Thinking Out Loud: Posting #1...An Update of the HWRSD Operational Audit

THINKING OUT LOUD is a new Blog that will regularly provide commentary on issues deemed important to the residents of Hamilton & Wenham. Comments are welcomed and appreciated, both pro and con.


...is the name of this brand new Patch Blog.  It has been created to serve as a resource for information deemed particularly important to the residents of Hamilton and Wenham.  In many cases, this blog will pick up and go beyond current headline stories…with comprehensive discussion of the issues in order to provide better understanding and clarity.

THINKING OUT LOUD welcomes comments, both supportive and contrary to the viewpoint of the articles posted here.

Welcome!  And with that, let the dialogue begin…

Over a year ago, Enough Is Enough (EiE) wrote an open letter to then school superintendent Peter Gray expressing the group’s disappointment with progress toward implementation of the 125 fiscal recommendations of the Operational Audit. (OA) 


Most of you will recall that the OA was overwhelmingly supported and funded by the taxpayers of our two towns.

Since that time we have hired a new superintendent and several members of the School Committee have been replaced.  EiE has met with new Superintendent Harvey and several members of the School Committee.  At each of these meetings assurances have been made that the OA has not been forgotten and that the recommendations made in that report will continue to be reviewed.

That’s all well and fine, and we recognize that there have been significant changes that could be said to have delayed implementation of the audit’s recommendations, but it has been two full years since the report was delivered to the schools… with little progress toward implementation of efficiencies.

That is not to say that progress has not been made.  New procedures and processes have been created and much needed new policies are being put into place.  Budgeting by override has been defeated.  Large sums of unused  and “lost” funds have been uncovered, and much of that rightfully returned to the towns.  A new accounting firm has been hired for the school district.  Trust has begun to be restored and a great deal of obstructionism has been eliminated by the election of new school committee members, a new school committee chairman and the hiring Superintendent Harvey.


There is no substitution for substantial progress.  We still have a school district with an average cost-per-student of $2000.00 more than the cost-per-student of equivalent school districts.  And while we do not expect every recommendation of the OA to be implemented, most citizens agree that, as we noted a year ago:

“the recommendations need to be more immediately addressed with clarity of action and definitive implementation dates, or acceptable reasons communicated for their not being considered”.

 Our residents desire and deserve clear and concise updates…and a strategic plan that utilizes the existing road map provided by the Operational Audit.

Let’s not find ourselves repeating this message again next year, for a third year in a row.

