As enrollment in many urban school systems steadily declines, districts have typically responded in three ways: They've cut budgets to reduce spending on operations such as building maintenance, school bus transportation, and in some cases, shuttered schools and shed jobs. They've launched initiatives to improve schools and attract new families to enroll. And they've done a combination of both.
But keeping efforts alive to raise achievement in schools becomes nearly impossible when districts continue to lose students—and the revenue that comes with them.
In a new report from business consultants with a track record (at times controversial) of working with urban systems (New Orleans post- Hurricane Katrina, for example), districts are being advised to adopt a longer-term approach to managing the downsizing. The Boston Consulting Group, which recently has been working closely with school leaders in Philadelphia to reshape how that system does business, lays out what it calls "eight levers" districts can pull to manage costs while insulating classroom instruction.
• Understand what classroom costs actually are. In other words, districts need to know precisely how resources are assigned by school, grade, and course. "Having a disaggregated understanding of spending makes tradeoffs explicit and clarifies the impact various district actions may have on students," the report says.
• Plan multi-year budgets and move ahead with possible spending cuts before final revenues are known to avoid last-minute, often painful choices.
• Keep best talent.
• Shut down severely underutilized schools. This is often the third rail of urban school district politics and management (just ask former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee). The report acknowledges the difficulty of this endeavor, but advises that a careful, thoughtful plan (with ample community input) that moves students into higher-achieving schools is likely to have long-term benefits for children.
• Tap creative staffing ideas and use technology. This recommendation would certainly not find universal agreement. The report cites the example of the Arlington, Mass. district, which shifted to using less expensive library paraprofessionals instead of librarians. Blended learning, the report says, can also offer cost savings, especially in school environments where class sizes have been increased.
• Reduce fixed costs, in part, through outsourcing. Metropolitan Nashville schools, for example, uses an outside provider of custodial services.
• Partner with charters, community organizations, and other schooling providers to pool resources and best practices. The report cites a move in Memphis, where the city schools has striven to improve nutrition services, in part, through a collaboration with the local Catholic diocese to prepare and deliver meals to its schools.
• Manage charter schools as an investment. While many districts leave charters to their own devices to find space, the report suggests that providing space to charters in an under-used building benefits both parties.