Guest column/Fiscal efficiency not a priority in Ohio schools

Ohio’s school districts spend about a third more on their bureaucracies than the national average.

As a percentage of the budget, Ohio schools spend more on bureaucracy than 47 other states, as reported in The Book of States 2012. Statewide, Ohio’s schools spend a total of 13.2 percent of their budgets on administration, compared to the national average of 10.8 percent.

That may not seem like much of a difference, but the 13.2 percent represents some $2.56 billion in expenditures on regional and local school administrators out of $19.4 billion spent on K-12 education expenses.

A recent study done by Ohio Education Matters identified $248 million in potential savings just in central administration, if all 609 school districts brought their spending in line with the state’s more cost-effective districts.

In addition, there are more than 300 public charter schools in the Buckeye State school mix, as well.

The same study found a total of $1.4 billion in savings, if those efficiencies were produced in all expenditure categories.

Ohio Education Matters is in the process of completing a report now on the best practices of the state’s most cost-effective districts.

Andrew Benson of Ohio Education Matters indicated that, “The state kind of assumed that budget pressures would lead districts to change the way they’re doing business. What I’ve seen is districts making cuts in the same way they always have.”

According to Benson, schools threaten to cut popular programs rather than examining how their non-instructional services are provided.

In some cases, that may mean outsourcing and, in others, sharing services at a regional level, Benson said.

The way that works, he said, is “when you’ve got to cut, you say, ‘We’re going to have to cut some of our low-enrollment courses, such as advanced placement and foreign language.

We might have to cut back on the music program and the sports, and we might have to have pay-to-play.

And they try to do things so that there’ll be lots of constituents who say, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got to pass a levy.'”

Instead of threatening to lay off teachers or charge for athletics, Ohio school districts could find more than $1 billion in savings in services such as maintenance, janitorial work, transportation, food service, payroll, business services, purchasing, energy, provision of extracurricular activities and professional development, Benson said.

Benson points to Beyond Boundaries, a report published by the Governor’s Office in Ohio that has clear recommendations about partnering with regional educational service centers and local governments for administrative/non-instructional areas so schools can better focus on educating kids,” he wrote. “We’re all for it.”

There are two big reasons school districts resist these changes, Benson said. The first is local control – nobody wants to call a big bureaucracy to fix a small local problem. The other is a popular notion about “good jobs.”

“If you don’t have enough money for both, something’s got to give. You’ve got to stay with your core purpose. So that does press clerical staff, press maintenance staff, the folks who take care of the lawn. There may be a better way to do that. And it’s not just outsourcing. It could be outsourcing, but it’s a variety of different things.”

A few districts have begun to share services and programs in order to reduce non-instructional costs, but the movement so far has amounted to an arithmetic response to what amounts to an exponential problem.

Consolidating services to reduce non-instructional costs can be accomplished without consolidating school districts or giving up sports teams.

On the contrary, districts can become more viable and student instruction can be improved.

Nothing in law or policy says they can’t.

The only question is why they won’t.

(Wallace is the chair of the College of Fellows at West Liberty University.)