5 strategies for balancing the budget while preserving instruction

How your school district can use technology, community cooperation and grade reconfiguration to keep a lid on personnel costs.

The share of school district budgets devoted to personnel costs is 80% to 85%, compared to the 35% to 40% at most public and private organizations and businesses, according to the School Budgets 101 brief from  AASA, The School Superintendents Association. That leaves little wiggle room for administrators tasked with maintaining fiscal responsibility and boosting the quality of education in a time of nearly stagnant and often unknown state funding.

Without a lot of low-hanging fruit to target, and with the goal of not laying off teachers or limiting student opportunities, districts are examining ways to save on staff who aren’t tied to union contracts or government policies, such as for class sizes.

Following are five strategies for balancing the budget without drastically affecting instruction.

1. Use technology to find efficiencies.

HR software can help administrators spot inefficiencies, such as duplication of responsibilities, through a “position control” system. The system serves as an inventory of various organizational role requirements and budgeted salaries, and reports help managers to evaluate staffing needs. 

Analytics software also assists in accurately comparing spending, either within a district’s schools or with another district. 

2. Perform a personnel audit.

Paying for a third-party audit may seem extravagant during a budget crunch, but the investment can be worthwhile. Outsider eyes can more objectively assess staffing patterns and suggest potential changes.

Auditors examine job descriptions and salaries as well as interview employees to get a sense of the on-the-ground reality. They then provide officials with a report identifying potential cuts—such as consolidating two jobs with duplication of work. Recommendations could also include adding a staff member. For example, one large district learned that hiring someone to distribute all mail would keep others from getting their productivity on key tasks disrupted to handle that task.

3. Outsource non-core tasks.

Anything unrelated to instruction is fair game—from food service to transportation or janitorial services. 

Districts that most effectively outsource retain someone on staff to monitor the performance of the company hired to take over the work. That person should frequently compare the services performed against the work agreement to make sure that the district is getting what it’s paying for.

4. Reconfigure classes.

Rethinking how students are grouped can save significant sums. A district that has two K5 elementary schools, for instance, may be able to save money by designating one school K2 and the other grades 3 through 5. Placing all the kids at one grade level in the same building instead of having sections in each building can cut down on the need for teachers and make planning and professional development easier. 

5. Petition state for relief.

Ultimately, district administrators can stretch their funding only so far. And that’s where advocating for state assistance, such as by getting rules about mandatory student/teacher ratios relaxed, can come in. 

And in general, establishing working relationships with state legislators is necessary today. As new mandates get proposed, district leaders will have a leg up in pressing for necessary changes.

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