Articles in the Budgeting category

Searching for qualified school food service heads

If your school district is planning to hire a new food service director, good luck: There’s lots of competition and well-qualified candidates are scarce.

Many food service directors are retiring just as the job is getting more complex—schools are facing tougher regulations and more food safety inspections, food prices are rising, budgets are dropping, and there’s a big push to offer healthier, but still tasty, fare.

And a career as school lunch lady doesn’t get enough respect.

“The image of school nutrition has always been a struggle,” says Katie Wilson, the school nutrition director for the Onalaska, Wis., school district. “It’s not as prestigious as other positions in food service field, and people don’t see it as a viable career.”

While the job might once have been relegated to the head cook or an administrative assistant, districts need to hire food management professionals who have a unique combination of skills, she says. An ideal candidate would be part dietician and part business manager, someone who can design a nutritious and palatable menu, negotiate contracts, and balance a budget.

It’s getting tough to find these people, and it’s even harder to persuade them to work in school districts. But Wilson, who currently serves as the president of the School Nutrition Association, is hoping to change the image from the matronly lunch lady to a savvy business professional and recruit more college students to the field. Schools must help, she says, by elevating the job to a professional administrative position.

Want more advice on running your food services division? Wilson and others from the field give their thoughts in the June issue of American School Board Journal.

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 28th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, Wellness|

Challenges of the school food service program

I had horrible eating habits as a teenager; routinely skipping breakfast and rarely eating lunch. So the few times I did venture through the school’s cafeteria line, I grabbed (you guessed it) a slice of pizza or an order of french fries. Aren’t they part of the four food groups?

School food programs have come a long way since then, though in some ways, they’ve remained the same. Meant to be self-sustaining operations, food services have found it harder and harder to turn a profit, let alone break even, as the cost of food, fuel, and labor continues to rise, while the expectations for what they provide continue to expand.

Hence, pizza and french fries can still be found on the menus of just about every school in America, despite federal mandates and local desire to serve more nutritious fare because, let’s face it, that stuff sells. To their credit (and to the credit of food vendors), districts modify the fast food items: low-fat cheeses typically top whole grain crusts and french fries are baked, never fried.

Oh the sleight-of-hand and the clever machinations food service departments must perform in order to appease so many interests, not the least of which is their customer’s belly. For more on the complexities, challenges, and future of the school district food program, read the cover package in our June edition of ASBJ, which is now available online.

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 23rd, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, Wellness|

Don’t wait for the press — look into your finances now

If you’re a school board member looking to protect taxpayer dollars, you can learn a few lessons from the Dallas Morning News about school district spending.

Speaking at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Chicago last month, reporter Kent Fischer shared some eye-opening tips about how his newspaper uncovered millions of dollars of questionable spending within the Dallas Independent School District (DISD)—just by looking at records available to the public.

Imagine what you could do with the records available to you as a board member.

You could start by examining what’s being purchased with district credit cards. After looking at more than 150,000 credit card transactions over two years, Fischer and his colleagues uncovered millions of dollars in purchases that the newspaper claimed “violated state procurement laws or district policy.”

All of these purchases had been buried and lost in vast amounts of paperwork. But, citing Texas’ open records law, the newspaper requested electronic records on purchase orders, written checks, credit card bills, payrolls, and other financial data, including budget program codes and purchase order numbers.

By cross-referencing data, Fischer said lots of interesting transactions popped up, including purchases of blanket and pillow sets, Star Trek DVDs, iPods, and a subscription to an online dating service. One former district employee already has been sent to prison.

Another fertile area for scrutiny is employee stipends, Fischer said. The newspaper discovered that the school district had, as one article last fall reported, “doled out millions of dollars a year in stipends and extra pay not included in the district’s compensation manual.”

“Look beyond the ‘average teacher’s salary’ and look at stipend and supplemental pay,” he said. “Get overtime itemized.”

One story cited a high school band director who “collected nearly $40,000 between 2003 and 2006 for long hours on band trips that should not have qualified for extra pay.” Meanwhile, school police ran up $2.5 million in overtime for three years straight—yet kept budgeting only $250,000 for overtime.

Questions also might arise about employee travel stipends, he said. Thousands of employees were receiving such stipends, including those whose job descriptions didn’t demand travel. One secretary received a $1,200-a-year car allowance, and she didn’t have a driver’s license.

Fischer said it also pays to look closer at contract language. One multimillion-dollar computer contract was written so strictly—demanding a specific internal processor, for example—that only one product could meet the bid specifications. In another contract, school administrators arranged free entry into a major golf tournament.

