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States Offer Schools a New Outlook on Management, Financial Aptitude

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Come audit our schools, please.That's the somewhat surprising request being made by school districts in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where state agencies offer free comprehensive reviews of school management and spending strategies.

Betty Ressel

And, while the reviews present public relations risks, they can also yield more useful data than standard, state-mandated compliance audits. That, say proponents, means more tax dollars will get into classrooms.

"We don't only look for ways to improve a district, we look for exemplary practices that we can pass to other districts," said Betty Ressel, the manager of school performance reviews for the Texas comptroller's office.

Robert P. Casey Jr.

The program has been a success in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the 42,000-student school system recently underwent a review.

"This has made us sit back and look at how our existing programs can improve academics and save money doing it," said Jan Powers, the spokeswoman for the Corpus Christi schools. "We're really taking it to heart."

Some observers, however, caution that there is a potential downside. They say elected officials who run the programs could use schools as scapegoats to generate self-serving publicity.

"When you let someone look at your operations, and have no control over what they do afterward, there has to be a strong element of trust," said Paul Rach, the superintendent of the 2,800-student Yough, Pa., schools, which volunteered for a state review. "In our case ... we wanted a fresh look."

Leap of Faith

Beginning last April, state reviewers in Texas, working with the Neal & Gibson consulting firm of Austin, spent six months scouring 12 areas of the Corpus Christi district's operations, from food and school services to investments.

Along the way, they talked with 1,000 parents, students, and school staff members, easing concerns that they might limit participation in the process. The district eventually received a 503-page report with 109 recommendations for $18.8 million in potential savings through 2002.

The report urged the southeast Texas district to cut overtime hours for transportation and food services. It praised the district's academic standards, but said that staff training in the standards was lacking.

Perhaps the biggest finding was that 642 district employees, or 20 percent, have 20-plus years of experience and are near retirement. The report outlined a six-month plan for implementing early retirements, which school officials are following. By this summer, they hope to have a system in place that would make nearly 2,000 employees eligible for early retirement and save up to $18 million over eight years.

"A lot of people across the state are nearing retirement. This will put us at the front of the recruiting curve," said Linda Bridges, the president of the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers. "That's positive."

Corpus Christi is one of 25 districts picked from a list of volunteers for the review program since the Texas legislature initiated the effort as a pilot program in 1990.

Planting a Seed

In 1993, lawmakers made the program permanent. They also set a goal of reviewing operations involving 2 percent of the state's enrollment each year. Currently, about 70 districts are on the program's waiting list.

The reviews so far have yielded $300 million in cost-cutting ideas, all of which are optional for the participating districts. Ms. Ressel of the Texas comptroller's office said that, based on follow-up visits, 88 percent of the recommendations are being implemented. Other districts are encouraged to borrow from the reviews, which are made public and put on the World Wide Web.

While it can take a community six months to digest one of the bulky reports, Ms. Ressel added, "they have the blueprint for making quantum change in the district, not incremental changes in a few areas."

The Texas program has attracted attention--and imitation--in at least two other states.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat, launched his version of school performance reviews last fall. So far, 53 of the state's 501 districts have volunteered for the initiative.

"I was happy to get the response we did," Mr. Casey said in an interview. "We expected it to be less."

But the program has drawn protest from state Sen. Richard A. Tilghman. The Republican lawmaker asked for an independent legislative analysis to determine if Mr. Casey has the authority to conduct the reviews. "There are questions as to whether resources can be taken away from other mandated areas," said Richard Boyajian, the education analyst for Mr. Tilghman.

Unlike Texas, Pennsylvania lets districts choose specific areas for review, such as facilities. Six of 12 reviews slated for this year have been finished, and netted ideas for saving $12 million. "This is a $100,000 service," Mr. Casey added. "It's not often that state government knocks on your door and says we're here to help you and it's free."

Best Practices

Beginning in 1996, Florida legislators have picked three districts a year for Texas-style reviews. The work is coordinated by the legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

This year also marks the start of Florida's district reviews for best financial-management practices. Districts that volunteer for the program can earn certificates for meeting predetermined criteria.

"This is a way to show the public that they're doing a good job," said Jane Fletcher, the policy-analysis office's lead education analyst for the program. "If they're not using best practices, we'll give them an action plan."

Who Benefits?

Some observers point out that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and the reviews may come with a public relations price tag.

Each review by Mr. Casey's office includes a neatly bound report and press releases geared to promote his role as the taxpayers' watchdog.

But the exposure can cast a dubious, and potentially unfair light on schools, some complain.

The Wallenpaupack, Pa., district answered its recent review with a letter to Mr. Casey that both praised and faulted the process. In it, Superintendent Thomas A. Peifer defended the 3,500-student district's staffing patterns and sick-leave policy--both targeted for changes by the review.

He added that the report, which found nearly $5 million in potential savings over three years, ignored the impact of special education costs and cuts in state funding.

Thomas J. Gentzel, the director of government relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the program is "worth supporting as long as it's voluntary."

John Cole, the president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, attributed the success of the Texas program to state Comptroller John Sharp, a Democrat.

"He's a man of great integrity," Mr. Cole said. "But if they're unscrupulous and unethical, [public officials] can misuse their role."

And even good intentions can fall short, he added.

"The comptroller is a financial officer," he said. "He will, in his reports, sacrifice education to financial accountability from time to time."

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