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LOOKING IN FROM THE OUTSIDE

20110506_texas-association-of_profile_TNTASB advice could have saved Texas schools over $96 million

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

LA JOYA — Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) representatives met staff at the La Joya Independent School District (LJISD) this week to start a review of its workforce. Interviewing all kinds of employees from principals to custodial staff, the group is charged with helping the district identify which positions, if any, it can eliminate if a worker leaves the district.

LJISD Superintendent Dr. Alda Benavides, who wanted to do the study last summer, said the analysis would help officials guide the district in the future while saving as much money as possible.

“We’re trying to maximize the use of our dollars,” Benavides said in an interview last week. “This will evaluate and help improve the district.”

TASB, one of the most popular consultants for staffing studies in Texas, usually takes about two months to perform the study. Cindy Clegg, the director of human resource services division at TASB, said the group uses comparisons with peer districts for its examination, trying to cut down on staffing costs while maintaining instructional services.

“The scope of the study includes central and campus administrators, instructional support staff, classroom teachers and actual class size, special education staff, clerical and paraprofessionals, child nutrition, maintenance and custodial staffing,” Clegg said. “We provide the district with a list of options to consider with estimated savings attached to each.”

Collecting data and using interviews with district staff, TASB develops cost-cutting options for the district to consider once the review is complete.

Clegg explains that the staffing analysis is the best way for a district to make an informed decision using an outside expert for guidance.

“Finding the right balance between what is best for students and what is affordable is difficult,” she said. “Making the best decisions means examining and weighing all of the options first.”

TASB doesn’t just identify which areas the district could make cuts, but also finds areas the district needs to increase services for students, which is what administrators at the Mission Consolidated Independent School District (MCISD) discovered this summer.

Clegg said TASB recommends that districts conduct staffing studies when the district is in a period of big change, such as in enrollment or in a financial crisis.

Since 2003, TASB has been offering its services for staffing studies. This year, anticipating shortfalls from the state and federal governments, TASB has seen an overwhelming amount of service requests.

In the 2010-2011 school year, 24 school districts – ranging with student bodies from 1,000 students to more than 80,000 students – have contracted TASB for a staffing analysis. Of those studies, 18 have already been completed, including MCISD and the McAllen Independent School District.

While they don’t keep a tally of total positions Texas school districts could eliminate, TASB has identified over $96 million in opportunities for savings in their 18 studies.

“The demand is being driven by the need to cut costs and the fact that 80 percent or more of the district expenses are in personnel costs,” Clegg said.

With the results of the TASB staffing analysis in their hands, administrators with MCISD were looking for new ways to do more with less money. Previously, the district had benefitted from grants and other funding that offered the district a number of luxuries in its employment. In the next two years, a lot of that will change, Superintendent Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez said.

In TASB’s study, it found that MCISD could cut 217 positions for a cost avoidance of $6.7 million.

“The resources we had at the time were a lot more abundant than the resources we have now,” Gonzalez said. “Were we overstaffed? No. I think we were taking advantage of the circumstances we were living in. Now with the deficit, we need to adjust.”

Clegg agreed, explaining that districts can be staffed heavily in some areas, but that doesn’t automatically indicate a bad practice.

“‘Overstaffed’ is not a descriptor we use,” she said. “We can tell a district that they have smaller class sizes in their secondary core content subject than their peer group, but this does not mean that the district is overstaffed.

“It is an instructional choice that is better for students, but may no longer be affordable…Staffing levels reflect the instructional choices and the student populations served at the time. When circumstances change, those choices may no longer be affordable.”

While more districts look for equitable ways to do more with less funding, Gonzalez predicted several districts would join the pack in getting a staffing analysis.

“If anybody hasn’t done it, they’re probably in line,” he said. “But it’s a long line.”

Administrators all recognized the study will serve as a guide for future planning, but remained unswayed as to whether it should be a requirement.

“State mandates sometimes help and sometimes they don’t,” said Connie Lopez, McAllen Independent School District assistant superintendent for business operations. “But it’s definitely a good way of doing business.”

Funding these types of efforts when a district doesn’t find it necessary to conduct a study is especially tough.

“If the state said, ‘Here’s $40,000, go get this done,’ I’d feel better about that,” Lopez said.

But TASB, who’s known throughout the state for helping school districts analyze its staff, doesn’t find a mandate necessary, Clegg said.

“Not every school district needs the same type of analysis,” she explained. “Some districts use staffing formulas and know where they stand. The source of funding also makes a difference. Some districts get more grant funding and can afford to have more staff as a result of grants. There is much diversity in needs and resources among school districts, which makes it hard to generalize.”

It’s unlikely legislators will want to require Texas school districts to conduct staffing studies as that would require the state to be responsible for making districts keep specific levels in staffing, said Gonzalez, Mission’s superintendent.

Besides, he added, a requirement in staffing levels also takes away local control.

“Districts should have the final say in staffing levels and where they want to invest more,” he said. “That’s part of being a district. You are able to make those decisions.”

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