A Final Thought - Can you cut budget and improve programs?

Last month, I noted that schools could have a difficult time getting funding during the next few years. Since then, dozens of columns and thousands of inches of newspaper and magazine space have carried the same message. State and federal budgets are running at a deficit and, despite all the talk about not raising taxes, somebody is going to have to pay for services (or services are going to be eliminated). In many states, schools must go directly to their constituents and ask for more money. And when everybody else is taking a bigger tax bite, voters may well exercise their right to vote against the one tax increase they can control, even if it means that children are the victims of their action.

The question is, will you wait until the last moment and make cuts that hurt, or can you preplan now and look for creative ways to provide the same or better services at lower cost? I’ve asked that question in a number of school districts lately, and here are some of the ideas that have been offered.

Administration is often the first place people look, but that can be a mistake. Leadership becomes more important when times are tough. But there are opportunities to examine. If one followed the lead of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and reorganized high schools to minimize the importance of departments, for example, some administrative duties might be eliminated.

Efficiency of organization should certainly be examined. What size elementary school works most efficiently, in terms of using the services of support teachers, aides and others? How about the size and organization of middle school teams? Would adding specialists to the teams strengthen education and, perhaps, save? Can some combination of tutoring and support supplant small high school classes, use faculty more efficiently and, possibly, improve the educational program?

Contracted services - would contracting out custodians, maintenance, food service, security, payroll and billing or transportation save money without lowering service?

Intelligent technology spending - one superintendent told me that the district was purchasing a lot of equipment with bells and whistles that are seldom used. The technology budget had become the district’s largest single line item, other than salaries. He raised two questions with his faculty: Do we need the very best and newest technology for our educational purposes? And, when we buy technology, is it actually used? With answers to those two questions, he felt comfortable cutting next year’s budget in half.

Technology as a teaching tool - while a close eye may be kept on spending for new technology, consider, too, how technology or other newer approaches to education might save money. Particularly in high schools, could technology change the way students learn - and how classes are formed - and lead to opportunities for cost savings.

Energy conservation and more - it’s been almost three decades since the oil boycott made school districts aware of the need to conserve energy by turning down thermostats, turning out lights and buttoning up buildings. In the interim, many districts have slipped back into sloppy habits. Now is the time to tighten up again - this is one place where dollars can be saved without in any way disturbing programs. There are many other areas where we all get into sloppy habits. For example, I sat in a meeting where 40 copies of a piece of paper were handed out. Only one person, the secretary, kept a copy. All the rest were discarded within minutes.

I am not suggesting that these are answers your schools should adopt. I am suggesting, however, that now is the time to start planning, before problems become immediate and you must make draconian decisions you would rather avoid. These are just starter ideas. What are your creative ideas? Please, share them with me so I can share them with other readers.

BY PAUL ABRAMSON Abramson Is education industry analyst for School Planning & Management and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, educational consultants, located in larchmont, n.y. contact him at .

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."