When exposed on the front page of the local newspaper, such discoveries are a public relations nightmare for a school board. Indeed, DISD leaders spent much of last year modifying their financial processes in response to headline after headline of bad news.

But why leave it to your local paper? You represent your community. Why not look for such improprieties yourself? Through their example, the Dallas Mornings News and Kent Fischer perhaps have done you a favor.

Just follow this last admonishment that Fischer shared with his fellow journalists: “Follow the money—what is spent, not [just] what’s budgeted.”

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 8th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, School Security|

Volunteering to be principal

Larry Feldman is a devoted educator, a respected community leader, and—if he gets his way—he could be poorest principal in the country.

Feldman loves his job at Miami’s Devon Aire K-8 school so much that he’s willing to do it for a yearly salary of only $1.

Feldman, 58, is in his last year of Florida’s Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP), which allows retiring educators to keep their jobs for up to five years while accumulating retirement benefits.

But budget cuts have forced officials in Miami-Dade County to reduce the number of principals and teachers returning to schools through DROP, reports the Miami Herald.

The district could save $13.9 million by no longer having to pay current salaries, says the Herald.

Miami-Dade offered to pay Feldman $120,000, but then withdrew their proposal after cutting DROP candidates. So Feldman made a surprising counteroffer.

The career principal told the district he would return for the cost of a Double Cheeseburger at McDonald’s.

“Do I know it’s going to end at one point? Of course, I do,” Feldman told the Herald. “But new life has been thrust into this old body. With one more year, I could take these kids to the next level.”

Although appealing, school board members and Miami-Dade’s superintendent turned down Feldman’s offer, saying they would never be able to hire another employee for $1 if Feldman ever left. The principal and a gaggle of mobilized parents hope the district will reconsider.

Although administrators like Feldman are few and far between, there are plenty of people in any community who want to help local schools by volunteering their time. Volunteers can assist teachers, help with school activities, and give students personalized attention.

Money-starved districts should take a look at the ways they are attracting and, more importantly, retaining volunteers.

Stacey Hollenbeck, Spring Intern

Kathleen Vail|May 5th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance|

War stories from the District of Columbia schools

Educators and journalists love a good “war story,” and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, did not disappoint. She spoke with reporters and writers at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association in Chicago last week.

One war story involved the all-too-common failure of the D.C. schools to put textbooks in the hands of students at the beginning of the school year. Last fall, Rhee made headlines by touring the school system’s book warehouse with D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and finding pallet after pallet of untouched textbooks waiting for delivery.

Highlighting the problem didn’t prevent some foul-ups last fall in getting books to kids, and Rhee shared one shared one little-known incident.

A parent complained by e-mail that high school textbooks had ended up at a nearby middle school. That was bad enough, of course, but making it worse was that the central office had rejected the offer of parents to load up the books in their cars and personally deliver them to where they belonged.

The reasoning of bureaucrats? District rules insist that the textbooks be delivered by the school system. So the textbooks had to sit at the middle school until district personnel picked them up. Then they’d be sent back to the warehouse, processed, and eventually delivered to the right school.

That mentality, Rhee said, revealed the dysfunction within the district bureaucracy. She told the parents “to go ahead, so that kids had their books on the first day of school.”

The 38-year-old chancellor, who had never served as a school administrator before now, also shared a war story about one of her biggest political fights—closing 23 underutilized schools.

Rhee wasn’t surprised that school closings would be controversial. Nor did she doubt that the decision was correct. With nearly one-third of the city’s school-aged children in charter schools, the D.C. system had many schools filled to only half capacity—and they were wasting vast sums in salaries, energy costs, and security and maintenance resources.

What was interesting, though, was how strongly neighborhoods identified with their schools—without regard to their academic performance, she said.

During one school visit, Rhee said, she stopped to talk to residents on the street, and they all begged her to save their school building from closure. They loved the school, she said. They thought it was a great school.

The only problem, she noted, was that it was anything but a great school. “Only 9 percent of the kids were testing proficient.” That compared to a charter school only a few blocks away—serving students from the same neighborhood—that boasted that 90 percent of its students were scoring proficient.

For all the controversy involved, closing those schools was an early success for Rhee. So much money will be saved that each city school next year will have an art teacher, a music teacher, and a physical education teacher.

That might not seem all that remarkable for educators in more affluent communities, she added, but in D.C., such staffing is “almost unheard of.”

