A Pennsylvania school district found the right formula to cut costs, can it work in other cities

Posted by By at 11 December, at 16 : 43 PM Print

Pennsylvania school districts are facing tough economic times, and the more ideas about how to deal with them, the better. Taking a cue from the West Chester Area School District, the Central Dauphin School District in suburban Harrisburg called upon residents to form a community budget task force to come up with money saving ideas for the 2011-2012 budget.

After reading about the success of the West Chester effort, board president Ford Thompson proposed the idea of a community task force in the Central Dauphin School District, he told Rock the Capital. “The panel will study ways to reduce or eliminate unnecessary expenditures and create sustainable revenue generating ideas,” according to the CDSD website.

The CDSD community task force is patterned after the successful West Chester group, but there are some differences that may be hindering the process. The WCASD task force convened in 2009, when WCASD officials were faced with a $4.9 million budget shortfall in the now current 2010-2011budget – despite a proposed tax hike. District officials called for volunteers to help find ways to save money or possibly earn more.

Some 300 people — district residents, parents, teachers, administrators, staff and students — responded, with 156 deciding to participate. When its work was completed, the WCASD Task Community Budget Force proposed more than $6.5 million in savings, with $370,000-plus in new revenues.

The WCASD board adopted proposals resulting in $3.5 million in savings – either reductions or revenue additions — for the 2010-2011 budget. Hoping for similar results, Thompson called for a similar group to be formed in the CDSD.

“Savings are the prime motivator,” he said, regarding the CDSD effort. “But it’s vitally important to engage more of our citizens.”Engaging and educating residents was part of the WCASD’s effort.

Jim Scanlon, superintendent of the WCASD, told RTC that in 2009, he had recently come to the WCASD from Delaware, where referendums were required for any changes in school programs. “We constantly needed to engage the community,” he said. In West Chester, “we wanted to engage the community to determine what their values are, and to educate them about what we can’t cut, “ Scanlon said.

At first, Scanlon said, the staff “thought I was crazy” for wanting to form a community task force. There are risks involved, he said. Such a committee could easily deteriorate into just complaints or confusion. Or it could become a group with just teachers and employees. But that was not the case in West Chester. “The committees were given a target of 3 percent savings (cuts or new revenues),” Scanlon said. “The idea was to share the hurt. We knew we had to roll up our sleeves and make it happen.”

The eight sub- committees that formed the CDSD’s task force were not given a target, such as WCASD’s 3 percent. Further, some members of various sub-committees said that they were not given enough budget details to make informed decisions. “We don’t have enough details. We can’t see the big picture,” said one member who did not want to be identified.

Some others, who also did not want to be identified, said they weren’t provided with the budget figures and other details they needed. In the WCASD, administrators worked on focusing the data to present it to the task force before the volunteer body convened. In addition, there were internal communications with the district’s 1,400 employees, so “anyone could speak intelligently on the issues,” Scanlon said. “We were given packets and packets of data for background knowledge which we examined, and discussed,” said Maureen Dages, a parent and substitute teacher who served on WCASD’s secondary education committee.

The WCASD task force sub-committees began their work by brainstorming ideas for cost-cutting or gaining revenue. Scanlon said that each time the sub-committees met, the ideas were reviewed, then pared down. The remaining ideas were ranked. Each committee discussed the practicality of the remaining proposals. Positive and negative impacts of each recommendation were identified and explained.

While the committee work was going on, administrators facilitated the discussions, provided data and helped task force members understand the “legalese” involved, Scanlon said. The CDSD task force is expected to include impact statements with its recommendations, which are due in April 2011.

In the meantime, the sub-committees are continuing to meet and discuss possible money savings actions. Summaries of their meetings are posted on the CDSD website. While the effort began with eight subcommittees with about 110 participants, some reconfiguration of those groups is possible, Thompson said. Participation has fallen off, but that may be due to the holidays, he said.

Some members of existing committees may switch to a new “feeder pattern” committee. This group will work with a soon-to-be named professional demographics service to look at student enrollments, building usage and related issues, the CDSD board president said. “The task force effort already is a success,” said Thompson, with many people “engaged with us. If we can come up with ways of doing things more efficiently, better ways of doing things, savings and revenue enhancement will be a bonus.”

Bob Gibson of the CDSD’s task force elementary education sub-committee said that his group reviewed the recommendations of its WCASD counterpart. “From what we saw, we’re already spending a lot less than West Chester. That’s reassuring,” he said.

In addition to the elementary education subcommittees, CDSD’s community task force includes secondary education, technology, finance, extra-curricular, transportation, energy and facilities, and special education/student services sub-committees. The WCASD had the same sub-committees, except for finance. The CDSD’s community budget task force is scheduled to meet on Monday, Dec. 13.

Want to know more about how these partnerships work? Let Rock The Capital guide you to West Chester Area School Task force page, and here is the Central Dauphin Task Force site.

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