The president says the economy is on sound footing. And, true enough, many states across the union are experiencing budget surpluses, and spent the summer debating increases to their education budgets. So why are consumers still so wary, and why are educators still struggling with recession-style budget allocations?
The answer, of course, is politics.
Education spending has been a hotter-than-usual topic during the last budget season in most states, but in a good way:
Maryland had a billion dollar surplus, and was discussing providing full funding for its $1.3 billion school reform effort.
Legislators in Massachusetts found themselves with a $400 million surplus, and proposed channeling an additional $160 million to local school districts.
Indiana proposed increasing education spending by 2.5 percent over the next two years, nearly double the increases proposed over the last two-year budget cycle.
Alaska increased state spending per pupil by 7.5 percent and added $190 million for construction projects.
But the picture was considerably less pleasing in a handful of states that are wrapped up in court cases and legislative wrangling that could dramatically change how education is financed. There are at least 20 funding equity cases in courts around the country, according to The Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Michael Rebell, who produced a legal grand slam on behalf of New York City earlier this year, is now leading an effort at Columbia University's Teachers College to address the issue nationwide.
In New York City, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity won a judgment that ordered the funding authorities produce an additional $5.6 billion a year for NYC, plus a one-time gift of $9.2 million. The state is still appealing.
Legislators in Kansas eventually approved a $148 million increase in school funding, following a court case.
The Texas legislature held two special sessions this summer hoping to revamp how education is funded in that state, following a legal ruling that the current taxation system is unconstitutional.
In Missouri, legislators grappled with a complex plan to transform the way the state pays for education, forced to act after 250 districts filed a lawsuit charging that the current system doesn't provide enough money.
In Georgia, a suit by 51 rural school systems seeks a $1.5 billion increase in funding by the state
In Colorado, parents and districts file a funding suit that says the state underfunds education by as much as $1 billion annually.
So given this backdrop, District Administration asked our readers the question that is at the heart of education reform and funding debates everywhere: Some 80 percent of your budget, give or take, is automatically allocated to personnel costs every year. How do you spend the rest of your money? And, when there's not enough, how do you decide what to cut?
"Over 99 percent of our budget is locked into fixed costs, not only for salaries and benefits, but also the ongoing costs of utilities, gas, diesel, leases, repair and maintenance and the like," says Michael Haluska, superintendent of the Jefferson-Scranton Community Schools in Jefferson, IA. "Simply put ... less than 1 percent of our operating budget is truly discretionary."
Your answers weren't surprising--nearly everyone in education knows how precious little discretionary spending truly goes on. But the way districts approach budgeting, budget cuts and searching for cost savings, are instructive for every district that's ever wanted to add programming but couldn't find the funds.
"We have enough money to do anything we want in public education--just not everything" says Stephen Kleinsmith, superintendent of the Nixa (Mo.) R-2 School District. "With our federal and state governments accelerating and expanding expectations, as well as issuing mandates without money, it becomes very difficult to exercise local control in the prioritization process."
First, the Sacred Cow
Superintendents from across the country report that personnel costs account from anywhere from 75 percent to 85 percent of their annual budgets, a percentage that seems to creep up every year.
"It's no secret our increases are due to rising employee hospitalization [costs], retirement [increases] and the teacher annual salary schedule," says Carl Hilling, superintendent of the Gaylord (Mich.) Community Schools. "So we have built in annual expense [increases] of at least $1,000,000 before we can do anything academically."
The Catch 22 of budget cuts is that when districts are forced to eliminate discretionary items, the less they have to work with the next year. "The 10 to 12 percent that's actually discretionary goes to transportation, maintenance and operations, supplies and materials, staff development and technology," says Steven Meyers, superintendent at Huffman ISD, a suburban district outside Houston. "But the longer you have to cut from those areas, the more difficult it becomes. That percentage grows smaller, and what you have left is a smaller base from which you can save."
Some superintendents have found ways to sacrifice the sacred cow, with innovative moves that cut into their personnel budgets without violating labor contracts or incurring the ire of the teaching staff. Prairie Valley CSD, in agribusiness-dominated northwest Iowa, found that one way was to ask new superintendent candidates if they were willing to do double duty. David Arnold, who took the job as head of the 750-student district that covers 240 square miles, is both principal of the district's elementary school and superintendent. His job description includes all the management and budget tasks of a superintendent, but also requires pulling lunch and recess duty on a regular basis, just like the other principals in his district. Arnold relishes his dual role, but says his days can be long and full of hat changes.
"You have to do what you've got to do to make it work," Arnold says. "There are days when you've just got to pick up the puke and go on."
In the coming years Prairie Valley will likely move toward multi-age classrooms and distance learning agreements with other districts, as it looks for creative ways to deal with declining enrollment but increasing mandates on class size and course offerings.
Other districts are also experimenting with creative staffing. Another trend: hiring back retired teachers, who are already collecting a pension, at lower salary rates. It's a win-win; the schools get the benefit of the veterans' experience at the cost of a newbie, and the retirees get something to do with their time and an extra income stream.
In other places, teachers and administrators have chipped in to help keep personnel costs down and retain FTEs. "We do what we can to maintain our staffing levels," says Judith A. Palmer, superintendent of the Oxford (Conn.) school district. "Our teacher's union agreed to a four-month step freeze as part of our negotiations; all administrators and the superintendent offered a year-long wage freeze in an attempt to hold on to teaching positions."
