 and I can’t find when the revision was first proposed.) The problem is that if citizens lack information regarding Work Session items, for example pp 55-56 (pages of what?), how will they know ahead of the meeting time whether they have questions or comments on a topic?

Anyway, from what I could piece together, Dr. Richardson recommended cutting back on bus aides as a cost-savings measure and implementing a no- or low-tolerance plan for dealing with any misbehavior on the bus for all grade levels. Nobody is going to argue, I hope, that behavior on the bus which endangers the riders’ safety can be tolerated. But the impression I got is that the issue is punishment for bad but not risky behavior, like using profanity. I got the impression that the penalty for just about anything has been changed to being kicked off the bus for 3 days. (I’d much rather tell you the facts rather than repeating I got the impression, but those are not for my eyes — or yours, apparently.)

The problem wasn’t stated like this, but my analysis of the disagreement is that it comes down to this question: If the same punishment is meted out for the same behavior to two kids but the practical consequences of the punishment are radically different, then can the policy be just?

Board Member Dr. Jennie Robinson, who represents the affluent Southeast, began the discussion by asserting that riding the bus is “privilege and not a right.” Board Member Laurie McCaulley said she had been contacted by a single mother of an elementary school kid who lives off Balch Road and had been kicked off the bus for 3 days for using bad language. She had no car and no way to get him to school (probably about 7 miles — lucky he doesn’t live on Dogwood Flats, 19 miles away from its zoned elementary, Providence).

Let’s think about this, starting with the privilege vs. a right issue. We agree that in the US all kids have a right to a public school education. This doesn’t mean that they can’t lose the right temporarily through suspension or permanently through expulsion, but there are guidelines in place (I assume) regarding what kind of behavior gets you in that kind of trouble.

Now then, if the School Board is making the rules about who can and can’t ride the bus, then it seems to me that it is claiming, in effect, that when the child boards the bus, he is under its authority — he is, for all purposes, at school. And thus, would it not follow that if a kid has a right to attend a public school, he has a right to ride the bus, that it is no more a privilege than is attending classes? Attending school isn’t only a right, it is a legal obligation of the parent and kid.

Now let’s look at what happens to two kids, both kicked off the bus. John lives in a household with  at least one car. Paul lives in a household with no car. John lives 4 miles from his school. Paul lives 19 miles from his school and there is no public transportation. John’s mom or dad or nanny loads him into the car and complains for the 10-minute ride to school over the next 3 days. Paul stays home, picking up 3 days’ unexcused absences, 3 days of zeroes.

John’s driver feels hassled. Paul may as well have been suspended. Question: had John and Paul both broken whatever rule in the school building that they broke on the bus, would they have each received a 3-day suspension?

If you have resources, if you have a car and money for gas, being kicked off the bus is no big deal for your kid. But if you don’t, it is. If you have money, you don’t need to think about what you’d do if you didn’t. But if you are making the rules for those who don’t, spare them an occasional thought, please. Yea, life isn’t fair. But that gives us no excuse for not being as fair as we can be or for making provisions that acknowledge the reality that life isn’t fair.

What provisions am I thinking about? How about the kid can ride the bus if accompanied by a parent or guardian? The miscreant would be mortified, and such a punishment would deter others who would hate to be squashed against their scowling mom all the way to and from school for 3 days.

The most universally effective provision would be to take advantage of the buyer’s market for those hiring and to choose the bus aides wisely. Don’t go for someone who has never commanded people. Find retired teachers and drill sergeants of the finger-shaking, in-your-face, if-looks-could-kill, don’t-even-think-about-it variety. Hell, you might not even have to pay them. Where can I sign on?


Comments on this post appear here.

Huntsville City Schools 2011 Debacle, Part 2: What $70,000+ Buys These Days, cont’d.

Let’s continue our analysis of Steve Salmon [aka The Demographer] of Education Planners’ $70,000 document.

Go over again to the Huntsville City School’s site and open up the report. Ready?

  • We left off at pages 29-30, Enrollment History. I can’t make heads or tails of this. Can you?
  • Page 31: Enrollment Projection Process. This fails as even another not-quite table of contents since the items listed don’t appear in the following pages. Where is enrollment broken down by school and grade? Where is there a discussion of attendance zone changes? Feeder patterns? Impact aid? Cost per student?
  • Page 32: Wasted page

Page 33: High School Transfers 2010-2011. This one exemplifies the quality of this report.

First, there are seven high schools in the Huntsville City Schools. Let me repeat that. There are seven high schools in the system. NOT six. SEVEN!!

The compiler of this chart seems to think there are six high schools in the system.