Finally, Rhee spoke a little about the City Council granting her unprecedented authority to terminate district employees, which she promptly used to cut 100 jobs in the central office. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that difficult to decide who should stay—and who should go.

For example, she recalled, she found a staff of nine serving teen mothers at a cost of $1 million annually. But the program only served about seven students each day, and it turned out that $700,000 of the program was spent on salaries.

That just didn’t cut it in Rhee’s judgment. “How do we make sure dollars actually have an impact on kids in the classrooms?” she asked. “We have to look at every program. Even if the people are nice people, if the program is not having a dollar-for-dollar real impact on kids, it has to be seriously looked at.”

These are only a few of Rhee’s stories. But they all emphasize how the new chancellor is fighting “the good fight” on behalf of D.C. schoolchildren. Such a fight ensures that we can expect Rhee to share even more war stories to share in the years ahead.

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 1st, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance, School Reform, Student Achievement|

Budget tips in tough times

I stopped dining at fancy restaurants last year. I haven’t seen my hair stylist in months. I’ve nixed my occasional visits to the coffee shop. And the only trips I’ll be taking in the near future are for business. Ah, the sacrifices we make when money is tight.

No one knows this more than school districts, which are used to doing more with less— though they’ll have to be even more ingenious and penny-wise in today’s faltering economy. For the May edition of American School Board Journal, I explored the strategies and approaches that school districts take under financial duress.

“Any cut means someone is losing something,” Luz Cazares, the chief financial officer for Alameda Unified School District, said bluntly. The California district is one of many in the state that were blindsided by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal of 10 percent across-the-board cuts to fill a $14.5 billion deficit.

Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget would mean a $4.8 billion reduction in education funding across the state; for Alameda it would mean $4.5 million in cuts for next year’s budget.
“The Governor has put us in a position to cut half of what it took us seven years to do,” Cazares said of the $7.7 million the district had to trim soon after student enrollment began to decline in 2000. “We were blindsided.”

As are parents and children, some of whom stood in trash cans during a recent visit by Schwarzenegger. “Our students/teachers/coaches are too valuable to throw away,” read signs each held.

“There’s nothing like showing up when the governor’s there and sticking read kids and real teachers in trash cans and saying, ‘You know what? This is what you’re doing,” Brook Briggance, a member of the Alameda Education Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times.

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|April 25th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance|

Will school technology spending survive tough budget times?

Any school board member will tell you that they view technology as an important priority for their school system. But when money gets tight, do their actions match their rhetoric?

That’s a question I’d like to see answered. And it’s one of many that I’m asking school board members and technology directors as I research a future American School Board Journal article on smart practices for purchasing technology—particularly in a slowing economy.

So far, people are saying the right things. School leaders are aware that technology is an important component in teaching students 21st century skills. They say they want to see technology expand and enrich classroom learning.

They also voice an understanding of the dangers of deferring maintenance and trimming funds designated to replace older machines. They understand that aging technology will raise maintenance costs, and that cutting staff training adds to the risk that expensive technology will sit unused in the corner of the classroom.

I also was heartened by a news article reporting that the Massachusetts’ Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee recognizes the dangers—and recently expressed concern when it received a budget recommendation for a modest cut in the technology budget.

“Some of [the budget] is not staying up with our five-year replacement plan,” one committee member commented. “To me, we could be putting ourselves on a slippery slope.”

The rest of the committee agreed, reported the Dover-Sherborn Press, adding that committee members feared “that if the towns get off-track with technology advancements now, it could lead to a disastrous snowballing effect a few years down the road.”

Smart policymakers, I think. But, as the economy sours and school revenues are trimmed, can this school committee—or any school board—hold the line? Will it matter that, in the long run, it’s a fiscally sound, efficient policy to protect staff development, maintenance, and replacement budgets?

These are questions that too many school boards might have to answer—and answer in ways they won’t like. Sue Helms, president of the Madison City Schools and Alabama Association of School Boards, is a big proponent of classroom technology, but even she is well aware that getting kids to school and putting a teacher in front of the classroom are higher priorities than any high-tech gadget.

“If a school system is trying to decide between a new school bus or computers in the classroom,” she notes, “that’s a no-brainer.”

Del Stover, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|April 24th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Educational Technology, Governance|

Magna: The source for best practices

I ran a roundtable session for National Affiliate members at NSBA’s annual conference in Orlando at the end of March. One new board member who attended had a story that will sound familiar to many of you.

