You are here


The Superintendents Speak

The declining economy is impacting schools nationwide. We asked four top school leaders nationwide how they’re coping.


Benjamin Soria, Yakima (Wash.) Public Schools

Two areas are beginning to have an impact. One is rising fuel costs. The other is food. We’ve spent $250,000 additional on fuel. For food, we’ve had a $150,000 increase. I don’t believe the faltering economy is impacting us as much as it has the potential to. The state budget is biennial. Right now there’s talk they might be $3 billion or $4 billion short in revenues. I expect a bigger impact on the 2009-2010 budget.


Spending is increasing, obviously, by about $10 million, because of salaries and an increase in costs. The budget is $156 million.

[If I could change spending priorities in my budget,] I probably would be reviewing some areas that right now state or federal guidelines require us to spend at the secondary level. I’d maybe prefer to lower class size in primary grades.

One area that stands out for us right now [as far as reducing spending] is security. We spend in excess of $1 million for police officers as well as internal security monitors. Obviously, if there was a way for us to reduce that, that would be fantastic. Another area is transportation. Right now the district needs about $1 million more than it receives from the state.

I believe we can be more cost-effective by centralizing our training. We will be offering staff development on an as-needed basis to individual buildings. We will develop specific staff training for K8. We’ll invite those people to come to staff development as a group. They’ll also be able to share ideas.


Dan Shepherd, Marion (Ark.) School District

The faltering economy and high prices are greatly influencing our transportation system. We use mostly diesel. It’s affecting trips that the school requests that are optional—day trips, student interest trips across the river in Memphis. If this thing gets way out of control, we may have to look at sports. The heating bills—some pundits are saying there will be a 30 percent increase. Some say 50 percent. We’re budgeting probably 25 percent more than last year here in Arkansas. And we spent them to the hilt last year, the first time ever. We overspent our budget for fuel by $60,000.

We always have some creep on costs. With salaries, we’re in a reduction mode. We absorbed seven positions. We will have a little bit of money, but if I give a raise it will be a very small one. We’re now looking at health care. It’s getting exorbitant. The family plan costs $800 to $1,100 a month, less the $131 district donation. That goes up 23 percent this October.

We had an extra superintendent in this office. I let his contract expire. I couldn’t renew it. I couldn’t justify it this year. We just absorbed a drama teacher who resigned. I found another one in speech who could pick up those periods and do drama for us.

Fuel is stabbing us in the eye. The energy management systems are critical. The supervision of buildings to make sure you’re not wasting energy—it’s critical. It’s basically putting a strap on everything—travel decisions, staff-development decisions, class trip decisions.

We do careful monitoring [in terms of devising ways to spend smarter]. We have site-based budgets. We identify things before they get out of balance. It called for more careful supervision, careful budgeting on the front end. When things are not spent, the question comes from me: Why did you say you needed that when you haven’t spent it?


Krista Parent, South Lane (Ore.) School District

Obviously we’ve had to increase those [fuel] line items in the budget. We’ve increased our fuel budget every year for the past three years, but pretty significantly this year. Ultimately it does impact instruction. It does impact our ability to lower class sizes.

We increased [school spending] slightly, about 3 percent because of increased funds from the state level. All of our kids aren’t meeting state standards. So am I happy? No. I think we’re making good progress. We’re adding to the number of kids who are meeting state standards each year, but for summer school, we limited the amount of slots. All the kids who need summer school aren’t in it. Seventeen percent of our kids qualify for special education services, so it’s expensive. I just got a bill for $167,000 for three deaf kids, for interpreter services.


We’re not investing enough resources into professional development of existing staff. Instructional research is coming out all the time. When you have staff that hasn’t been trained in those things, you’ve got to provide training. There’s a whole lot more we need to be doing, not just in my district but across the country. I believe in training staff. That $100,000 that I added for fuel, we could have used part of that in a professional development program.

I don’t have a good answer [on reducing spending in one category if I could]. There’s not much left to cut. When you start making cuts, if affects the classroom. We have gas tanks at our transportation department. We don’t own those tanks. We’re stuck buying from the company that owns those tanks. It’s going to cost us about $30,000 to buy our own tanks. We’re biting the bullet. Otherwise we’re hostage to the one company, and they can charge us whatever they want.

We’ve been very soft-money driven. We’ve looked for grants, mostly in the area of doing professional development [to spend smarter]. We’ve been really successful. A lot of times it’s federal dollars. We have a position posted right now for a fund-development director. We had local foundations give us $500,000 to fund this position, to pay for the first three years. There’s actually a lot of money in our community, but nobody has the time to get this done.


Peter Gorman, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools

I do think we’ve been impacted [by the faltering economy and high food and fuel prices] but not nearly as severely as other places. We have received increased aid from the state and an increase from the county as well. At the same time, we didn’t get everything we requested. The shortfall was $18 million from the county. We received $10 million in new funds from the county. We’re being very careful with that because we know that John Q. Public was at the gas station last week filling up his car at $4 a gallon.

We asked for new funds to handle growth-sustaining operations and opening new schools. In Charlotte, we’re growing by 3,500 new students a year. We’re opening six new schools next year. We have to tighten our belts. And we’ll open more the year after.

Right now we’re spending $22 million a month on new construction and renovations. We’ve picked it up again with the passage of a half-billion-dollar bond.

We will increase [school spending this school year]. I don’t think it is enough for classroom instruction. Our overall academic performance has gone quite well, particularly when you compare us to other districts that have a large urban core. We’re just under 50 percent free or reduced lunch. We still have a dramatic achievement gap.

While money alone won’t solve it, we do know that we won’t solve it without money. We don’t have enough resources in the form of teachers in day-to-day contact with kids in small enough numbers.

[If I could change our spending priorities I would change] how we give funds to schools. I would give more flexibility. We’re a highly regulated state.

Our expected transportation budget for next year is $69.7 million. We have a very complex transportation system that includes 50 magnet schools—some are districtwide, some are by zones.

While it provides equity of access, it’s very difficult for me to be convinced that transportation equals academic success. Then again, equity and access are important. Should it be just children of parents who can afford to transport them to different programs who should go?

I don’t know that we’re spending smarter. We’re just having to prioritize and making tough choices. An example: We’ve expanded the walk zones for our schools. Kids have to walk farther. We have a community that has not over time embraced putting in sidewalks.

I don’t know that that’s the best way to do that because now we have some kids walking routes I’m not comfortable with. We’re really in a Catch-22.

Christopher Hann is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.