Six creative solutions for managing school budget cuts

Paperless workflows and e-signatures can help schools under pressure to save money.

Addressing school budget cut realities

School funding is a frequent target for cost savings and efficiencies. As a school Principal or administrator, you are all too familiar with the constant budget pressures. But the events of the past year have taken this to a new level, and the impacts will be felt for years to come. Dramatic changes to school operations, combined with significant impacts to state and municipal budgets, are forcing many schools to take a deeper look at their financial plans. Federal pandemic-relief funding may help address some critical short-term issues while transitioning to new operating methods.

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, about 70 percent of a school’s expenses are directly related to staffing and instruction, with 20 percent going to operations, and 10 percent to administration. In this article, we will focus on creative cost-savings measures to address school budget cuts that do not target salaries or negatively affect classrooms and student success.

Identifying creative solutions for budget management

What makes budget solutions both creative and effective is their long-term impact, sustainability, and positive secondary benefits. For example, cutting capital investments or maintenance expenses may help with this year’s budget, but defer the problem to future years. We have looked for ideas that are positive in both the short and long term and have the potential to make ongoing contributions to the community. Our suggestions are grouped into three categories: managing facilities and resources, exploring new models for cost sharing, and leveraging the power of the collective.

Managing facilities and streamlining resources

Reducing expenses on facilities and consumable resources helps with the overall budget and also has a positive effect on the environment.

Taking a fresh look at facilities management

Heating, ventilation, electricity, and water utilities are not new targets for school budget cuts, but taking another look at these areas can uncover new cost saving opportunities. Reducing electricity and heating usage are great for the environment, too. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that schools can save between 25 and 50 percent on energy costs by turning off unused lights and equipment more consistently, switching to LED light bulbs, reducing thermostats outside of school hours, or closing off unused areas. Building changes due to COVID-19, such as ventilation improvements, may be an opportunity to incorporate motion-sensing fan controls, thermostats, light switches, and other efficient building technologies.

Adopting paperless workflows and introducing e-signature capabilities

Becoming a paperless school can save a lot of time and money and reduce waste. Moving from paper to digital processes reduces costs by up to $6 per document and simplifies and streamlines workflow processing, especially in remote operating environments. Digitizing documents, from student IEPs and permission slips to staff benefit and administrative forms, makes it easier to distribute information and keep everyone up to date. Getting electronic approvals and signatures with products like Adobe Sign is 28 times faster than with paper and ink forms, and that was calculated before lockdowns and online learning. Security capabilities in PDF-based forms also help ensure compliance with state and federal privacy regulations.

Exploring new models for cost sharing

Looking at new ways of sharing workloads, equipment, and resources among interested parties can bring savings and other benefits to the larger community.

Cooperating with other levels of government

For public schools, identifying services that are duplicated in other levels of government may provide opportunities for cost sharing and economies of scale. For example, lawn mowing, snow removal, and other groundskeeping activities could be shared with the local parks department, reducing equipment and maintenance costs. School and municipal libraries might look at trading resources or even combining facilities and staff. Sharing underutilized equipment is another potential way of reducing costs. Online resource banks make it feasible to reserve equipment across multiple users and locations, whether between schools or with other interested parties. Even local businesses may be interested in this as a way of distributing capital and operating costs for infrequently used gear.

Using open learning resources

Another cost-sharing opportunity is the use of digital, open learning resources to reduce the cost of purchased textbooks, videos, and other instructional resources. The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging school districts to choose open licenses to save money, keep content relevant, and improve access to quality materials via their Go Open program. U.S. public broadcaster PBS produces and curates a wide range of free material, including videos, interactives, and lesson plans aligned to state standards, through PBS Learning Media. Some other notable organizations supplying openly licensed K-12 educational material include Open Educational Resources, Khan Academy, and MIT Open Courseware. Digital resources like these are especially valuable during times of online learning.

Leveraging the power of the collective

Joining together with other schools or levels of government to form a co-op or collective can improve services or increase purchasing discounts.

Collaborating on school purchasing

Cooperative school purchasing groups have been around for decades, and if you are not part of one, now is a great time to join or start one. These organizations reduce costs by negotiating larger discounts based on increased sales volume. They can also save time and administrative resources, by taking responsibility for crafting requests for proposal and evaluating competitive bids, all in compliance with state requirements. National groups, such as the Association of Educational Purchasing Agencies, further amplify the benefits, negotiating for larger volumes and helping to ensure timely supply of essential items. If you reimburse teachers for their personal purchases of supplies not covered by a larger contract, you could setup something like an Amazon affiliate for common items, for both increased consistency and to get a small financial boost from the commissions.

Building collective technology operations

As technology becomes more pervasive throughout schools, there are benefits to sharing support costs, staff, and even infrastructure across a larger group. More than just hardware and software discounts, organizations like MCNC in North Carolina identify and share best practices and build greater levels of knowledge and expertise than an individual school or district IT department could afford. This is especially important in areas like security, networking, and video, where deep knowledge and experience are critical but scarce. These groups can also build and take responsibility for shared infrastructure that offers broader capabilities and higher service levels than any school could assemble on their own.

The correct answer is E — all of the above

Facing both budget cuts and operational changes, managing school budget pressures can seem like a daunting task. The good news is that this is a collaborative, open book test and there are many resources available to help you. These six budget solutions can deliver recurring savings without negatively affecting students, while providing additional benefits to the local community.

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