He was having a problem with another board member. Whenever this member wanted to stonewall an idea, she asked, “is it best practice?”

The gentleman at my session asked, half-jokingly, if a “best practices” manual existed somewhere.

We at ASBJ hope that our Magna Awards program can serve as a starting point toward finding those best practices. For 14 years, we have been recognizing excellence in board and district programs on nearly any topic you can come up with.

Want to know how a district is dealing with dropouts? Magna has it. Want to find out how to engage Spanish-speaking parents with the schools? Magna has it.

Each year, we ask an independent panel of judges to evaluate the 300 or so entries we receive each year and find the standout programs. The entries are in three enrollment categories: under 5,000, 5,000 to 20,000, and over 20,000. This way, districts are competing against other districts of the same size.

We honored the 2008 Magna Award winners at the School Leaders’ Luncheon at NSBA’s annual conference in Orlando. The three grand prize winners took home checks of $3,500 each; all of the winners are featured in a supplement to ASBJ that ran in April.

Look online at the 2008 winners; then browse through the past winners. You’ll find the contact names and e-mails of the district contacts so you can get more details about their wining programs.

While you’re on the site, consider applying for a 2009 Magna Award, so you can add your programs to our growing “best practices” list.

Kathleen Vail, Managing Editor

Kathleen Vail|April 21st, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Budgeting, Curriculum, Educational Research, Governance, School Security, Student Achievement, Wellness|

Economy Impacts State Tests, More Trouble Ahead

The slowing economy has forced homeowners to foreclose on their property, companies to layoff employees and consumers to hold on to their money. Now it has forced education officials in Florida to pull back on some of its state assessment tests.

Eric Smith, the state’s education commissioner, proposed holding off on making the writing section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) a graduation requirement. He also recommended nixing an updated multiple-choice portion of the writing exam administered to fourth, eighth and 10th-grade.

All told, the changes— which state board members have agreed to— would save Florida an estimated $2.5 million. It’s not chump change, but it won’t be enough to stem a tidal wave of financial problems the state has coming its way.

The white-hot housing market has cooled significantly in Florida, with property values plummeting, home sales stagnating and foreclosures rising. To make matters worse for the school districts— which depend on property taxes for their local revenue— voters in January approved an increase in the state’s homestead exemption, which opponents (including educators) say would offer scant tax relief but cripple public agencies. Florida certainly has a rough economic road ahead.

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|April 18th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Assessment, Budgeting, Governance|

Tax reforms would help California schools

By now, just about everyone knows something is really wrong with California’s school funding formula.

California is the first place we call for heart-wrenching, firsthand stories of how budget cuts are affecting school programs, teachers, and students. California schools have seen student enrollments and schools’ needs rise as the state education budget from which they receive the bulk of their funding has pretty much stagnated.

It’s now become a spring ritual to hand out layoff notices to every eligible teacher and administrator. Several years ago I visited a school principal who was moved to tears as she told of having to hand the notices to some of her most prized and talented recruits.

So when I wrote about how state budget fluctuations have a lot of school administrators on edge for May’s ASBJ, I knew that California school officials would be wondering how much they would have to cut from their budgets. I was wrong. They’re already cutting classroom programs. And while the layoff notices used to be a formality — most teachers knew they would be rehired once the education budget was hashed out — now, thousands of teachers are certain they won’t have their jobs next year, even as some class sizes rise to 40 or more students.

What we don’t hear much talk about are solid solutions to this ever-present crisis, which would mean dramatic tax reform. Some 40 percent of the state budget goes to education, but the budget has been hamstrung by two voter-approved ballot initiatives, Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimum level of funding for schools except in periods of financial hardship (ie, now), and Proposition 13, which capped property taxes in 1978. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an expensive campaign to overhaul Proposition 98 three years ago, he got clobbered.

What Schwarzenegger and other politicians won’t dare discuss is how to overhaul Proposition 13, as financial guru Warren Buffett has recommended. Prop 13’s formula uses the purchase price of a home — no matter whether that home was purchased in the 1940s, 1970s, or 2005 — as the basis and limits how much that tax can be increased each year. Designed to help elderly homeowners afford their tax bills, it’s created vast inequities, for both local governments and residents.

And as a result, school districts are beholden to the state economy and the whims of the state legislature far more than property taxes – which, despite the current national housing slump, are still one of the most stable revenues for schools.

How long it will take — or how dire the schools’ crisis will get — for lawmakers to address this issue?

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|April 16th, 2008|Categories: American School Board Journal, Budgeting, Governance|
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