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Finance & Taxation        < Previous        Next >


Cutting School Costs From A to Z


Q. I get tired of hearing people gripe about their taxes, a large part of which goes for public schools. But nobody ever seems to make any concrete suggestions for how we could cut school spending in order to hold the line on taxes, or maybe even (gasp!) reduce them. All I hear about is spending more money, not less. Now, I don't want to see teachers take a cut in pay. But we have to start somewhere with cost-cutting. Where?


Educators are not responsible for securing the resources they need to do their jobs, the way people in a private business or running a home usually are. When you're spending other people's money, the mindset is just different.


How many times have you heard about someone appearing before your school board and suggesting tangible ways they could cut school spending? Maybe never? That's the problem. The apathy and ignorance of school spending is why costs per pupil, even after adjusted for inflation, have more than doubled in this generation of students.


Let's face it: we, the people, have been pretty lousy bosses in the spending accountability area.


So it's up to we, the people, to act like the parent, and "make schools do as they're told." "And that means cut costs before we bankrupt ourselves. Nobody likes the idea of cutting teacher jobs, so let's concentrate on non-classroom expenditures.


Educators may wriggle. They may whine. But it's time for the rest of us to step in like a determined mama and give school spending a business bath.


It's as easy as ABC:




It may be time to elect school superintendents instead of having them appointed, since elected officials are usually more cognizant of the impact on the citizens of each decision to increase spending and, thus, taxes. Also, it's time to let noneducators compete for top school management jobs in school districts and state government. Good management is what is needed, much more than subject-matter expertise in education.




Let's go back to "zero-based budgeting" which reduces opportunities for featherbedding and other budgetary excesses, and across-the-board minor nonteaching staff reductions just to get a handle on the increase in expenditures. Reduction in Force (RIF) of 5% of the educrats - employees of government agencies that focus on education -- in our state education department and the Educational Service Units, or ESUs.




No-bid contracts . . . cousin-cousin deals . . . nepotism . . . we're spending hundreds of millions on education with very little outside oversight. Whenever you have human beings working together with money at stake, you will have waste, fraud and corruption. Look at all the civil litigation between private companies regarding contracts. It's astounding that we aren't demanding better oversight of the billions of dollars in school spending. Let's get investigative audits going, enact "sunshine laws" to expose business relationships, and demand more information from our schools about their vendors.


Debt service


Those "spending per pupil" figures of $7,000 or $8,000 are typically just general-fund, annual operating expenditures. If you add off-budget items such as debt service on new buildings on top of that, in many districts, the true spending per pupil tops $10,000 a year. Interest can add significantly to the real cost of a new school building or remodeling, but educrats rarely mention it. Let's make 'em, and make sure every proposal for a new building includes open, honest financial information about the long-term costs of going into debt to build that building. Then maybe smaller-scale remodeling will look more palateable than a whole new building.


Expense accounts


Districts should have to publish a detailed list of employee expenses, including entertainment, travel costs, destinations, hotels, per diems, purposes and itemized "other" costs. They should put them on their websites. Why not? We bought them those websites, and the computers they use to keep track of those expenses. Let's see where the dollars go.




Quick: do you have any idea how much your school district's property is worth? Very few people do. In most cases, school buildings are worth a ton, and in some neighborhoods, they stand idle. Districts don't like selling school buildings because they're afraid (gasp!) competition might start up in them, meaning private schools. Well, so what? Competition is GOOD. Isn't it? If it's not, then OK, let's cancel all school football, basketball and baseball seasons. Gotcha! But honestly: what about selling off excess and idle property? In addition, schools should publish the fair-market value of their buildings, land and equipment, and details of their maintenance, utilities and landscaping spending, in a way that taxpayers can understand.




Grants are morphing schools away from educational pursuits and toward providing politicized social services. Let's see grant applications posted on school websites. You may be shocked at the lack of educational intent and measurable goals . . . big-dollar drug ed grants with no specified, distinct, measurable goal for reducing drug and alcohol use among kids, or that the program they want to fund even works, for example. Just that they'll try, and they hope it does. Sigh.