When there's no creative way out of a budget crunch, districts are often forced to cut personnel. Nearly every respondent to our survey agreed with Tom Shelton, superintendent of Davies County Public Schools in Owensboro, Ky.: "If we are forced to cut staff, district-level positions would be considered first. The last possible place a cut should be felt is in the classroom. It must be about kids first."
Next, the Seemingly Fixed Costs
After salaries and benefits, mandatory costs like insurance, transportation, utilities, maintenance and contracted services eat up the next largest chunk of most district budgets, generally accounting for up to 15 percent every year. But, as many superintendents will testify, these are not necessarily fixed costs; there's a grab back full of tricks that districts employ to save money on operational expenses.
At Huffman ISD, a suburban district of 3,000 students outside Houston, Superintendent Steven Meyers has reduced his utility expenses by more than $400k in the past two years by retrofitting schools with energy management systems. The operating equipment allows the district to centrally control all of its heating and cooling devices so "we're not running AC in the middle of the night," Meyers says. Funded through a lease-purchase agreement, the arrangement allows the district to pay for the cost of the system from the savings it generates, and will be entirely paid for in six years.
"Almost every district--whether they have someone come in and put together an energy management plan for them, or do something in-house like put procedures in place for turning off the lights, could save a significant amount of money," Meyers says.
The next most likely place to look for savings is in non-core competencies, things like food service and transportation that can often be handled better and cheaper by outside vendors who specialize in that industry. Many districts that have chosen to outsource their food service have turned those functions into student-loved, revenue generators, after years of subsidizing unappetizing meals.
"We contract out for school transportation and food service and have saved several million dollars over the past nine years," says. Dennis D. Murray, superintendent at Perris (Calif.) Union High School District.
Conversely, in-sourcing some functions can also lead to cost savings, as the Greece (N.Y.) Central Schools realized.
"Our largest cost savings during the past five years has been through the ongoing reduction and elimination of purchased special education services from outside agencies," says Margaret Keller-Cogan, Greece's superintendent. "By creating a much broader continuum within our district we have saved $1.2 to $2.1 million per year.
Other approaches to trimming seemingly fixed costs:
Eliminate or combine bus routes, using bigger buses, or passenger vans, as needed
Shift technology, maintenance and transportation purchases or upgrades to bond issues.
Buck the Conventional Wisdom
Stephen D. Levitt, author of best seller Freakonomics, asks the question, "What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?" In asking, and answering, this and other freakishly compelling probes, Levitt advocates "turning conventional wisdom on its head." This may be just the latest form of the cliche "think outside the box" but it's true that questioning accepted norms can often lead to savings in surprising ways.
Murray, in Perris, Calif., found that he could save a bundle by re-examining conventional wisdom regarding economies of scale.
"Do we actually save money by warehousing supplies, paying for employee time to inventory, order and deliver, or can we make better use of the resources through site-based ordering that is direct shipped?" Murray asks. "These considerations have actually allowed us to put more dollars in the classrooms, reduce class size, add more student services and raise employee salaries," he says.
Strategic Approaches to Budgeting
Questioning the conventional wisdom may mean a departure from budget as usual. In Statesville, N.C., Superintendent Terry Holliday has taken a cue from business in implementing a zero-based budgeting process, based on the Baldridge National Quality Program for education.
The budget for the Iredell-Statesville schools has been categorized into approximately 50 line items, each owned by a particular staff member or group. When the budget process begins every year, each person responsible for a line item makes a presentation to a budget committee on how the money was spent the prior year, the results achieved, and how they're tied to the district's 28 strategic goals. The owner then makes a pitch for next year's allocation, whether it remains static, decreases or increases.
"We say, 'Assume you have no money and make an argument for what you need to meet your customer requirements,' " says Holliday. "Fringe benefits are the only thing that are a given--retirement contributions, health benefits, social security and other things based on state formulas."
After eight to 10 budget meetings, the committee puts together a list of items or programs that they think aren't producing enough results for the investment; they call this a list of potential 'redirects'. This year's redirect list had $1.6 million in potential cuts.
"What we do through our budgeting process is identify all those redirect items that are not adding value," Holliday says. And if budget cuts are required, "we take that list to all the building principals and say, 'If you were going to cut from this list, which would you cut?' " After the principals give their input, the list is sent to the board of education, which has final say on all budget matters. "We look at every dollar every year to make sure we're spending it in the most effective way possible," Holliday says. "Ours isn't just a carry-over budget."
Similar to the zero-based budget approach is another that's intricately tied to strategic goals.
"What we're moving toward is what we call budgeting the plan," says Peter Flynn, superintendent of a K-12 district with 4,300 students in Freeport, Ill. "Most school districts plan their budget; they figure we're going to get this much money and try to figure out where to spend it. We do the opposite. We develop a strategic plan that assumes certain operational things are going to continue, but also states our goals over the coming years. Then we try to figure out an action plan to achieve our goals."
The entire district has a "plan on a page" that states goals and plans to achieve them. Each principal also develops a plan on a page for his or her school. "Then we budget the plan. We ask the principals to come and tell us what they need to accomplish their goals," Flynn says. This approach to budgeting developed as a result of a partnership with a major employer in the area, Honeywell.
But this approach can't be implemented everywhere, Flynn says. "There are a lot of districts that don't have this luxury because they're operating on a crisis basis. Some of the fast-growth districts in Illinois can't generate enough revenue to build schools for all the kids who are coming in. But in districts where we have some stability, we can begin to look strategically at what our issues are."