A framework to fund GPPSS tech needs without a bond

Now that the Grosse Pointe Public School tech bond was overwhelmingly dismissed by voters it’s time to focus on a plan that can work. As an early critic of the tech bond (my first post warning against a proposal that high was on July 18, 2013), I continue to seek ways to contribute to a solution.

And before I’m accused of opposing any form of tax increase for ideological reasons, please note my past posts here and here that previously supported a smaller tax increase.

That was before the February result. It’s all different now.

Dependence on a bond approval now is not only impractical, it is dangerous with the Hold Harmless millage and Sinking Fund renewals, about a quarter of the district’s revenues, up in November. Meanwhile, our students and staff need improved technology immediately.

The framework presented here creates nearly $10 million of funding capacity over the next four years starting as soon as the 2014-15 budget which I believe addresses the district’s most pressing technology needs. The plan would not depend upon staff cuts, raising class sizes, pay reductions, tax increases, or generally any other financial remedy that would not be pleasant for students, staff, parents or taxpayers. It would also enable the return of district Fund Equity to the 10% target by 2017-18.

Also, since the plan would leverage mainly the General Fund, leasing and managed (cloud) services become an option. It would create a permanent place in the budget for technology refreshes that previously inflated the defeated bond proposal.

I encourage community stakeholders to review the framework, ask questions, make suggestions and generally engage in a collaborative and constructive dialog so we can all move forward. 

GPPSSTechGoForwardFramework Final

Torrent of meetings on tap for Board

The Board of Education Building at 389 St. Clair

The Board of Education Building at 389 St. Clair

The Grosse Pointe Public Schools’ Board of Education has scheduled an inordinate number of meetings in March as they respond to a number of hot issues.

The full Board or a committee thereof will meet eight times over the next 22 days. Three of these are “Regular Meetings of the Board” that will take place on three consecutive Monday’s (10th, 17th, 24th). Two of those will be preceded by Open Work Sessions for the full Board and preceding the Regular Meetings of the 10th and 17th.

The Board’s Policy Committee will meet this Wednesday, March 5th with an interesting agenda that includes a discussion of “elements related to social media and reference for Board of Education members.”

Tuesday, March 4th, a new committee meets in open session on the topic of the Superintendent’s contract. As readers may recall, Dr. Harwood’s 30 month contract expires at the end of this school year. The Board must give him notice to not renew him 90 days before the end of the contract. The end of March is the 90 day mark. The meeting doesn’t mean that they have plans to not renew, but there will clearly be dedicated discussion of the topic.

The eighth meeting (not sequentially) is a a Closed Meeting on this Thursday, March 6th. That will be three straight days of meetings just this week.

Aside from the decision to retain Dr. Harwood, there’s no shortage of topics to address as I summarized here . Since then the tech bond was defeated by an overwhelming margin of 70% to 30%. Also a variety of community members have now received internal district e-mails via Freedom of Information Act requests concerning the shrouded controversy over a couple of South administrators. Meanwhile the passionately expressed concerns of the Special Education community remain open, at least publicly.

From a Board of Education perspective, March is certainly coming in like a lion. We’ll see how it goes out.

Past bond ballot data

Interesting data shared with me below. It shows the passage rate of school bonds in Michigan broken down by the election date and whether the bond was a tax increase or a renewal. It covers  149 bond ballot questions over 10 election dates from February 2012 through November 2013.

The data sample is small, but a couple observations given that the Grosse Pointe Public Schools bond proposal is a February election and a millage increase:

  • February passage rates are 41% – lower than May and just slightly lower than August equivalents.
  • The February 2012 election was also a presidential primary. In that year, the bond passage with tax increase implications  was just 25%. The next February had a 56% passage rate with no presidential primary coincidence.
  • November passage rates are 3 percentage points lower than February. However, the huge distinction is that the Nov. 2012 passage rate was 11%, which coincided with a presidential election year. In November 2013, there was a 53% passage rate.

Overall, bond elections that result in a tax increase, like GPPSS’ proposal, have a 49% passage rate whereas millage renewals have a much higher 91% pass rate.

One theory would be that for tax increase question, one of the largest determinants of passage is whether any other significant ballot questions coexist. In this February 2014 GPPSS bond election, that is not the case and the odds of passage therefore increase.



Smooth sailing in a stormy sea

How time flies and circumstances change.

Dr. Thomas Harwood’s accession to the Grosse Pointe Public Schools’ superintendency began two and a half years ago. Tomorrow’s Board vote provides good indication it will be extended.

I wrote about this issue last June when Dr. Harwood received his full year evaluation and was even awarded a financial bonus by the Board.

The Board will vote tomorrow on a rare “interim evaluation” of Dr. Harwood and if the agenda introduction is any indication, the famously rocky start to Dr. Harwood’s tenure is about to become a distant memory. The Board’s agenda action item reads in part as follows:

Previously approved Board approved goals and objectives for the superintendent were also reviewed. President Joan Dindoffer requested input from all Board members and received input from six Board members. A closed session of the GPPSS Board of Education occurred on January 27, 2014 at the request of the Superintendent to discuss the evaluation. From that discussion, the GPPSS Board of Education deemed that Dr. Harwood, GPPSS Superintendent, was rated Overall Effective and Effective in each of the five performance domains: Results, Leadership, Systems Alignment, Processes, and Capacity Building.

