How to stretch the school-district dollar

Stretching the school-district dollar is a must in tough times, writes Fordham’s Michael J. Petrilli in a new policy brief.

“Aim for a leaner, more productive, better paid workforce,” he advises.

In the last two decades, school systems have hired all manner of instructional coaches, teachers’ aides, program administrators, support staff, counselors, psychiatrists, specialists, and so forth. Redefining these roles—and those of classroom teachers—provides great opportunities for increased productivity. None of this is easy, but districts should consider:

Asking classroom teachers to take on additional responsibility in return for greater pay. Can they do without aides? Handle larger classes (or student loads)? Take on mentoring roles along with classroom instruction? Where these additional responsibilities enable the system to operate with fewer staff (even if that means the remaining staff work a longer year), the system can justify higher pay while still realizing savings.

Districts also should rethink special education, Petrilli writes.

For example, if a district uses a “co-teaching” model with regular teacher and a special education teacher in the same classroom—which is hugely expensive—could it try a pull-out approach instead? Or if the best model has these students staying in the classroom, could the extra services be provided over the summer, or after school?

He also suggests a more aggressive salary schedule that lets teachers reach the maximum base pay more quickly, prioritizing salaries over benefits and “thoughtful” integration of technology.


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  1. Many years ago, I read an article comparing the central-office staffs of the DC Public Schools and the Archdiocese of Baltimore schools. The two districts had almost exactly the same number of students, but the Archdiocese had something like 15 admins and DCPS had something like 1400. I’m betting that most large districts have vastly more bureaucracy than is either necessary or desirable.

    • Public schools require tons of bureaucrats and their secretaries to produce, shuffle and file all the federal paperwork that comes along with a federal Department of Education………of course, some see this as a feature not a bug.

    • Forbes had a similar article only it was a comparison of the New York Public Schools system to the New York archiocesan school system. The article was based on a master’s thesis by a former employee of the NY public schools who knew his way around the various subterfuges the district used to obscure the true administrative budget.

      I don’t remember much about the article, it was also quite a while ago, but I do remember that the high school division of the NYPS devoted slightly more then 70% of its budget to administrative costs and that the administrative staff of the NYPS was also massively larger then the administrative staff of the archdiocesan school organization.

      I think it may be a problem that’s in the process of being solved.

      One of the inevitable outcomes of the spread of charter schools is the realization that a central office staff contributes nothing to the running of schools. Charter schools get along without a central office staff and without the cost of same.

      As states cast about for ways to make tax dollars go farther I believe the central office staff will take their place on the budget-cutter’s chopping block.

  2. Must be a slow day at Fordham if Petrilli’s engaging in the pointless exercise of lecturing school districts on saving money.

    Also, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the institution.

    Squandering public money isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

    If a district squeezes every nickel until the buffalo belches all they’d have to look forward to is a smaller budget next year. Obviously, if they didn’t spend every last nickel this year, even over-spent a certain amount, they didn’t need that big a budget to begin with.

  3. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Petrilli doesn’t understand how/why co-teaching works — or LRE. I’ve co-taught with a sped colleague for 11 years. I agree it is an enormously expensive model, but it does effectively provide access to the regular curriculum for LD and ED students, and it is especially effective for the growing numbers of Aspergers/Autism Spectrum kids.

  4. Cranberry says:

    Petrilli’s never run a school system. Why would anyone listen to him?

    State/federal mandates, IEPs (which are binding contracts), and teachers’ contracts make most of what he recommends impossible to achieve.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      So Petrilli is implicitly saying that one way to “stretch the school district dollar” is to change those things. They started at some point in the past and they can be modified at some point in the future.

      • Cranberry says:

        Find me a politician who will commit to cutting school budgets. Better yet, find me a state legislature which will commit to cutting school budgets, and giving school districts the right to unilaterally alter union contracts.

        Find me the unions which will agree to drastic cuts in benefits, salary, and membership, with increases in teacher responsibilities.

        Find me the parents who will agree to give up their children’s right to “least restrictive environment.”

        At present, none of the above have an interest in cutting school budgets.

        Petrilli’s children are enrolled at a private school, I believe. His opinion that teachers can take on the duties presently covered by aides may change quickly the first time one of his children is in a classroom with a child with behavior issues.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Right now none of those things exist. We are an incredibly rich country, and as we all know, the rich can buy their way out of a lot of problems. But we are gradually realizing that we are not nearly as rich as we thought we are.

          That’s going to lead to some hard choices down the road.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Cranberry, I guess you missed the NJ, IN, and WI controversies? Many states are cutting funding of school budgets. Some have just cut (Christy), some have tried to re-negotiate union contracts for benefit purposes (Walker), some have tired creative way to limit expeditures with vouchers (Daniels). They’re not the only ones. It’s a national trend at the state level.

  5. So Petrilli is implicitly saying that one way to “stretch the school district dollar” is to change those things. They started at some point in the past and they can be modified at some point in the future.

    Most of them are mandated by federal law. Giving tips to ‘stretch the school dollar” by changing federal law is a bit like giving plastic fruit to a famine victim.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    I used to work in insurance, including benefits. Until you’ve actually seen the figures, you have no idea how much a fat benefit program costs. Astronomical.