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August 04, 2009
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Yesterday Ohio Education Matters (a subsidiary of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation) hosted a forum for Ohio superintendents and district leaders looking to save money. Figuring out ways to ?do more with less? in K-12 education is an urgent matter (especially follow this week's repeal of Issue 2), which is why Fordham has been prodding school districts for quite some time to think proactively on this issue.? (See a summary of our recent event, ?Working Smarter Together?; coverage of our ?doing more with less? events in education from this past spring; or highlights from last year's ?Stretching the School Dollar? event ? or that accompanying book.)
The event featured Fordham friend Rick Hess (director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute) as well as superintendents from districts across Ohio recognized by OEM's benchmarking study for exceptional cost-savings measures.
These on-the-ground ?efficiency experts? included superintendents from several schools districts including Canton City (Michele Evans); Perry Local in Stark County (John Richard); Sandy Valley (David Janofa); Western Reserve (Charles Swindler); and Salem City (Tom Bratten). Except for Canton City, the majority of examples of cost-savings and service-sharing came from districts that are fairly small.
It was apparent by the way superintendents in the audience were taking diligent notes that districts are really on the market for new ideas. Several good ideas emerged:
Overall, district superintendents ? at least those in the room ? seemed to understand the need to cut costs and be more pragmatic. But as Rick Hess aptly pointed out ? ?optimizing? by cutting corners on things like electricity and busing can only go so far. ?
Given the serious trouble districts will be in over the next decade ? because of withering federal stimulus dollars, a real estate market that won't fully bottom out for several more years, and competing pressures on state budgets (namely Medicaid) ? it's time to start rethinking the way K-12 does business. Hess explained scenarios in which schools could re-configure the use of teacher talent; take better advantage of technology (a la School of One and Rocketship); and do a better job of understanding the value of each dollar (for example, a teacher making $70,000 is essentially paid $4,600 for patrolling the cafeteria during lunch duty ? why not have her use that time for instruction?).
By the end of the event, two challenges to achieving real cost-savings (especially the ?rethinking? kind) were crystal clear. First, K-12 leaders still have an aversion to attaching dollars and cents to children. Superintendent Evans (Canton City) noted that it's ?a sick thing? to delineate costs per pupil and that she never anticipated talking about money so much when she took on the role of superintendent. If tracking your spending can help drive more money toward areas that matter, per-pupil budgeting is actually a very student-centric way of doing business. It's sick not to.? And it does no one any good to continue perpetuating this kind of rhetoric in education.
Secondly, after hearing Hess' speech ? my table was buzzing. I asked one district leader from a central Ohio school district what she thought of his ideas. Her response? ?We'd love to try some of those things (virtual learning; re-imagining staffing structures; paying great teachers more) but we're sort of boxed in. Unions, regulations, rules, etc. make it very difficult for us to change much of what we do, especially when it comes to staffing.? ???
That sounds familiar.
-Jamie Davies O'Leary
Correction: the original article said "Canton Local," but it was supposed to read "Canton City."