Is it really too much to expect that someone who has been paid $70,000 to make recommendations regarding the Huntsville City Schools know how many high schools are in the system?

New Century Technology High School is missing from the chart. Keep this in mind, since one of the most bizarre recommendations made is to move it.

But let’s spend some time fully appreciating the subtleties of page 33. It is a chart that is set up like a mileage chart in an atlas: choose your starting point and look across to your destination. A city can of course be a starting point and a destination for different travelers at different times (but not at the same time) and so there is always a null set in such a chart when the horizontal element and the vertical element are one and the same. You know what I am talking about, I’m sure.

In my universe, a person can only be in one place at one time, and trans, as in transfer, implies movement from one place to another. It is thus logically impossible to transfer from Butler High to Butler High, from Grissom to Grissom, from Johnson to Johnson, and from Lee to Lee. But according to this chart, 1 Butler, 1 Grissom, 3 Johnson, and 1 Lee kid did just that.

When I raised a question about this at the June 16 meeting, $500-a-day Wilson told me that it was possible to transfer from Butler to Butler, etc., that I just didn’t understand the data, that these could be cases where the student returned to her home school.

No, no, and no.

Think about it. Mary is zoned for Butler. She transfers to Lee. She is now a Lee student. She ceases to be a Butler student.  That is what it means to transfer. Mary then decides to leave Lee and transfers to Butler. Now she becomes a Butler student. But she came from Lee to Butler. She didn’t come from Butler to Butler.

But wait — there’s more! Go ahead one page to page 34, Lee Students Overview. According to the Quick Facts box, Lee has 769 total students. Of these, 486 have an “address in district” and 283 have an “address outside district.”

Now, if a student goes to Lee but resides outside the Lee district, would we not agree that she has transferred from her zoned school to Lee?

So on page 33, we would expect to find 283 in the slot designated for total transfers to Lee, right?

And what do we find? Not 283 but 171.

Why? Well, which is it? I haven’t a clue which figure is accurate. I have no reason to believe either figure is. But I ask you: Is it really too much to expect that a $70,000 report present internally consistent figures? Are we really expected to take seriously the recommendations that appear in this report? Note I don’t say that follow from this data — because they don’t.

But that will have to wait. I’m only up to page 34/62.

To be continued…

Huntsville City Schools 2011 Debacle, Part 3: What $70,000+ Buys These Days, cont’d.

Before I return to The Demographer’s Facility Study, allow me a brief comment on something that doesn’t appear in the report: the impact of private schools on growth in the Huntsville City Schools.

Within walking distance of the facility that New Century Technology High School shares with Columbia High is the new 87,000 sq. ft., 55-acre campus of Pope John Paul II [JPII] High School, formerly known as Catholic High. This $13 million facility opened in fall 2010. Founded in 1996 with 60 freshmen and sophomores, JPII’s enrollment is now 348.

The Diocese of Birmingham and private donors did not decide to invest so much money in expanding this school without good reason to believe that it will continue to grow.  I wonder, did anyone, for example the school board members, or Demographer Steve Salmon, ask PJP2 if it would let them have a look at its demographic forecasts?

Maybe I will ask. I would certainly be interested in comparing studies conducted by JPII to Salmon’s.

And JPII isn’t the only private school with an enrollment that is growing way out of proportion to that of any of the Huntsville City schools. There is Randolph, which opened a second campus last year to accommodate its growing K-12 programs. There’s Madison Academy and Westminster Christian, both gaining students. And so on.

Now, a lot is made of the impact BRAC families are going to have on HCS, but this might not be as significant as forecast.

We all know that rightly or wrongly Alabama has a poor reputation in the US, well, worldwide, to be frank. Thank God for Mississippi, right? Dare I suggest that folks coming into the state from Virginia might be a tad apprehensive about enrolling their kids in the HCS?

Private school tuition at JPII, Randolph, Westminster, Madison Academy, etc. is prohibitive for many Huntsvillians. But the BRAC folks are coming from areas with a higher cost of living, higher home prices, and higher private school tuitions. They have solid and stable incomes.

So I think this is a valid question: just how many BRAC families who have already arrived have enrolled their kids in the HCS? How many who are coming plan to do so?

It’s not a question Salmon considered worth asking, not for a measly $70,000.
Comments on this post appear here.

Huntsville City Schools Debacle 2011, Part 4: Get to Work, Wilson, or Get Out of Town

First, to follow up on  private school enrollment, have a look  at Geek Palavar’s post, The Great Huntsville City Schools Speeding Spree. Unlike $70,000-contract demographer Steve Salmon and his $500-a-day sidekick James Wilson, this blogger prepared (for free!) a graph comparing two private schools’ growth to the HCS over a 5-year period, which reveals that “Randolph and Westminster Christian Academy have seen growth over this time of 10% and 2.5% respectively, while HCS shows a growth rate of only 0.8%.”

