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Districts look for an outside view

Editor’s note: The following is the first part of a two-part series on local school district staffing methodologies. The Progress Times has met with school administrators and education advocates to determine how districts deal with maintaining their staffing levels and whether a standard should be required.

MISSION — In the ongoing economic uncertainty for education funding, local school districts have begun cutting excess spending anywhere they can from energy efficiency to consolidating bus routes, office supplies, equipment and general departmental budget cuts.

But when it comes to staffing, the biggest expenditure in any budget, school district officials tread lightly, acknowledging that their teachers and staff are worried about job security. Stressing to their staff and the public that jobs aren’t in danger, and as long as they’re able, school districts have pledged cut payroll costs through attrition as employees voluntarily leave the district.

And as all those options are exhausted, local district administrators have begun to search for future solutions elsewhere, using staffing studies to help identify where the district can make its first cuts or not refill positions.

Mission Consolidated Independent School District

“It has become my Bible,” Mission Superintendent Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez said of the district’s report.

In June, the school board approved a staffing analysis through the Texas Association of School Boards, a private 62-year-old organization that represents Texas school districts, for $25,000.

It was the first time Mission had done any type of independent staffing study, but Gonzalez said the study was vital as news of the upcoming state deficit was making its way to Mission.

“We wanted to use it as a guide for decision-making,” he said. “What can we afford to lose?”

The study, and the district’s contract to engage in the study, did not mean the district had to act on its findings.

As the first district in the Rio Grande Valley to conduct the study, Gonzalez said Mission was able to act instantly in creating its resignation incentive program after discovering Mission was over staffed by 217 employees.

Implemented in February, 40 campus clerks, 20 non-campus clerks, 50 instructional aides, three assistant principals, five counselors, 14 registered nurses, 11 elementary teachers, 27 junior high teachers, 27 high school teachers, 15 maintenance workers and five custodians could have voluntarily resigned, qualifying for an incentive package of 10 percent of their gross salary or $6,000.

Of those 217, 67 employees participated in the program. Another 21 employees not eligible for the program have told administrators they are leaving the district; Mission continues to consolidate its staff through attrition. Because of the staffing study, if an employee chooses to leave, the district is able to look back at the analysis to determine if they can do without refilling that position.

As the district’s superintendent for a little over a year, Gonzalez said staffing studies are key to help serve the district’s students. At every district he’s worked at, he said he’s utilized staffing studies to determine what changes, if any, could be made in the future.

Mission’s excess of employees isn’t necessarily overstaffing, he explained.

“The resources we had at the time were a lot more abundant than the resources we have now,” Gonzalez said of state and federal funding.

The district must be efficient and effective in order to provide its students a quality education, making the $25,000 study a worthwhile investment.

“Otherwise, you’re just acting based on assumptions that aren’t based on anything objective,” he said. “I feel it was very effective. An insider would not be effective.”

As TASB is contracted across the state for similar studies, it knows first hand what it’s looking for and how to compare Mission with other districts to provide a detailed model.

Along with telling the district where it could trim staff, TASB also informed the district of areas it was lacking. Through the study, Mission has added staff to its special education program.

“That was not exactly the idea, but it helped us identify an area of weakness,” he said, explaining that educators were reassigned from within the district. “It’s about providing quality services.”

Staffing studies, like compensation studies, are good administrative tools and practices, Gonzalez said.

“We’re trying to do what is right,” he said. “The decisions are hard for everyone, but they’re based on data and not objective opinions.”

Sharyland Independent School District

At the Sharyland, administrators have worked closely with their staff to cut down on costs, often giving their employees a number of responsibilities.

“We are really a pretty lean organization,” said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Yasmina Nye. “Our employees wear a lot of hats. We run a tight ship.”

Expecting to be cut around $8 million, but hoping those cuts are closer to $6 million, Nye said the district would displace some of its staff paid under Title I funds. If there are even more cuts, Sharyland will look at ousting more of its staff.

To deal with cuts on its staffing from Title I funds, Sharyland employees have been “cross trained” to do more work.

“We’re preparing for the worst, but we can always bring staff back,” Nye explained.

Staff like instructional, nurse and library aids along with community liaisons have been reduced, as they’re under Title I funding.

“Even though we’re doing this, there’s going to be somebody there for those kids,” she said. “We have someone that can mind the store.”

