Amid the economic warning signs there’s the recognition that a recession, in addition to shrinking K-12 budgets and spending, could upend policies that have developed over the past decade that have prioritized equitable funding and other resources. Jess Gartner, the CEO and founder of Allovue, an education management firm that helps districts create and plan budgets, acknowledged that conversations about consolidating or closing schools that are significantly below their enrollment capacity are often difficult. But it’s better to consider the possibility and do other budget diagnostics in relatively calm circumstances than “trying to do that in the height of a crisis.” “It may well be a matter of survival for the district” she said. She said it’s also important for districts to scrutinize contracts and other expenses every year, instead of letting bureaucratic inertia take over, and to be careful not to use one-time grant or other funding for teacher positions that can’t be sustained when circumstances crunch operating budgets.
Building a smarter (and cheaper) school bus system: How a Boston-MIT partnership led to new routes that are 20% more efficient and saved the district $5 million
A team from MIT’s Operations Research Center, created an algorithm that saved Boston schools $5 million and 1 million miles driven in its first year. One of the most expensive school transportation departments in the country was able to reduce its fleet by 8 percent, the largest single year-over-year drop in district history. “They were the clear winner,” says Will Eger, Boston Public Schools’ strategic projects manager — and that winning solution, which did in just 30 minutes what used to take a team of 10 staffers 3,000 hours to accomplish, can help districts all across the nation. The best solution turned out to be not the one with the fewest buses per each school, but one that reuses buses from school to school. The ongoing work the team is doing with Boston has led…an MIT professor, to launch Dynamic Ideas, a company marketing the product to other school districts, now in the early stages of adoption.
Alec Resnick and Shaunalynn Duffy won the $10 million grant in September 2016 as an “XQ Super School,”…The two had spent nearly seven years designing a new kind of high school, Powderhouse Studios. Finances became an insurmountable sticking point for Superintendent Mary Skipper and school committee members, even with $10 million pledged from XQ. State law mandates that Innovation Schools must receive the same amount per pupil as the district’s average, which in Somerville was roughly $17,000 per student. It didn’t seem like Somerville’s comprehensive high school, which enrolls about 1,250 students, could afford to lose 160 students to the new school. Costs for building maintenance, teachers and counselors would change very little, but the school would have millions less to cover them. Justifying the financial toll of a new school is a universal challenge for school designers.
West Virginia’s public school system, because of a series of technical, logistical, and political hurdles, is one of the last major government bodies in the state to detail for its citizens exactly how it spends its money. That’s inflamed mistrust between taxpayers and public school officials and left a $2 billion blank space (more than half the state’s budget) in the auditor’s popular and award-winning “WVCheckbook” website, where taxpayers can search through thousands of government transactions and salaries. “We need to make sure all the data that we maintain regarding student achievement and spending is available to the public in a way that they can understand,” State Auditor John “JB” McCuskey said. “This is the public’s data.”
The state education department told the Education Institute of Hawaii that it didn’t have the technological tools to give a line-by-line accounting for much of the $2 billion in K-12 spending, including teachers’ and administrators’ salaries. State departments of education across the country this year have been under intense pressure to open their fiscal books to the public, a technologically and politically complicated feat. Hawaii also is among several states with antiquated data systems that can’t track the thousands of transactions school districts make throughout the school year. Department officials are blaming those data systems for high-profile glitches that have occurred this year as state legislatures seek to boost teacher pay and states look to comply with a new federal requirement to break out school spending amounts. “To have any sense of empowerment, you have to have an idea of the fiscal health of the department,” said former state assistant superintendent and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Ray L’Heureux.
A common myth is that principals are like CEOs of their schools, with authority to make key decisions and strategically deploy resources. The reality, though, is quite different. Principals typically are treated like middle managers, with little control over the $694 billion in annual U.S. public education spending. At the state level, school finance formulas determine how dollars are allocated to districts, virtually all of which contain allotments that are restricted for specific purposes. But perhaps the biggest impediment to giving school principals more autonomy are school districts, where most spending decisions are made by central offices. Instead of giving principals actual dollars to spend, most districts allocate staffing positions and other resources based on one-size-fits-all models. For example, a district might dole out one teacher for every 25 students, an assistant principal for every 250 students, and a social worker for every 500 students.
Where, exactly, do those billions of dollars taxpayers annually spend for schools go? In most states, policymakers really don’t know. That’s because state education departments don’t have the technology to track the tens of thousands of transactions that district officials, using a combination of federal, state, and local dollars, make throughout the school year. So instead, the departments give lawmakers a receipt that includes a summation of broad spending categories, a breakout of average salaries, and maybe a mention of whether spending is up or down. But overhauling education departments’ data-collecting tools…can cost millions of dollars and fan flare-ups between policymakers over student privacy and local control. It’s a price tag and an ideology battle few policymakers want to take on.
Regardless of what happens…at the ballot box, school systems know they can’t wait; they must use their limited resources as strategically — and as equitably — as possible to accelerate student learning. “How much” schools receive is important; “how well” resources are used is also key. Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a national nonprofit with a California office and focus, recently profiled eight school systems from across the country that used their resources strategically and are seeing tangible results for black, Latinx and low-income students. Among those, two California districts provide examples of how school systems can manage people, time and money effectively.
Raise the topic of education finance and most will jump to the revenue side of the equation. But the spending side is equally important and gets shorter shrift. Parents and educators have not been asking, Is the district giving my school a fair share of its money? And local leaders have not asked what is purchased with that money and whether those purchases make the best use of the money. Part of the reason so much less time is spent on the spending side of the equation is a lack of visibility into how the money is spent. But that is about to change, thanks to a new provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act. In this Q&A, Dr. Marguerite Rosa shines a light on the pressing need to better support district and school leaders in their work on the spending side of the equation.
Several Massachusetts superintendents are spending more money on schools that enroll mostly wealthy students than they are on schools that educate mostly poor students, even though the state designed its funding formula to do the exact opposite. And some schools are outperforming other schools even though they’re receiving significantly less money. That’s according to a new report by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Three bills under consideration in the state legislature could provide significantly more money to districts. But the distribution methods and amounts vary widely. MBAE found that under the current system, districts such as Brockton, Chelmsford and New Bedford, distribute their money between schools in an inconsistent way that often is not targeted toward the state’s neediest students. That dynamic isn’t always the case, the group found. Many districts in the state distribute more money to schools with more poor students and many others distribute their money evenly between schools.