I’ve been hunting for the rationale for the hiring of Salmon and Wilson’s company, Education Planners, on the City of Huntsville and HCS sites without success. Apparently, no one is willing to state what Salmon was contracted to do. Again, this issue has been raised and remains unaddressed. See again Geek Palavar’s blog, especially Q&A: Huntsville City School Closing Meeting #3 Summary on the June 14 community meeting. Consider this exchange:

Q: What were the specific guidelines given to the demographer concerning the approach he should take in conducting his study?

A: Wilson stated, “As I am not the demographer, I cannot answer that question.” Richardson added that the demographer was hired before he was, so he too is unable to answer this question. He went on to claim that he “believed the board would have further opportunities for public input after this process were completed.”

Additionally, Richardson is planning to recommend on Thursday that the board extend the contract to Dr. Salmon and Dr. Wilson so that they may continue to collect data to share with the board. This statement was greeted with groans from the crowd.

Thursday night, June 16, the Board voted to pay Wilson $500 a day to attend its meetings. Now that he is pocketing some money directly (Wilson is CEO of Education Planners, by the way, and so wasn’t just sitting in for Salmon out of the goodness of his heart), maybe, just maybe, he could find out what his company was contracted to do.

It seemed clear to me from Dr. Ed Richardson’s remarks Thursday night that the top — the only — priority for the HCS is to get out of its $20 million hole, and so it follows that the purpose, only and solely, of this demographic so-called study is to show what can be done right now, to save money.

So show me the money, Demography Duo. Show me how your recommendations will save the HCS money. Show me how much they will save. Show me at least the budgetary categories that will be positively impacted.

There isn’t a dollar sign in the entire 62-page mess.

Folks, we’ve got it backwards. We shouldn’t be explaining to these people why they should not be closing our schools and moving our programs. The Demography Duo should be proving the validity of its recommendations to us.

Get to work, Wilson, or get out of town

Huntsville City Schools Debacle 2011, Part 5: That $70,000+ Report cont’d

Back to that wretched $70,000 Facility Utilization Study by Steve Salmon of Education Planners, now being presented by its CEO James Wilson for $500-a-day. I left off on page 34.

Open a window to the Huntsville City Schools site, and let the stench waft in. Ready?

  • Page 35: High School Zones. We taxpayers already paid the City for this document. Here it is.
  • Page 36. Middle School Zones. Same story.
  • Page 37. Elementary School Zones. Duh.
  • Pages 38, 39, 40: Same three maps but with figures added: 2005-06 and 2010-11 enrollments,  2015-16 and 2019-20 projected enrollments, and building capacities.

OK, problems:

  1. I presume that the 2005-06 and 2010-11 enrollments, and building capacities, were supplied by the HCS. But where did the 2015-16 and 2019-20 numbers come from? What assumptions, what data, what margin of error?
  2. More to the point: The demographer was hired not to make 10-year forecasts or even 5-year predictions. He was hired to make recommendations regarding how to save money now. Right? Dr. Richardson was asked Thursday June 16 why the school closings decisions needed to be made so quickly when the new superintendent hasn’t even arrived in town, and his answer was, in essence, that time is money and every year that passes without closures and consolidations means money wasted. Again, we are not talking about long-term planning. The Board and erstwhile Superintendent, after getting us into this mess, are in crisis mode. So why the 5-year and 10-year forecasts?
  • Pages 41 -46: The titles of these tables are deceptive — OK, maybe that’s too strong: sloppy will do. There are 5 tables named for 5 of the 6 high schools in the HCS. But only one line in each table refers to the high school for which the table is named.

At the June 16 meeting, Demographer Wilson explained that what we are really looking at here are “clusters” — that’s the bottom line, that’s what matters.

Really? And here I thought we had been reading a Facility Utilization Study. Folks, a facility is not a cluster and a cluster is not a facility.

So why have the terms been changed? Well, let’s have a look at page 44, “Huntsville High.” Do as Wilson says and think cluster and you find that that cluster can accommodate 2,832 students. In 2010-11 that cluster only had 2,229 kids. So they are in great shape, right?

Now, look at the facility called Huntsville High. Its capacity is 1368 and last year it had 1694 kids. Oh my.

How, exactly, does a little tiny empty desk in an elementary classroom facility miles away alleviate crowding in a high school facility that is more than 20 percent over capacity?

All a matter of interpretation, I guess.