Health care costs


Fringe benefits represent another one-fourth to one-third of salaries that we must pay for. "Bennies" are like a thick frosting on the salary cake. But we all know about skyrocketing health-care costs. Everybody's doing cost containment and shifting more of the load on employees; why shouldn't schools do it, too? Let's see what deductibles and premiums are, so we can compare them to private-sector insurance plans. Again, this information should be posted on district websites. Since it's not, it looks like they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too.




Most school districts are wide open to waste, theft and fraud because of poor inventory control methods. Are paper, books, games, furniture, ed tech parts, and other stuff going into the dumpster instead of being used or at least sold at garage-sale prices? The end of every school year is "dumpster diving" season . . . the retrieval by scavengers of items school districts have thrown away rather than get caught featherbedding. Sighhhhhh. Districts also literally throw away good items through their "service centers," and if there's a report listing even garage-sale equivalents, the public never sees it.




University of Nebraska running backs should have such deceptive moves. The educrats ooze that property tax rates are not going up . . . but increases in real-estate valuations produce more money for schools, anyway. That's because it's an equation: the tax rate, or mill levy, times the amount of money your home is worth. So even if the tax rate (mill levy) set by school boards remain the same, the near-universal increase in property valuations produces more money for schools, and often substantially so. Similarly, educrats ooze that teacher salaries are abysmally low . . . never mentioning their 185-day work "year" versus 235 days for the rest of us, so that actually, their salaries are better than comparable private-sector jobs. No more ooze. Tell us straight.




Put parents back in control of the money. Every additional state and federal tax dollar sent into local schools drives the stake deeper into the heart of local control. The farther away from the source of the funding you are, the less power you have. So the funding power needs to be yanked back from Washington, D.C., and state capitals, to the local yokels. The reason private schools do a better job is that parents have directly invested in the operation. Public schools will never do the job they should without this accountability key.


Long-distance phone bills


Just publish 'em. Are there calls to Las Vegas and phone sex lines? Were they placed from the teachers' lounge . . . or the superintendent's office? If not, good. If so . . . uh, oh.




What percentage of school staff have been dismissed in the last year? Zero? Isn't that a red flag, if your district employs lots of people? Find out the comparable turnover in a similarly-sized private business. Are educators so perfect? What percentage of the computer equipment your district owns or leases is in working order? How much are discrimination and sexual harassment settlements costing your district? How much does your district have in cash reserves and why? What percentage of your school board's votes are unanimous? If it's close to 100%, are they serving as watchdogs of the public trust and public dollar . . . or a fat, lazy rubber stamp likely to tolerate poor management out of sheer apathy or powerlessness?


Nonmedical special ed


The so-called "learning disability" category has exploded. That's why special education spending has exploded, and yet there's a SPED teacher shortage. But in the vast majority of cases, there's no medical diagnosis behind the "LD" label; it's just that the student doesn't read very well. A growing army of critics believe the way that schools teach reading in the early grades, which is not based purely on phonics, is why so many children are getting labeled "LD" and causing so many special-ed staffers to be hired, in order to try to teach them to read - when it was the wrong method that caused the problem, not anything "wrong" with the student. Each district should publish its numbers for each SPED category. You may find that 80% of your SPED kids don't have a medical diagnosis for a physical or mental disability, and shouldn't be SPED at all. Sigh. Let's get them out of there, and save beaucoup bucks, by teaching reading with phonics-only methods in the early grades.


Open up the books


A simple and effective way to provide accountability would be to publish the district's checkbook on the district's website. This should be a searchable data base so we can see what vendors are being paid for what items. Each warrant should be itemized. It's OK to list paychecks by job title rather than name so that nobody gets embarrassed. But the principle is "transparency" with the budget. It's our money, and we deserve to see where it's going.


Professional development


I've sat in on some staff development workshops and inservices at local districts and the ESUs. All I can say is: oh, my . . . and we're PAYING for this? What a big waste of time most of this stuff is. To whittle it down, staff development costs should be itemized for taxpayers, including costs of providing substitute teachers. Agendas, outlines and speaker biographies should be published, too. Most of the rest of us have far less "free" professional development, and if we need or want more, we read books on our own dime, on our own time, to get better at what we do. Why shouldn't teachers?


