AUSTIN EDITION -- Studies strengthen link between mental problems, lack of omega-3 fatty acids
Consultant says slow spending means falling behind
By Nikki Merfeld
Despite being "a very large district," Austin runs an efficient ship, according to consultant Roger Worner. He was hired by Austin Public Schools to talk with leaders and help develop goals for next year.
Statewide, 50 percent of school districts have about 500 students, Worner said. Austin has 4,052.
"You're a very large district by state of Minnesota standards," he told a group of two dozen school board members and administrators at a goals-setting retreat Wednesday.
Still, the district is a relatively lean operation. It spends an average of $6,904 per student to operate while other districts the same size spend an average of $7,189 per student, said Worner. Statewide, the average spending is $7,439 per student.
Breaking the figures down by category shows Austin spends $380 per student for administration compared to the statewide average of $403, he said. Districts of the same size, such as Faribault, Inver Grove Heights and West St. Paul, spend $380.
With an average of $3,044 per student, Austin spends less for regular instructional services, too, Worner said. Peers spend $3,264 while statewide, schools spend $3,510 per student, he said.
"You're a low-spending district," he said. "In addition, your rate of growth in terms of spending is slower. In other words, you're falling behind."
The district encountered financial turbulence when it added staff beyond its budget, said Worner. In 1998, the district had a 10-year high of 320 employees, up from 264 the year before, said Worner.
In 1999, with a deficit of $333,397, the district was nearly declared to be in statutory operating deficit.
Since then, Lori Volz was promoted to the management services directorship. The district ended the 2000-01 fiscal year with a general fund balance of $564,346.
"The district has done a really good job in its fiscal management and you deserve to be commended for that," he said.
This year, the district's largest class is its fifth-grade, with 355 students. The two smallest classes are seniors (267) and kindergarten (274), said Worner.
By the 2006-07 school year, the district's total enrollment is projected to be 3,726 students.
For that reason, much of Wednesday's discussion centered around marketing.
"We should be a Mecca of drawing in (students) and I think part of that is we're so used to, as a district, cutting back, shutting down, that we're so afraid of trying something that could be cutting edge," said Banfield Elementary School Principal Candace Raskin in a small-group discussion. "We need to step outside the box. I do believe that's a source of revenue for us."
Possibilities include changing the school calendar, such as trying year-round school, and finding new ways to use technology.
"We're going to have cutting-edge technology through KSMQ and we haven't even discussed how we're going to tap into that," said Superintendent Corrine Johnson.
She also said she'd like to allow adults to enroll in high school classes, such as world language classes, that have space.
Worner suggested the district seek public feedback. One way to do that, he said, is "hire someone at $6 an hour" to call parents of new students to see how the first day of school went. The same question can be asked of staff, he said. The results could be valuable insights.
The group also discussed the need for following the chain of command when handling complaints, keeping the matter as close to the people involved as possible.
"If I'm a school board member, I don't go to a teacher and say, 'You need to do something about this,'" said board Chairman David Simonson, illustrating his point.
Worner agreed, saying organizational leaders must redirect people with concerns to the appropriate person rather than attempting to handle the problem themselves.
For example, board members should encourage parents to resolve issues with teachers before talking to the school principal. By offering to intervene on the parent's behalf, board members disrupt the entire organization, said Worner.
When people circumvent the chain of command, "the organization tries to respond in an appropriate way, but the only thing it can do is degrade itself," said Worner. "Once you have been inappropriately solicitous to them …; the one thing you can guarantee is they will beat a path to your door."
At tonight's session, Worner will present a goals framework based on Wednesday's discussion and ask the group to develop specific strategies to achieve those goals.