Respectfully submitted,

The Steering Committee of Enough Is Enough

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Paul J January 29, 2013 at 04:31 AM
There are not many times that I agree with Jay, however, I do on this point. It suspiciously appears that some are hoping that the OA would just go away or be forgotten. The tax payers need a specific time table with a reporting schedule put in place, both, on the Superintendent and the School Committee with consequences for not reporting progress and/or meeting goals.
Michelle Bailey January 29, 2013 at 04:53 AM
It's not that the Operational Audit (OA) should be forgotten, it's that its usefulness has been fully realized. The OA had 26 recommendations with cost implications. Of those only 21 had projected cost savings. Of those 21, 9 have been fully implemented and 2 are proposed to be partially implemented in this budget. Some of the others require changes in contracts, are not feasible due to building constraints, or the needs of students (leave one elementary school without a nurse, for instance.)
Thinking Out Loud January 29, 2013 at 11:21 AM
Let's be clear, Michelle. A year ago you wrote: "Do you want the School Committee to stop ignoring the $312 annual cost savings to adding 2 vending machines at the HS?" Answer: YES. Because we are a little more interested in significant cost savings...the kind that will reduce the nearly $2,000 cost-per-student difference that the taxpayers in Hamilton and Wenham pay as reported in both the Blue Ribbon Report AND the Operational Audit. Continuing to ignore both of these thorough studies by claiming that they are "flawed" (as you have claimed) or trying to substitute your own cherry-picked school districts to make your point has not worked before, and will not work now.
Thinking Out Loud January 29, 2013 at 11:30 AM
Fact check (and math check) reply: $2,000 additional cost per student (as reported in the Blue Ribbon Report and the Operational Audit) x 2,000 students = $4 million.
Michelle Bailey January 29, 2013 at 11:38 AM
The state average is as inclusive as it gets. How is it that the school districts in the Blue Ribbon Report and Operational Audit are not cherry picked but the state average which includes every school district in MA is?
Jay Burnham January 29, 2013 at 12:13 PM
Paul...Thanks for the "vote of confidence" on this point. Yes, there remain those that wish the OA would be forgotten, particularly those that voted against it from the very beginning and refuse to accept its conclusions and recommendations. Please recognize that they are a small but vocal minority. We'll get there, with or without their support...as we have before.
Michelle Bailey January 29, 2013 at 12:14 PM
Reading the Blue Ribbon Committee Report at the link below shows that in 2008, the per pupil spending in HW was $934 above the cherry picked district average, not the $2,000 you state. Since 2008, many districts have seen their budgets increase by 3, 4, 5 and even 6%, while HW has grown at a slower rate. These numbers would likely be different today. http://www.wenhamma.gov/depts_forms&docs/brc/documents/brc_presentation_06.17.2009_final_print.pdf
Jay Burnham January 29, 2013 at 12:21 PM
Really?...Why not take a national average? Or international? Come on, Michelle... More "inclusive" in your example equates to "watered down". The Blue Ribbon Report and the Operational Audit were precise and accurate and came to nearly the same conclusions. And they used facts and figures from school districts most similar to our own, which is the point.
Jay Burnham January 29, 2013 at 12:36 PM
Hmmmmm....State average, you say? Dorchester is just like Hamilton/Wenham, right? How about Springfield? Provincetown? New Bedford? Oxford? Edgartown? Lawrence? Pittsfield? Chelsea? Saugus? Fitchburg? Cohasset? Burlington? Taunton? Haverhill? Lowell? Salem? Yeah...they're all just like Hamilton/Wenham. We should have used them as comparable school districts.
Michelle Bailey January 29, 2013 at 12:45 PM
Districts that are most similar? The average enrollment of Blue Ribbon districts was nearly 50% larger than HW (3131 vs 2196). Maybe their lower per pupil spending has to do with economies of scale. Until we can grow our enrollment, we might be maxed out at our current per pupil spending? We should still look for best practices as they are always improving, but to say we overspend by some grossly exaggerated number is incorrect.
Thinking Out Loud January 29, 2013 at 01:18 PM
We have posted here the COST AND SAVINGS SUMMARY from the Operational Audit. 28 of the 124 recommendations have fiscal implications. If implemented, the total cost savings is approximately $16.3 million over five years for operational efficiencies.
Stacey January 29, 2013 at 04:53 PM
Come here the "State of the Schools Address" on Thursday, Jan. 31, 7 p.m. in the Buker Multipurpose Room. Superintendent Michael Harvey presents his entry plan report to the School Committee and the community.
Margo Killoran January 30, 2013 at 01:04 AM
An operational audit and a strategic plan aren't necessarily the same thing... the district has not had a strategic plan since 2010. This leaves us without something to work toward philosphically. The audit helped us identify areas in which we could more effectively provide services or cut things that didn't pay off. A strategic plan will help us determine what our priorities in regards to education and a school district. This will come in handy when we have to decide what to add or what to cut. They work symbiotically.
Margo Killoran January 30, 2013 at 01:07 AM
PS: Sounds like I'm running for office, doesn't it....?
Ron Powell January 30, 2013 at 03:26 AM
Michelle has asked, "Where on earth has any fact pointed to a "nearly $4 million more than comparable peer schools?" This blog has made the statement that, "We still have a school district with an average cost-per-student of $2000.00 more than the cost-per-student of equivalent school districts." Given that HWRSD has an enrollment of 1,954 students, this would resolve to an additional $3,908,000 in spending for an "equivalent school district" of comparable size. So if the blog's claim that HWRSD spends $2,000 more per pupil than "equivalent school districts," then the claim that it spends 'nearly $4 million more ... as compared to comparable peer school districts" is also true. So the relevant question is, "Does HWRSD really spend $2,000 per-pupil more than "equivalent school districts?" To find the answer, I turned to the 2008 Blue Ribbon Committee Report. In that report, the BRC defines what it calls the BRC Cohort Group -- a group of school districts that includes Acton-Boxborough, Andover, Beverly, Danvers, Lynnfield, Lexington, Masconomet, MbtS, and several other school districts. The report clearly describes the methodology the BRC used to select the cohorts -- a combination of school size and student performance. According to report, HWRSD spent $934 more per pupil that its cohorts' average and $1,483 more per pupil than its cohorts' median. [Continued.]
