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Rural Superintendents Share Financial Success Secrets

A group of rural Texas superintendents say the keys to maintaining their districts' financial well-being include accepting out-of-district transfers, increasing personnel efficiency, understanding the state's funding system, shrewd management of purchasing, and reducing energy use.

Those are some of the strategies researchers teased out of extensive, one-on-one interviews with seven successful, hand-picked school superintendents of small, rural districts for a study, Superintendents Perspectives of Financial Survival Strategies in Small School Districts, published in the spring edition of The Rural Educator.

Research shows that a superintendent's success in the role of financial manager is critical to the district's overall success. But rural districts nationwide often are at a disadvantage because of sheer economies of scale. Additionally, many are facing flat or declining revenue streams.

Authors William Cody Abshier, Sandra Harris, and Michael Hopson did qualitative research to identify the strategies being used by rural superintendents. They chose educators in Texas who had been in their districts at least two years. A district had to rate "superior" under the Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas and rate "exemplary" for its academics under the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Districts selected had fewer than 1,500 students and a percentage of low-income students within 25 percent of the state's average of nearly 60 percent. Superintendents' names were withheld to preserve confidentiality.

Most of those interviewed said there wasn't much business or industry in their districts and that Texas' funding system was inadequate and inequitable. Given those circumstances, they talked about what they're doing to maintain their districts' financial well-being, and researchers classified those into five areas.

One of the more interesting methods was accepting out-of-district transfers of students as a means to build or maintain enrollment, which in turn increases revenue. One superintendent said each transfer student brings up to $7,000 more to the district, and its schools would be in bad shape without those students.

Three of the seven superintendents went beyond word-of-mouth recommendations and aggressively recruited students. One talked about creating a slick ad to promote a unique program offered by the district, while another said the district put 29,000 inserts in area newspapers to generate interest from surrounding districts. The advertising led to an increase of nearly 30 students, bringing the enrollment to 171. The district sends a bus to the district line every day for those transfer students.

It's a sensible idea, but probably not feasible for many remote districts far-removed from urban and suburban communities. The research didn't delve into the matter any further, but it would've been informative to know how far these transfer students had to commute on average, as well as how many transfer students each district accepted.

The superintendents also talked about staffing as a key to running an efficient district, and that meant cutting and combining positions, recruiting and retaining high-quality employees, and using contract labor and shared services.

Other cost-saving measures included buying through regional educational service centers and other purchasing cooperatives, and implementing energy-saving strategies, specifically for heating and cooling and lighting. One district planned to change all of its air-conditioning units at a rate of five units per year, and it placed lock boxes on thermostats and gave keys to only a few people.

Researchers also found the superintendents tried to better understand the state's funding system and use it to their benefit, and they were looking outside the district for experts' advice in projecting revenues. The superintendents counted on school board members, administrators, teachers and staff members, parents and community members to help manage the district's finances.

Researchers suggested that duplicating these strategies in other districts may require a number of steps,including:
• Networking with other superintendents;
• Maintaining a close relationship with regional educational service centers;
• Visiting similar districts that are having success and bringing various stakeholders along;
• Bringing in outside consultants to address and educate various stakeholder groups;
• Attending various trainings on school finance;
• Inviting a mentor or mentors to review the proposed budget;
• Creating and maintaining weekly, monthly, and yearly forums to facilitate the dissemination of district information and allow for stakeholder input;
• Inviting outside consultants to evaluate various factors and operations such as food service, transportation, energy usage, personnel management, and purchasing;
• Maintaining membership and involvement with various supporting organizations; and
• Developing a relationship and communication with legislative representatives.

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