Question 3: The budget challenges of the last few years could continue to be an issue for ECSD in the coming years. What one idea would you propose to the board to minimize the impact of the drastic reduction in state aid experienced in 2010? (Published on page 3 of the February 13th edition of the Evansville Review).
The state of Wisconsin spent 26 billion dollars in fiscal year 2012, 6.24 billion dollars of which supported public schools (1). School funding represents the second largest expenditure in the state budget and as such is open to scrutiny during budgetary droughts such as we have endured since late 2007. In an effort to balance the last biennial budget, Governor Walker cut public school aid by $550 per student in 2011-12. This slashed nearly a million dollars, or about 5%, from the ECSD budget. The district ended that fiscal year about $160,000 in the red. This year’s budget was the first balanced budget presented to the board in five years and was achieved only after a lot of sacrifice on the part of many. The administration recently presented three budget scenarios for next year, the worst of which predicts a shortfall of $750,000. This is not a sustainable financial model.
Following the state’s model of seeking savings from the largest piece of the spending pie, one must first evaluate the district spending. Salaries and benefits account for over 70% of the ECSD expenditures and creative ways to deliver this part of the budget will likely be the only way to make a significant dent in this potential deficit. Currently there is a committee investigating lower cost insurance alternatives which could result in significant savings. Another committee is looking at the co-and extra-curricular activity contracts compared with conference averages. The teachers’ union agreed to contract concessions last year that leave little to achieve here. The business management of ECSD has exhausted the traditional routes for fiscal responsibility in the area of salary and benefits since the recession started.
An idea that was rejected by the district about five years ago may be worth revisiting in these tight economic times. School districts across the country have considered a return to the traditional seven-period day from the block schedule as a way to reduce costs. Closer to home, Edgerton recently switched from the block to the traditional schedule to contain expenditures. A brief literature review suggests that a school can realize an average annual savings of 5-10% in this area, depending on the schedule used (2). Another advantage of the traditional schedule may well be in the area of student achievement. A number of studies demonstrate that a seven-period day enhances student achievement on the ACT and SAT. Edgerton has seen a gradual increase in ACT performance since 2009. I did an analysis a few years ago that also supports this conclusion. Among ten Wisconsin high schools with enrollments similar to ECSD, those that maintained the traditional schedule showed higher average performance on the ACT from 2000-2007. Conversely, other studies indicate that block schedule enables increased student achievement. This was a primary reason touted in the 90’s to switch to a block schedule format in the first place. The contradictory literature suggests there is more to learn about the possible link between student achievement and schedule.
There are some drawbacks with the traditional schedule as well. Students in a block schedule can double up on their math and science classes, best preparing those that are college bound to take the PSAT in early fall of their junior year. Students can only take one math and science class a year on a traditional schedule and any transition to a seven-period day would need to equally prepare students for the PSAT. Another downside to the traditional schedule is that more textbooks would be required because kids would all be in class year around. Any change of this magnitude would cause growing pains in any district, but if returning to a seven-period day would cut expenditures AND could help kids improve their academic achievement at the same time, this is one idea whose time may have come. It is certainly worth further investigation.