Gazette opinion: Move on, SD2: Scrap discredited study

2012-03-07T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Move on, SD2: Scrap discredited study The Billings Gazette
March 07, 2012 12:10 am

There aren’t enough hours in a day to explain everything that has gone wrong over the past two years with School District 2’s efforts to project enrollment data that can be used for crucial budgeting, busing and facility decisions.

We agree with Trustee Lindy Graves who said: “To me, it’s like two years of waste.”

Let us summarize: The $100,000 spent on an out-of-state demographics firm for software and research failed to net the district reliable information on which to base decisions. Accusations were lodged that district employees and a board member deliberately tried to skew data — either to show unrealistically high or unbelievably low West End growth. Various parties denied those accusations, and the head of the demographics firm declined public comment.

Fortunately, one former SD2 contract worker — an expert in statistical analysis — is still speaking out. Richard Dews actually analyzed the discredited demographics report nearly two years ago (while working with the district’s former chief financial officer) and pointed out its shortcomings. Dews built his own projections based on actual birth and mobility data for Billings.

Last week, Billings trustees directed Superintendent Jack Copps to work with Dews and Andy Wildenberg, associate professor of computer science at Rocky Mountain College, to determine what can be used from the study and report back to the board this month.

Trustees also decided that they will use a local firm from now on to analyze demographic data.

Those two decisions are good first steps toward getting reliable data. The board members ought to have their local expert start by reviewing Dews’ report, or maybe they can hire Dews to help them figure out what enrollment changes to expect.

Last week’s lengthy board discussion of the demographics debacle spotlighted larger problems the board must resolve to move forward with any of major decisions:

  • Lack of full communication with all board members. As Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe said: “There were a lot of us who didn’t know what the right hand or the left hand was doing.”
  • Lack of trust, which is closely related to leaving some trustees out of communication.
  • Failure to approach scientific research with an open mind and a commitment to the integrity of data. As Dews told trustees: The handling of the study shows what happens when people make decisions and then look for data to justify them.

From what we have seen and heard of this pricey study, it will not answer the pressing questions of enrollment so critical to budget projections. Nor will it resolve the debate about whether Billings should build a new elementary school on the West End.

We call on the school board to work with local experts to start answering their planning questions before they finalize next year’s budget. Solid demographics data can help tremendously in planning, but only trustees — working with significant public input — can make the hard decisions about allocating limited resources among 16,000 students in schools all over the city. To make the best decisions, trustees must improve communications, build trust and approach board decisions with open minds.

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