An Eagle Eye
This financial whiz with an educational heart of gold has earned the respect of colleagues near and far
According to her husband, Donna Smith can squeeze 10 pennies out of one. Sound like a tall tale? It's not that tall. It is more like a 5'1" tale of a born-and-bred Texan who has an eagle eye for spotting problems in spreadsheets. And while her husband is obviously biased, there are more neutral parties to attest to her Midas touch.
"I think our finances are in fantastic hands," says James Pendell, president of Board of Trustees for Clint Independent School District. "I think you will be seeing her soon as Superintendent of the Year for Texas."
Pendell says it is well known in western Texas how this well-dressed, energetic educator--more organized than Felix Unger--saved Clint from its financial woes.
Clint, comprised of three distinct communities not far from El Paso, is a property-poor district with a booming student population. The increasing numbers of primarily poor, Spanish-speaking students have been putting quite a stress on a rigid school finance structure.
Before Smith was hired as superintendent in September 2002, the district was dipping into its reserve fund to cover expenses, like salaries. Due to a Texas tax cap, the district could not raise local taxes any higher, nor could it expect any more money than it was getting from the state's "Robin Hood" funding formula.
So, borrowing from the reserve was its answer, whittling it down to $2.5 million, which only covers some 15 days of operation. The state suggests a district have some two-and-a-half months covered. In Clint, that translates to about a $10 million reserve fund.
Smith, who was the school finance specialist for Region 19 Education Service Center in El Paso before coming to Clint, has stoked the reserves up to $5 million and hopes to have it at proper levels in two more years.
It wasn't magic that produced these numbers. Smith made tough choices and cut some 97 positions to save $1.6 million. Last April, the district laid off 36 employees, including 14 teachers. The silver lining is that Smith has since rehired all but 12 (although for different jobs), and teachers received a 5 percent pay raise this school year.
"The district needed realigning as much as cutting," she explains. "I am a big fan of zero-based budgeting."
Smith says schools need to justify all expenses each year to avoid waste. She has also focused on maximizing federal dollars and getting the most out of Texas school finance formulas.
Smith is so knowledgeable in this area, Pendell says, that others throughout the region and state often consult her. Smith is a regional director of the Equity Center, a state coalition of some 600 property-poor school districts. The leader is also secretary treasurer for the Alvarado Plaintiff Interveners, a group of some 203 districts that is pressuring the state to change the way it funds education.
Experience is the Best Teacher
While Smith is certainly proud of her financial reputation, she asserts that her success as a superintendent is based on all her experience.
She worked on the business side, but she headed up curriculum departments.
"I did federal applications, I was a 504 coordinator, a textbook coordinator. You name it, I've done it," says Smith.
She is an educator at heart, says Rose Hamilton, Clint's assistant director of business services. Hamilton recalls one night when a special education student made a presentation to the board. Knowing the child's story and efforts, Hamilton was in tears. Not everyone was, but she could see Smith was crying, too.
"A lot of people think she is hard. She has very high standards and expectations," Hamilton says. "If you are going to work with her, you live up to those. But it leaves you with a pride that is unreal."
Amy D'Orio is a contributing editor.