Five Ways for Schools to Thrive in Tight Times

By Nathan Levenson

I recently attended a school board meeting that was downright depressing. The chief financial officer told the board: “Costs are growing faster than revenue. Next year we will have a large budget gap to close.” Before board members started to throw questions at him, he added, “We forecast it will get worse in each of the next five years.”

After a stunned silence, every board member wanted to speak. Most lamented the situation, and many said it was unfair and unreasonable. The board chair stepped up and said, “Folks, stop complaining and let’s start planning. We have just three choices: 1) Raise taxes, which won’t pass at the polls, 2) draw down the reserves, which won’t last long, or 3) cut programs and staff.” Much of the discussion centered on what and whom to cut.

These three tried-and-true options have helped many a school board pass a balanced budget and still, somehow, provide a decent education for all. The depth and length of this unprecedented financial crisis calls for different, equally unprecedented, strategies. Most districts can’t keep cutting back and provide a 21st century top-quality education. They need a fourth option: 4) Do things differently -- better and less expensively, not just less of the same.

Districts need to reimagine how to educate their students at a permanently lower per-pupil spending level. I know that school boards have made many changes over the last few years to balance their budgets, changes such as larger classes, turning down the heat, and cutting electives or extracurricular activities. Reductions like these are not fundamental changes on the order of how Orbitz changed buying an airline ticket and Best Buy affected the corner television sales and repair shop.

School districts can alter how they serve students in a world of declining resources, and serve them better by embracing five strategies. 

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