Some Questions and Answers for School Districts on ‘Spending Money Wisely’

By Karla Scoon Reid — May 08, 2014 5 min read
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The District Management Council this week is unveiling the top 10 strategies that public school districts should consider to save money and improve effectiveness while still boosting student achievement in a series of research papers called “Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most from School District Budgets.” The Boston-based consulting group, which assists its member school districts with a wide range of management issues, will post the cost-saving measures, along with specific steps to help implement the efforts, on its website May 8.

Nathan Levenson, the council’s managing director, spoke recently with Education Week about the research, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Levenson, who is the former superintendent of schools in Arlington, Mass., is also the author of Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools, which was published by the Harvard Education Press in 2012. Read more about “Spending Money Wisely” in the current issue of Education Week.

Q: What prompted the District Management Council to conduct this research?

A: As an organization, the District Management Council has long believed it is possible to raise achievement, make life easier for staff, and do those things at a lower cost. When we hit [the recession] in 2008, much of the world began to think, or at least hope, that this would be true. The Gates Foundation has launched an effort to work with a number of districts across the country to pilot how you do more with less. There is, in fact, a fairly deep amount of knowledge out there [about realigning resources] but it may not be universally known and there’s not an easy place to pick it up. So this [research] was created as a companion to working with a number of districts to attempt to codify a lot of wisdom that was already out there.

Q: Are the ideas outlined in this research readily available to every district?

A: I think the greatest value in this is the practical lessons of how you actually do it rather than what you’re going to do. We have known for decades managing class size is a huge driver of how much you spend per pupil. That’s not a new idea. We have also known for a long time that changing class size is difficult, it [faces] huge pushback and is really, really hard to do. The fact that we have found and share half a dozen or more very practical ways of how you can actually either make people welcome larger class sizes and how you can increase class size without pushback--that’s very new.

Q: Is there a particular strategy that districts should implement right away?

A: No, there actually isn’t one strategy where districts should start—just the opposite. I’m actually positive that if we have 10 big ideas here, they are not all relevant to every district. You have to think about where each district is and then carefully map which of these opportunities makes sense.

Q: Are any school districts calculating the academic return on investment of their programs to determine their effectiveness?

A: The vast majority of school districts do not know for sure which programs are actually creating gains for students. They are relying on professional judgment and making the best decisions they can. But very, very few districts have any robust, rigorous analytical determination of what works and even fewer know what works cost effectively.

Q: How expensive will it be for a school district to implement any of your suggested cost-saving measures?

A: Almost every example in the book that, if it required upfront investment, the payback is measured in weeks and months, not years. There is no financial barrier but there is a political and psychological barrier both of which are very real and meaningful. You’ll find that these relatively small investments in management systems and having better data systems can allow you to manage your school system more tightly; manage to the very goals you have already set; and save millions of dollars in exchange for a very, very small investment.

Q: As a former superintendent, is there one of the 10 opportunities that you wish you had explored in your district?

A: The remediation and intervention staffing levels--understanding what special educators, psychologist, social workers and English-language learner teachers do. I knew we asked them to do so many different things and it’s a very difficult job. And that because they do so many different things, I never had a great handle on what they were doing. I just knew they were really busy and we never had enough of them. There’s a huge opportunity to say that some of these things are not as high value as others and let us proactively do more of the high-value stuff. Certainly, as a superintendent, I wish I had known all of that.

Q: The research suggests that school districts are missing the mark when it comes to their use of federal funds, especially Title 1 dollars. Why?

A: Title 1, for example, provides a very high level of flexibility if 40 percent of the kids in the school are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. If there is a story around federal funds it is that even though we love to complain, and I certainly did, that the federal government and the state government set too many restrictions, the real story about federal funds is that the majority of districts are not taking full advantage of all the flexibility that they already have. What we’ve suggested and what we’ve seen other districts do is to put in place very concrete, very specific structures and procedures that eliminate a lot of the confusion [surrounding Title 1 regulations], reduce a lot of the risk, and increase the incentive to push for a good and accurate answer.

Q: Which cost-saving measure would be the most difficult to implement?

A: Lowering the cost of extended learning time. The whole extended learning time concept requires changing schedules for kids and for adults. That’s a broadbased systemic change that impacts an awful lot of people and that’s probably the most far-reaching of the options in the book. A lot of the suggestions in the book talk about how have other districts managed to phase these ideas in such that those most willing to go with the change do, and those who were either hesitant or opposed to it might not be impacted by it. I think it is moving away from the all-or-nothing option. Because often when we try to do all, we end up with nothing because there is so much pushback. But I think a number of the strategies really show the how you get to these good opportunities in a way that is politically feasible.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the District Management Council. It is a for-profit consulting group.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.