06/26/2012 01:43 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

Invest in Education, but Don't Forget About Operations

Governor Brown's Tax Initiative is critical for public education reform to continue to California. But, as we promise more funds to our schools, political and community leaders should focus attention on where those dollars go. They need to turn a critical eye on district operations to ensure that money flows to the classroom where it directly impacts children -- and not to outdated or ineffective systems designed to keep adults comfortable in roles that are not critical to the success of the school district.

There is no question that we need more dollars for public education in California. This constant refrain can make even the most charitable taxpayer weary, but the reality is that our state is slipping behind at an alarming rate. By the most common measure -- per student funding -- California ranks 47th out of 50 states in total funding -- about $3,000 less per student than the national average. That would be tolerable if the cost to operate our schools was low. Here in Los Angeles, where the price of real estate has driven up the cost of living for everyone, including those who work in our public schools, we face the untenable proposition of paying New York real estate prices with Mississippi-level student funding.

Surprisingly, very little discussion of education reform includes operations, though they consume a significant portion of most district budgets (real estate, food services, technology, security, transportation, human resources, etc). Districts often wear their cuts in central office bureaucracy like a badge of honor. But success is not found in just abandoning critical operating activities. Rather, there is an opportunity to free up substantial resources if district leadership rethinks the structure of the operating side of the organization. District leaders should assess what they can do well in-house, determine where outside vendors can be more successful, and then develop the courage to act on that knowledge.

At Green Dot Public Schools, a unionized charter management organization serving over 10,000 students, we spend about $8,200 per student each year to provide a high quality education in some of the most underserved areas in South Los Angeles. With a dedicated team of 25 professionals we direct operations for all 18 schools including IT service, real estate, building maintenance, student data analysis, credentialing, procurement, and management of custodial, transportation, food services and benefits. This costs our organization about $488 a student. The rest of our public funds (except for the cost of facilities) goes to fund instruction, including key interventions and supports so our students can achieve academic excellence. Every year we are able to reduce operating costs by about 10 percent -- which is necessary just to stay even in this era of state budget cuts.

Green Dot has taken over several schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The District has offered their support services to us, but their cost structure is just too high. The District custodial operation is twice the cost of Green Dot's external provider for identical service. While some of our legacy district campuses do look worn, take a tour of a Green Dot campus and see if you can identify the extra hundreds of thousands we are not paying in custodial costs. You will find those dollars in smaller class size and other supports for students.

As another example, food service alone often represents about 5 percent of a district's budget. At Green Dot we serve about 1 million lunches a year. While data shows that Green Dot has a best-in-class educational model to turn around the culture and academic performance of schools that have a legacy of failure -- there is no reason to think this core competency will translate to the effective purchase of food commodities or innovative menu planning. We recognize that there are vendors that do this well. They provide efficient lunch operations that deliver healthy meals for our students -- at a lower cost than we could ever provide internally. And when they perform well, they receive more of our business. When they fail to deliver on their commitments to our students, we give them a brief opportunity to improve and then we move on. Students expect nothing less.

In tough economic times like these, voters should support the Brown Tax initiative to restore funds to K-12 public education. But they should also insist that school district operations be lean and efficient. We collectively need to be more courageous about how we operate our school systems and direct resources to the place they're needed the most -- in the classroom. Our children are counting on us.