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How schools can save money when budgets are tight

Schools can save--without compromising instruction--by managing class size, streamlining special ed meetings
Nathan Levenson, senior managing director of the District Management Council, says school budgets will continue to be tight in coming years.
Nathan Levenson, senior managing director of the District Management Council, says school budgets will continue to be tight in coming years.

District budgets are likely to be tight for years to come, experts say—and a new report outlines strategies administrators can use to spend wisely during financially constrained times.

Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most from School District Budgets,” published in May, compiles savings tips recommended by superintendents, think tanks and professors. It was created by the District Management Council, a firm focused on helping public districts raise achievement and improve operational efficiencies. The approaches are based on financial benefit, impact on student achievement, political feasibility and ease of implementation.

“Many of the people running districts today have been managing budgets tightly and thoughtfully for years,” says Nathan Levenson, senior managing director of the District Management Council and co-author of the report. “But the world has taken a pivot toward tight budgets that will persist for years, and new approaches to do more with less are needed.”

Big savings can be found in unexpected places, Levenson says. For example:

  • Special education: In most districts, meetings and paperwork reduce the amount of time special education teachers can spend with students. District leaders who streamline meetings by three hours per week can reduce special education staff through attrition by 10 percent while still meeting IEP goals and not reducing a minute of service to students, the report found.
  • Federal grants: Some administrators are unaware that the flexibility of federal grants can help districts achieve budget goals, Levenson says. For example, Title I funds can be used to support school- wide priorities by tracking the time staff spend with targeted students.
  • Class-size management: Class size is always a political hot topic, but districts have reduced pushback to larger classes in many ways, including pairing larger classes with more effective teachers. At the high school level, staffing should be determined by the detailed student course selection numbers rather than by past staffing decisions, which may be outdated, Levenson says.

The financial crisis and depletion of government stimulus dollars after 2009 have resulted in the first ongoing national decline in per-pupil spending in nearly a century, Levenson says. In 2013-14, at least 35 states provided less funding per student than they did before the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The rising costs of health care, unfunded pensions and the national deficit leave fewer town, state or federal dollars for education, Levenson says.

“It’s hard to predict a future in which taxes will rise fast enough to cover those three costs with enough left over for increasing funding for public schools,” he says. “We believe this is not a short-term financial crunch but a long-term situation.”

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