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Coveting our Neighbor's Asset Management

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Public school districts across the country are struggling financially in the face of federal and state funding cuts. District leaders need to study their budgets to find cuts that can be made away from the classroom. Students and their parents are depending on them.

In my previous post I suggested one way a school district can find cuts that don't affect students directly: Zero in on non-classroom budget areas where another district spends less to serve the same number of students. Comparing my home district, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, with our neighbor, Las Virgenes Unified, I found many areas where Las Virgenes spends far less. Both districts serve about 11,600 students.

A more macro approach -- for a reality check on a district's spending -- is to compare the size of its annual budget with similar-sized districts' budgets. For example, the SMMUSD 2008-2009 budget (the most recent one available on the California Department of Education website) was $115.5 million. In that year LVUSD spent $93 million -- $22.5 million less. The 2010-11 numbers, which are only projections at this point, are smaller for both districts but show a similar discrepancy. SMMUSD School Board members and administrators need to ask, "How does Las Virgenes do it?"

One way they do it is with fewer teachers -- 74 fewer in 2008-09 (LVUSD, SMMUSD). Even though that would save $6 million (figuring $80,000 for each teacher's salary and benefits), it's not a road SMMUSD wants to take. Fewer teachers mean larger class sizes and diminished educational opportunities.

But a $16.5 million discrepancy remains. The other major difference between the two districts is that SMMUSD educated about 650 more English Language Learners and offered an individualized program for 310 students who were behind in their coursework, as well as an alternative high school for 193 students. Counseling and other services were (and still are) offered because of the district's higher percentage of students from low-income families.

Does serving those students account for the extra $16.5 million spent? I am confident it doesn't, especially since the major cost -- the extra teachers' salaries and benefits -- has already been subtracted.

Where is SMMUSD spending its extra money? Percentage-wise, it's not on instructional expenses. LVUSD spent 65.5 percent of its total budget on instruction. SMMUSD spent 63.6 percent. The flip side of these numbers is that LVUSD spent 4.6 percent of its budget on central administrative costs, while SMMUSD spent 5.6 percent. Special education administrative costs also came in higher in the SMMUSD.

One or two percentage points may not seem like a big deal until they are translated into dollars: The difference in administrative costs is $2.4 million. That represents about 28 teachers whose jobs could be saved if the SMMUSD spent what LVUSD does on administrators to serve the same number of students. This year the SMMUSD school board cut 58 teachers and other instructional specialists (and didn't fill the position of one administrator who retired). A parent-led fundraising campaign and federal bailout money restored $3.7 million and most of the classroom positions, but district officials are predicting a $12 million deficit for next year.

I have found other large discrepancies that add up to at least another $2 million: SMMUSD spent 43 percent more in the Communications category and 70 percent more in personnel. The personnel figure doesn't include the SMMUSD Personnel Commission, whose function is largely duplicated by the personnel department and union. Las Virgenes and 80 percent of similar-sized school districts do not even have a personnel commission. Eliminating it would save about the SMMUSD $400,000.

In Santa Monica and Malibu, at least, there are many non-classroom budget cuts to be made. It's true that voters, especially parents, are more likely to pass parcel taxes when led to believe that cutting teachers and programs is the only choice, but district leaders can find alternatives if they look.