Neil Leist is fond of saying that his office, filled with perfectly usable repurposed goods, is a snapshot of the money-saving mission he has pursued in the four years since he became superintendent of rural Clermont Northeastern Schools (CNE), east of Cincinnati.
"My desk is from a federal building in downtown Cincinnati, which shut down," explains Leist. "My computer, fax machine and copier are from a closed Ford plant. My desk and chairs are from a facility shut down by the Ohio Department of Education. My filing cabinets are from the Social Security office in Batavia."
Waste Not, Want Not
CNE's small administrative team regularly hits the road to collect surplus and recycled goods, instead of cash, from supportive businesses and public and private agencies throughout southwestern Ohio. The total value of computers, quality furniture and office products donated to CNE since Leist's tenure began would approach nearly $3 million if these items had been purchased new. What isn't put to use in the district's aging buildings is either donated to other local schools and groups in need or warehoused for a one-time fundraising auction planned for this spring.
Leist says that growing up on a family farm with its own sawmill was a lesson in resourcefulness. Learning how to think creatively helped prepare him to lead a three-school district that was suffering long before the current economic downturn, thanks to shrinking enrollment, limited local business opportunities, lack of affordable housing and a populace unwilling to increase its tax burden.
"Our district has always had a tight budget and trouble passing levies," explains CNE's longtime treasurer, Brian Switzer. "At our peak [in the 1980s], we had 2,700 kids. This year, we're down to 1,680. As the student enrollment drops, state funding drops, so that just compounds our financial problems." Neil, with his lead-by-example approach, has helped ease the burden. "Like most districts in Ohio, we will be making additional cuts this spring to live within our means. But we're not in a hole."
Neil Leist admits that he earned the moniker "Dumpster Diving Superintendent" when he couldn't resist climbing into a clean Dumpster to salvage some chairs being discarded during an office remodel. That catchy title drew national attention, landing him briefly on the cable network show Fox and Friends. Inspired by his success stories, board members and superintendents from throughout Ohio and other states started calling him for advice on how to stretch taxpayers' dollars.
Diving for Dollars
CNE's superintendent has since become so passionate about sharing dollar-saving ideas that he recently invested his own money in self-publishing a folksy, humorous paperback titled $uperintendent $avings $trategies. A top-10 list in the book serves as a blueprint for replicating CNE's experiences. Leist summarizes a few of the items on the list: "Join the Chamber of Commerce immediately. Have a business partnership event at your school, where you bring in and honor business leaders, community leaders, people who make a difference in your area. And start spending money like it's your own."
Leist is quick to point out that CNE's money-saving program is a team effort. When someone referred to him as Robin Hood, the name Friar Tuck was soon attached to his second-in-command, treasurer Brian Switzer, who often accompanies the superintendent on major acquisition runs. "Every one of my administrators has laughed when they've come in and interviewed," says Leist, "because they say I always ask, "How big of a box can you lift?"
For information on "$uperintendent $avings $trategies," visit www.neilleist.com.
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Northern California.