Thinking “outside the box” to save money: can we reduce costs of school administration?

In the old days, schools were local institutions.  Different communities had different priorities for education.  The classic stereotype is that farm regions educated kids to be farm workers, while urban areas emphasized different skills so kids could work in factories.

In practical terms, communities taxed themselves to fund the amount and quality of education they considered appropriate for their community. Some places placed a high priority on education, while other counties/cities kept taxes low and minimized the costs of public schools.  (In the bad ol’ days of separate-but-unequal segregation, communities made very different investments in public schools for the white vs. non-white population.)

Manassas and Manassas Park became independent cities in1975, in part to avoid having to pay property taxes to finance a surge of school building in eastern Prince William County. Instead, those two cities created separate school systems.  Since 1975, residents of the two cities stopped subsidizing the expansion of county schools and have directed their property taxes towards educating their own children.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider this arrangement.

Times have changed.  More and more school funding comes from Federal and state sources, rather than just local taxes… and the funding comes with strings attached.

While media attention has focused on continuing challenges regarding ethic diversity within the schools, the differences between how public schools systems are funded and managed are disappearing.   Existing state Standards of Learning (SOL’s) and formulas for state funding of instructional positions (teachers, principals, librarians, etc.) already standardize much of the education provided to K-12 students across Virginia.

Now, as noted by the Newport News Daily Press, Governor Kaine’s latest budget proposes imposing statewide standards for school operations.  The governor has once again recommended creating a state formula for funding nonteaching staff: one support position for every four teaching positions.

Each individual school will always need its local teachers, administrators and support staff – but do we need a separate Central Office for 134 separate political jurisdictions in Virginia?  How many Departments of Instructional Technology, Deputy Superintendents for Curriculum and Instruction, and Employee Benefits Offices are appropriate once school operations are standardized?

If the distinctions between the school systems are being blurred by statewide standards for education and funding … do we really need three separate school systems with three separate superintendents for Manassas, Manassas Park, and Prince William County?  Could we elect a regional School Board, and save money by consolidating school systems?

Sound radical?  At some point, perhaps as soon as the next General Assembly, political leaders are going to be forced into making hard choices on taxes and services.  There will be heated discussions, and blame will be allocated – but maybe we’ll see some creative proposals as well.

With the economic downtown, it’s obvious that there ain’t enough money to maintain current services in transportation, public safety, schools, mental health, parks, etc. without raising taxes/fees.  The alternative (cutting existing services) does not make for successful re-election campaigns.  It’s a tough time to be an elected official.

Elected officials that can stand the heat could have an especially lasting impact now.  It’s one of those times when we are forced to change “business as usual.”   Some old assumptions will be re-examined; some new approaches will be implemented.  The overhead costs for school administration is one place where we might make some changes.

Realistically, consolidating school systems is an idea whose time has not come – but integrating land use and transportation planning is a here-and-now requirement.   State officials recognize that ending the traditional pattern of approving new sprawl subdivisions, and instead steering new growth to defined “centers” of some sort, can minimize the construction/maintenance cost of new public facilities – especially new roads/transit.

The state can’t keep fund the existing highway network.  At some point, whenever a county petitions to have new subdivision roads added to the network of roads maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), state officials will say “not unless you share the new costs.”

Many Prince William County officials are stuck in the past.  After new subdivisions are scattered across the county, creating new traffic congestion, those officials still claim the state must “step up to the plate” and pay for building extra lanemiles, interchanges, etc.  Those officials keep repeating the irresponsible assumption that others must bail us out, while Prince William County keeps digging the fiscal hole deeper.

You’ll hear in 2010 that the burden to provide increased services, and to pay for them, falls on the state and Federal officials:

Requirements to clean up locally-generated stormwater pollution that’s killing the Chesapeake Bay – grr, that’s just an unfunded mandate from EPA.  Where will VDOT find $$$  to maintain increased miles of subdivision roads and build interchanges on Prince William Parkway – hey, that’s the state’s problem.  Expanding Metrorail to Prince William – no problem, the Feds will make a generous gift and pay for it all. (Now, are you ready to go to the rally and object to higher taxes proposed by state and Federal officials?)

Some local officials think they can keep giving developers a blank check.  (Current code word: “flexibility.”)  Traffic congestion, school crowding, over-used ballfields – they are all the fault of someone else.  Local officials who keep approving sprawl subdivisions (such as Avendale) think they can keep fooling people, and deflect the blame for higher taxes and new congestion towards state/Federal officials.

While we will hear the stale inside-the-box thinking in 2010 from local officials who lack the creativity or capacity to change… state and Federal officials are preparing to force changes anyway.

The Federal government is most predictable.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that jurisdictions that fail to reduce their excessive discharges of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment flowing to the Chesapeake Bay will be penalized by new regulatory controls and reductions in Federal grants.

It’s likely that any new state transportation funding will reward jurisdictions that control transportation costs, and penalize local officials who fail to plan “smart” and minimize future road/transit construction/maintenance costs.

(No, it’s not likely that school systems will be consolidated… but maybe it’s still a good idea.)


2 comments so far

  1. TomSummer on

    Kudo to the post and interesting comment, i also bookmarked your RSS feeds for more updates.

  2. Mary on

    This is a fitting commentary and ties in neatly to the Wiita Tract/Rollins Ford Park discussion. Breaking the Rural Crescent opens Pandora’s Box to all of the problems listed. As it stands, overcrowding in area schools, staff cutbacks, already lead to difficulty for schools in making AYP. Build without the infrastructure and this compounds those problems. PWC will be unable to attract the business growth it seeks because the schools, roads, and services will deteriorate. As it stands, teachers are trying to make greater progress with less help and more students.

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