By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
COLUMBUS — School districts across Ohio need to start outsourcing some non-instructional services, a leading education expert says.
Facing a cut in revenue from the state, school districts will need to examine how their non-instructional services are provided, Andrew Benson, executive director of Ohio Education Matters, said in an interview with Ohio Watchdog.
In some cases, that will mean outsourcing and, in others, sharing services at a regional level, Benson said.
The proposal may surprise some, as it comes from a group Benson says is sometimes pegged as center-left, in a state where even a Republican governor won’t touch the politically sensitive issue. The recession has pushed local governments nationwide to explore outsourcing, but the idea hasn’t gained much ground in Ohio, where union sympathies run strong.
Instead of threatening to lay off teachers or charge for football games, school districts could find more than $1 billion in savings in services such as maintenance, janitorial work, transportation, food service, payroll, business services, purchasing, energy, provision of extracurricular activities and professional development, Benson said.
In his most recent budget, Gov. John Kasich cut state support for local schools by 16.4 percent — the cuts had been planned, but for a few years down the road — calling for the schools to cut some of their fat.
“The state kind of assumed that budget pressures would lead districts to change the way they’re doing business. What I’ve seen is districts making cuts in the same way they always have,” Benson said, which is to threaten to cut popular programs.
The way that works, he said, is “when you’ve got to cut, you say, ‘We’re going to have to cut some of our low-enrollment courses, (advanced placement), foreign language. We might have to cut back on the music program and the sports, and we might have to have pay-to-play.’ And they try to do things that there’ll be lots of constituents who say, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got to pass a levy.’”
As a percentage of the budget, Ohio schools spend more on bureaucracy than 47 other states, according to The Book of the States 2012.
Schools statewide spend a total of 13.2 percent of their budgets on administration, while the national average is 10.8 percent.
That 13.2 percent represents some $2.56 billion in expenditures on regional and local school administrators out of $19.4 billion spent on K-12 education expenses.
In a 2011 study, Ohio Education Matters identified $248 million in potential savings just in central administration, if all 609 school districts brought their spending in line with the state’s more cost-effective districts.
The study found a total of $1.4 billion in savings, if those efficiencies were produced in all categories.
The result of his institute’s reports has been “a lot of talk and some changes, albeit slowly,” Benson said.
One report Benson worked on was “Beyond Boundaries,” put out by the governor’s office. That report pushes shared services among government agencies, but doesn’t touch the politically charged issue of outsourcing.
Benson said a few districts have started sharing some services.
“Some districts are working on pilot projects. Other districts are sharing superintendents or treasurers and examining how they can combine payroll services and things like that,” he said.
Outsourcing is more controversial.
Asked whether Kasich had a position on outsourcing non-instructional services, Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols just pointed back to the report on shared services.
“‘Beyond Boundaries’ has clear recommendations about partnering with (regional educational service centers) and local governments for administrative/non-instructional areas so schools can better focus on educating kids,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We’re all for it.”
The call for outsourcing isn’t coming from some arch-conservative group.
“We’re not ideological, per se, but if people pegged us, they’d say, ‘Oh, you seem to be more Democrat,’” Benson said. “We’re not.”
There are two big reasons school districts resist these changes, Benson said. The first is local control — nobody wants to call a big bureaucracy to fix a small local problem. The other is a popular notion about “good jobs.”
“It’s the issue of: Can school districts be those good jobs in a community? People want them to provide pretty good benefits, for them to pay their janitors pretty well, and take care of them. Well, you’d like to. You’d like that to be the case, but you know, there’s not enough money in schools to be that and provide what kids need, which is really the purpose of schools,” Benson said.
“If you don’t have enough money for both, something’s got to give. You’ve got to stay with your core purpose. So that does press clerical staff, press maintenance staff, the folks who take care of the lawn. There may be a better way to do that. And it’s not just outsourcing. It could be outsourcing, but it’s a variety of different things.”
Coordinating regional transportation, especially for special programs, can save a lot, Benson said. Front office and support functions could also be combined.
“Imagine that every Walmart had its own payroll department. It would just be inefficient, but that’s what we have with government,” Benson said.
“There’s a lot of opportunities for governmental entities, not just school districts, but townships, and counties, cities and park boards — a whole host of governmental entities that could do a lot more to share, like maintenance garages and equipment, front office personnel, etc.”
Outsourcing can mean gains in quality as well as savings.
“Cincinnati Public Schools outsources its transportation entirely,” Benson said. “And they actually provide pretty well. They met most of the quality indicators we set out in our study and they were among the lowest spenders.”
Ohio Education Matters is finishing up a report now on the best practices of the state’s most cost-effective districts.
Contact Jon Cassidy at email@example.com.