Super School Savings

Posted Sept. 23, 2009, at 6:36 p.m.

Beyond the dramatic changes that come with school district consolidation, more modest measures within districts can achieve savings. Education Commissioner Susan Gendron recently gathered school superintendents and business managers to discuss these issues, and a handful of interesting ideas emerged: having school districts go to a two-year budget cycle; negotiating faculty and staff contracts on a statewide basis; using joint auditing services and using school furlough days as needed to save programs.

Michael Cormier, superintendent of RSU 9 in the Farmington area who attended the session, said the ideas “all merit further discussion and investigation.” He also believes school administrators were able to learn from each other, and that their effort will dispel the perception among some legisla-tors that they are not working hard enough to find savings.

Switching to a two-year budget cycle would have local districts in sync with the state budget, which would help both parties plan. Building a new school budget each year is a costly and time-consuming process, Mr. Cormier said, with administrators and school board members meeting for weeks, then hosting hearings and printing and distributing budget summaries. Then come the votes, which also cost money.

A mechanism for adjusting the budget in the second year would make sense, he said, just as the state has.

Time and money savings could also come through statewide collective bargaining with teachers and other staff. Mr. Cormier said the idea has been floated before, and it has evoked passions. Even though all first-year teacher contracts in Maine will start at $30,000, one district’s pay scale may top out at 12 years, another at 20 years and top pay at each may be very different. “It’s all over the place,” he said. School boards and teacher associations use lawyers and often will pay to hire professional negotiators to settle contracts.

In addition, the range in pay hurts rural districts like RSU 9 in their ability to attract teachers. Mr. Cormier suggests a local cost of living adjustment might make sense if such a statewide contract were used.

At the meeting, some superintendents reported saving $10,000 a year by jointly hiring an auditing firm with a neighboring district, another good idea.

And finally, Mr. Cormier said superintendents liked the idea of having a few furlough days, when schools would close and administrators, faculty and staff would lose pay, if that meant they could save a program, such as elementary art or physical education. Such a policy would have to win state Department of Education approval.

School administrators willing to brainstorm such cost-saving ideas are to be commended for their effort. As Mr. Cormier noted, further investigation is needed. The Department of Education ought to identify a few of these ideas and work to reach a conclusion on their feasibility by the end of the school year.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/09/23/opinion/super-school-savings/ printed on December 26, 2014