The district’s goal, she said, is to save money while having zero affect on classroom instruction. Likewise, in an effort to not hire any more teachers, even though the district grew this year by 500 students, Sharyland has eliminated the team-planning period to give teachers an extra class to instruct.

Sharyland has utilized outside firms for studies on auxiliary and payroll, but not staffing. Nye said as the district is “lean” on its staffing, the study wouldn’t be necessary.

“We’re doing well,” she said. “We look at that every year. We’ve been very careful with staffing.”

Unlike other districts of its size, Sharyland doesn’t receive as much funding because of its student population falling under specific guidelines for additional funding. For example, only about 50 percent of the district’s students qualify for a reduced lunch.

“They can afford to use that money for staffing; when we get it, we use it for instructional services,” Nye said of district expenditures.

Elsewhere, SISD uses enrollment and demographic changes, student/teacher ratios, flexibility in instruction and operational needs for staffing guidelines. Their standards are based on data from comparable districts with similar demographic data, and pupil/teacher rations as well as private and public sector groups like the Texas Education Agency.

“You can play with names and titles, but we are preparing the staff,” she said of discussions with Sharyland employees. “We’re hopeful we won’t have to make any more cuts, but are we prepared? Yes, we are prepared.”

McAllen Independent School District

Shortly after Mission contracted with TASB for a study, McAllen followed as it begins working on a five-year strategic plan that includes staffing for new guidelines. McAllen’s Assistant Superintendent for Business Operations Connie Lopez said the plan included audits in key areas along with staffing, like curriculum and technology.

TASB finished the study in January, and McAllen officials said they intend to keep some of their staff at its current levels because they’ve been identified as key areas. For example, staffing levels at the special education, career and technology and science departments will remain the same.

“You just need that,” Lopez said. “It’s about what is the district feels it needs.”

To slowly cut down on staffing costs, the district has implemented its own resignation incentive program where a dozen people have volunteered, said district spokesman Mark May. The district can save $4.9 million with its resignations. McAllen is on its second round of voluntary resignations, this time opening the option to 100 professionals and 50 hourly employees. Meanwhile, the district will still continue adjusting its staffing levels through attrition.

“We’re still looking for efficiency,” Lopez said, adding that the district has saved $50,000 a month by making energy efficient changes and the inclusion of new software that cuts down on manpower and additional costs.

Initial investments in these improvements, along with the cost of the staffing study, may be expensive, but their work in the future is most beneficial. The contracted firm can also help the district identify any gaps it missed in an internal study, which Lopez said could occasionally lead to inefficiencies.

“In the long run, it’s going to really benefit the district,” she said. “The goal is to implement as much as quickly as possible.”

TASB’s study is especially useful, Lopez said, because it offers comparisons across the state, especially in the Rio Grande Valley to help the district create benchmarks for the future.

“That’s interesting to see,” she said. “What’s it going to take for us to get to that number? In some cases, we’re right in line.”

It’s easy to lose track of staff levels as district administrators respond to campus pleas for more staff and resources as state budget discussions continue, she added.

“Everyone should be on top of their numbers,” Lopez said. “And it happens to small districts and big districts. It just happens.”

Administrators admit their decision to engage in a staffing study does raise concerns for employees’ future, but along with helping the district identify which positions to eliminate, they can have a transparent way to show its staff and taxpayers where decisions come from.

“It’s really ideal, because here it is,” she said pointing to the TASB study. “Here’s the proof.”

La Joya Independent School District

In May, La Joya will begin its TASB study, with officials meeting with campus principals, teachers and district administrators to begin measuring its staff. Administrators said they expect the study to be presented to the board in June.

“We’d been wanting to do this every four to five years to see we’re OK,” said La Joya Superintendent Dr. Alda Benavides.

In fact, Benavides said she wanted to have the study done over the summer, which could have helped over the year as the district and its board identifies positions they won’t fill should an employee leave.

“It’s the perfect timing,” she said of the study in this year’s economic crunch. “I think it’s always good to get an outside perspective. Sometimes you’re too close to the problem.”

Using enrollment and state suggested student to teacher ratios, Benavides said the district has been able to maintain itself for staffing purposes.

“La Joya ISD is OK,” she said.

Like Mission and McAllen, La Joya won’t be making any decisions to cut its staff based on TASB’s findings, should there be any evidence of overstaffing.

“That will be a good guide,” she explained, adding that district officials have had to ease fears of employees that the study would result in a cut of services. “It’s to improve. It’s not that anybody is going to be out of a job. It’s for future planning.”

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