Ohio superintendents discuss efficiency, lament limits

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.

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