The evaluation report is not posted online.

With an effective rating from last June and another here in Febraury, it’s looking as though Dr. Harwood will be renewed  -  a fairly remarkable result given the controversy surrounding his appointment and has marked his tenure.

The circumstances are worth noting. The Board’s configuration and politics has change substantially from the one that narrowly appointed Dr. Harwood. Two of those four yes votes (Cindy Pangborn and Tom Jakubiec) were among those calling most loudly this past summer for this unique interim evaluation, giving some indication their support for Harwood has waned. A third supporter, John Steininger, did not seek re-election. That leaves Joan Dindoffer as the remaining fourth, and she famously tried to “pass” her vote before converting it to the deciding one.

Judy Gafa remains the sole trustee remaining on the Board from the three no votes. Fred Minturn and I have both since left the Board and we had both voted against Harwood. Two of the remaining three trustees, Lois Valente and Dan Roeske, swept into the Board on the crest of anger about the vote.

Nevertheless, Harwood’s June bonus vote was unanimous and barring a complete surprise, his renewal appears a formality.

It will be an ironic scene at the meeting tomorrow should the public comments be as acerbic as the last Board meeting as residents made strong statements regarding the rumored controversy surrounding South High School Principal Matt Outlaw and Asst. Terry Flint. Strong and emotional appeals were made by Special Education advocates, some of whom openly called for resignations. The technology bond debate was subdued in comparison.

Time flies and circumstances have apparently changed, but one thing remains constant. It’s never dull.

GP tech cloud debate misses the point

The debate around cloud computing and the proposed GP schools tech bond is raging – but for all the wrong reasons.

Technology advocates who oppose this version of the bond see the cloud as a cost effective, agile strategy that mitigates technology obsolescence risk by buying technology “as a service” as opposed to making capital investments that are expensive to procure and maintain.

Bond advocates claim that the district is somehow “too big” for the cloud. Others cite security concerns. Other think the cloud is only used to store data, not generate it. Some say “we already use the cloud,” to defend why it’s not a more prominent strategy.

The technological arguments against cloud computing frankly have very little merit. The cloud isn’t any one thing, but rather a philosophy of computing. Cloud computing can be public, private, or hybrid. Its key technology characteristics are scale and flexibility. Its key financial attribute is computing as an operating as opposed to capital expense, the benefits of which go hand in hand with its technology benefits.

The main reason enterprises do not adopt cloud computing is because they have already made substantial investment in on-premise (opposite to cloud) computing infrastructure. In other words, their current gear has useful life remaining and adding the cost of computing as a service would actually increase their cost.

One thing everyone in the GP technology debate seems to agree upon is that our computing infrastructure is way past its useful life. Cloud and “as a service” computing should open up a world of possibilities to Grosse Pointe Public Schools. It’s practically a green field environment.

But didn’t the district’s technology bond consultants say the cloud wouldn’t work for Grosse Pointe Schools?

Typical of almost any paid consulting agreement, their opinion hedges since consultants avoid firm positions. Their report presents compelling support for cloud storage options and content creation technology via desktop virtualization, a form of cloud computing. Here’s an excerpt:

Virtualization technologies can provide this experience, and can also provide the security and reduced manageability of multiple devices and their eventual obsolescence

That’s cloud computing –  and its powerful. It provides a secure, scalable mode of computing that protects against inevitable “eventual obsolescence.”

So why then is cloud computing not a greater part of the district’s plans? The tech bond consultants again sum it up:

Unfortunately, subscription services that include this type of reoccurring [sic] fee structure are not a permissible bond expense and therefore would need to be financed through the General Fund budget.

This means that despite providing a more flexible, cost effective, and future proofing technology cloud computing is dismissed simply because it can’t be funded with a  bond.

This path set forth by the proposed bond  is not in step with current computing best practices despite its $50 million price tag. The district’s  technology strategy is more influenced by obstinate commitment to using only a capital financial instrument. The district would have more credibility on this matter if they admitted that. It would be a more constructive framework for public discourse.

Ironically the district’s current tax policy should be an advantage. As one of very few “Hold Harmless” districts, Grosse Pointes’ 7.3 Hold Harmless mills can be used for operational expenses (such as cloud computing or leasing hardware) or capital expenses.

96% of Michigan districts don’t have that luxury, which is why voted bonds have exploded across the state. (I’ll blog more on this in the coming weeks.)

Before the spin doctors attack, let me be clear. The cloud isn’t the answer to everything. There is a good case for a more moderate tech bond proposal.

I oppose the current proposal because its underlying strategy doubles down on an outdated mode of technology consumption that increases dependence on capital investment (and tax rate), a practice rapidly losing favor in enterprise computing. It also means we’ll have a permanent dependence on renewing this bond. It will significantly increase district operating costs that have not been quantified and presented to taxpayers.

The proposal punts on the hard choices that are required of any sustainable enterprise and drops them in the taxpayers’ lap. We’ll see on February 25th if that’s how taxpayers want it.

The district should have been more considerate to taxpayers than this 23% local school tax increase request and should have laid out a strategy to wean the district off of this mode of computing and financing.

The February 25th technology bond proposes a massive cost increase and moves the district in the opposite direction of current technology and financial best practices.

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