Ron Powell January 30, 2013 at 03:44 AM
[Continued] So these facts would not support the claim that HWRSD spends $2,000 per-pupil more than "equivalent school districts." But there is some ambiguity in the term "equivalent school districts." The BRC stated in its executive summary: "A cross comparison of scores and costs reveals that four districts have both above average test scores and below average costs. They are: Norwell, Acton-Boxborough, Lynnfield and Masconomet." According to Mass DOE, as of 2011, Lynnfield spends $11,475; Acton-Boxborough spends $13,182; Norwell spends $11,524; and Masconomet spends $12,850 per pupil versus HWRSD's $14,644. The average spending per-pupil of these four schools which the BRC describes as HWRSD "peers" is $12,250 -- almost $2,400 less per-pupil than HWRSD. So, the fact that the four most highly efficient of HWRSD's peers spends $2,400 less per-pupil than HWRSD does indeed support the blog's claim. [Cont.]
Ron Powell January 30, 2013 at 03:57 AM
So the disagreement appears to be over what constitutes an "equivalent school district." The BRC included 14 different schools as cohorts, and noted four of those schools which seem to be more effective than HWRSD when in comes to instructional delivery. The facts of the dispute seem to suggest that the blogger meant the four schools that the BRC examined. The BRC also examined what factors contributed th HWRSD's higher spending. The BRC, in its summary, stated, "The average student-teacher ratio for these four schools was 15.4, versus the peer average of 13.9." The summary concluded that larger in-class staff contributed to most of the additional spending versus the four schools. The report also indicated that HWRSD spent more per-pupil on special education, and this also contributed to the difference. So ... what is the judgment? I rule that the blogger is factually correct; however, his or her interpretation is subjective and reasonable people may disagree over what constitutes an equivalent school district. The BRC certainly identified those schools as peers. But the blogger's statement was truthful. On a scale from 0 to 10 (where 0 is a known factually incorrect statement deliberately repeated and 10 is a verifiably true statement not subject to interpretation), I rule the truthfulness of the blogger's statement to be a 7. CONCLUSION: FACTUALLY CORRECT, BUT SUBJECT TO INTERPRETATION
Tracy January 30, 2013 at 03:59 AM
Thanks, Margo, for pointing out that operational audit had absolutely nothing to do with quality, or even with education. It had to do with operations. A strategic plan is or should be all about education and quality. You may start as many blogs as you wish, but the will of the majority of citizens of Hamilton and Wenham has always been for a high-quality school district. Our towns don't have average murder rates, average assault rates, average density, or average police/fire/library services, yet we are now told over and over by a handful of people whose children are safely educated that "average" is all our kids deserve. Thank goodness the majority of rational voters don't agree.
Ron Powell January 30, 2013 at 04:13 AM
You should!
Jay Burnham January 30, 2013 at 10:46 AM
I wish you would. How about it?
Thinking Out Loud January 30, 2013 at 01:00 PM
Thinking Out Load has just added a DESE Spending Analysis chart to the "Photos and Video" section attached to this blog showing how costs per student have continued to rise in our school district over the past five years.
Thinking Out Loud January 30, 2013 at 01:20 PM
Thinking Out Loud has just added the page from the Blue Ribbon Report showing the costs-per-student at Hamilton/Wenham and 10 other comparable school districts at the time of report.
Michelle Bailey January 30, 2013 at 01:37 PM
You're right, HW students are doing better than the "average." (See attached DART graph of results) Many people in the "Neighborhood Files" state they moved here for the good schools, not the "average" schools.
Jay Burnham January 30, 2013 at 02:01 PM
Tracy...The Operational Audit clearly pointed out that higher costs do not equate with better education. And no one I know says that our children only deserve an "average" education. What they do say is that simply throwing more and more money at the schools does not mean that the education will be any better than that provided by schools with much lower costs. Ask Superintendent Harvey about the level of education in Belmont when he was the high school principal there. Belmont High School was ranked #111 NATIONALLY and #4 in Massachusetts. And yet he cost-per-student in Hamilton/Wenham is now $14,644 and Belmont is $11,969. And still we are "told over and over by a handful of people" that we need to spend more to assure quality education. That's just not true. And that's precisely why the voters overwhelmingly supported the Operational Audit in the first place. Thank goodness a "super majority" of voters and residents clearly see through your argument.
Ron Powell January 30, 2013 at 03:15 PM
Hamilton-Wenham is far above average in terms of quality, but below average in terms of efficiency. This means other schools deliver the same quality for less. If I were a parent choosing a town based on its schools, that last data point would influence my decision. All other things being equal, why not choose the school district that provides an excellent education while spending its money more wisely?
Margo Killoran January 31, 2013 at 12:55 AM
When I can show up in my pajamas, with a V&T, and tell people to f**k off when they deserve to be told so, then I'd be happy to run for any office!
Jay Burnham January 31, 2013 at 02:20 AM
Your time has come!...Let the voters decide! Ha!
Ron Powell January 31, 2013 at 05:18 AM
Well, based on this, I would have to rule that Michelle's statement that, "in 2010 we spent about 6% more per pupil than the state average to get way above average schools," is false. According to the data you provided, it appears that HWRSD spent 9.4 percent more than the state average. I will change my truthfulness rating on that statement from a 10 to a 2½. It is a false statement, but it was probably in error and not made deliberately or repeatedly.
Thinking Out Loud February 01, 2013 at 12:37 PM
Point of clarification: The average enrollment from the Blue Ribbon's 10 cohort school districts page (posted in the "photos and Video" section of this blog) shows an average number of students from the 10 districts as 2,227 vs Hamilton-Wenham's 2,196... a difference of only 1.4%.
Robert February 01, 2013 at 03:56 PM
Great exchange. It is now abundantly clear that we are spending more than necessary. Our new superintendent and key members of the school committe recognize this. Time for action!


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