Last week 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 last 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 school districts across Ohio recognized by OEM’s benchmarking study for exceptional cost-savings measures.
These on-the-ground “efficiency experts” included superintendents from 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, 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 they are really in the market for new ideas. Several good ones emerged:
- Per-pupil budgeting. Perhaps most encouraging is that districts are taking the advice laid out by Marguerite Roza in Stretching the School Dollar to cost out various activities on a per-pupil basis (e.g., illustrating the cost per student for various subjects as well as extra-curricular activities), so as to identify outliers, provide transparency, and balance tradeoffs. As Superintendent Evans (Canton) noted, this type of budgeting can reveal surprisingly high costs for activities that are non-instructional. To make informed spending decisions you first need to collect the data.
- Energy efficiency. Several superintendents talked about consolidating buildings, installing energy-savings devices in schools, harnessing the power of green/solar energy, and purchasing electricity in a consortium (for example, this saved Canton half a million dollars).
- Hiring people who wear many hats. This is probably easier for smaller districts, but superintendents reported that being able to cross-train their maintenance/custodial staff, as well as their central office administrators, yielded enormous savings (as human capital is the greatest expense to begin with). For example, Superintendent Swindler said that for large repairs, Western Reserve hires outside contractors but then ensures that its own staff can be trained simultaneously to learn how to tackle future repairs on their own. Even more impressive is how Perry Local Schools reorganized central office administration so that principals of individual buildings also serve as district-wide test coordinators, special ed coordinators, etc. – thereby eliminating the need to create those positions. Superintendent Bratten of Salem City noted that his special education coordinator is also the bus mechanic. And in instances where this isn’t practical, districts may share positions with other districts.
- Relentless focus on finances in all district-wide decisions. Another theme emerging from the panel’s discussion was the necessity to try to crush silos in district management. Financial realities must be a key part of decisions affecting schools, students, and teachers. It was encouraging to hear superintendents report that they have “weekly” meetings re-evaluating any and all things related to the budget; that they pinpoint costs in very specific ways (costs per student per bus ride); and that treasurers are integral to their teams.
Overall, district superintendents – at least those in the room – seemed to understand the need to cut costs and operate leaner. 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 Rocketship and Connections Academy); 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) 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 people and programs that make the most difference, per-pupil budgeting is actually a very student-centric way of doing business. It’s dysfunctional not to.
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.