Quality measurements


Let's not stroke out over standardized test scores, although they're a good accountability tool. Quality goes far beyond test scores, though. Let's have some stats that educators don't like to trumpet: dropouts; how many seniors don't graduate on time; what percentage of high-school and middle-school students read below grade level; what percentage of high-school students don't take calculus, chemistry and physics; what percentage of enrolled students are exempted from, or don't take, standardized tests; what percentage of your district's high school graduates have to take one or more remedial classes when they get to college and at what cost to their parents and taxpayers, who subsidize colleges or at least the public ones and therefore are paying twice for the same education. . . .


Retirement costs


It's probably time to roll back the largesse of the 1990s, in which many states set up early retirement plans for teachers. A typical plan: if you work as a teacher for 30 years and reach age 55, you can retire with your full pension, and still have 10 years of energy to work at a job and "double-dip." With people living longer these days, a teacher's pension may be "worth" $1 million. Yet the reason for cushy pensions was supposed to be to lure good teachers to stay in teaching 'til retirement. Now we have all the experienced veterans taking early retirement, and the beginners don't have leaders to look up to. Not smart. Too costly. Let's roll it back.




Each district, the state education department and the ESUs should all have to publish their salary schedules by job title. Again, that's what the websites are for. This is eye-popping info that taxpayers need to know.


Time management


Minute for minute, less than 50% of the typical school day is spent on core academics in the classroom, the good stuff parents want. The rest of the time goes for passing periods, the huge shift into nonacademic activities like guidance class and "life lab," fund-raisers, social services, lunch, recess, death ed, drug ed, gang ed, Mr. Ed, assemblies, holiday celebrations, "closing activities," and so on. Couldn't some or most of that optional stuff, that is not required by state law, be moved to after-school time? And shouldn't optional, nonacademic activities be paid for by user fees from those parents who want them for their children?


Union contracts


Silver bullet: arrange for a smart, tough, experienced labor lawyer to go over the labor union contract and bird-dog giveaways and frou-frou. Better yet, hire them to negotiate instead of school-district pantywaists who cave in, year after year. Remember, school administrators are "bargaining" with their buddies on the other side of the table. How can we realistically expect them to represent us with their full strength? This is a huge problem and a huge conflict of interest. And the union contract should be posted on the district website, if nothing else, to quell rumors that a certain teacher's breast augmentation surgery was paid for with tax dollars because it was included under fringe benefits in the union contract, and stuff like that.




Districts and education agencies should list what vehicles they own and lease, how much they are worth, who is driving them, and what happens in the off-season. That goes for buses, vans, and district-supplied autos for administrators. Do they really need a Navigator? Why not a Civic?




Find out what your district's website address is, if they have one. Look at the PR schmooze on there. Are they serving the students, parents and taxpayers . . . or themselves? This should be a great accountability tool. Make 'em use it. The webmaster should report to the elected school board, not the administration.




There's a thing called "one-color photocopying" but school districts don't know about it. Instead, their printing bills are sky-high. Why must they have color brochures on heavy paper stock, and newsletters and notes from poohbahs on color letterheads day after day? Why must they have expensive calendars given free to the public? Why must they have a public relations budget that exceeds City Hall's? Why paid newspaper ads, and paid ads in the symphony program? Why can't they get with the '00s and publish this stuff for cheaps on their websites?


Year-round education


If the drumbeat hasn't come to your town yet, it will. Hold on to your hips: this is the biggest money-grab yet. It's been tried and booted from coast to coast, and it's terrible for kids. The evidence is clear, both here and abroad: there is absolutely no connection between more time in school, and higher student achievement. This is all about money - more for schools, less for you, and a pretty good chance that kids will go even more "school sour" than they already are. Fend it off, or you'll be sorry.




That's how many other ways we could cut costs in schools if we would just come out of our stupor and try. What can you add to the suggestion box?



Homework: Which one of the above will you select to be your personal cause in your neck o' the woods?


By Susan Darst Williams Finance & Taxation 05 2008


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