Another calendar year is ending without any clear signs that the financial situation is likely to improve for schools and universities across the nation. Since economic conditions took a serious turn for the worse in 2008, administrators have had to endure sizable budget cuts that have hindered their efforts to provide students with a high-quality education.
Four years into this economic drought, education institutions of all sizes from coast to coast have been forced to close facilities, increase class sizes, eliminate programs, postpone building upgrades and defer maintenance.
As 2011 winds down, decisionmakers at schools and universities looking ahead to the new year must concentrate, as they have for the last four years, on setting priorities, aiming for greater efficiency, and managing wisely the resources they do have. Here are 10 key areas that administrators should be focusing on in their efforts to keep their institutions operating effectively:
The funding cutbacks that have beset schools and universities have become so commonplace that they barely qualify as news anymore. Still, administrators must cope with the budgets they are given and make difficult decisions about where money should be spent and where it can't.
Because personnel costs make up a huge part of a school budget, layoffs have been necessary at many schools and universities. Administrators strive to make cuts that don't affect classroom instruction, but when facing massive budget shortfalls, their options are limited. Teacher layoffs result in larger class sizes, and many school systems have had to exceed the size limits called for in district policy or state regulations.
More schools and universities are looking at outsourcing some of their operations — e.g., transportation services, custodial and maintenance work — in an effort to squeeze some savings out of their budgets; but some institutions have learned that contracting services to an outside company does not automatically lead to significant gain.
For a school system in crisis mode, drastic steps may be necessary. The Detroit district, which has seen student enrollment plummet from 168,000 to 66,000 since the turn of the century, has closed dozens of schools, cut operating costs and refinanced bonds to reduce its deficit from $327 million to $83.9 million.
Despite dismal economic conditions, many institutions have been able to secure the funding needed to pursue construction and renovation projects.
Just last month, several school systems in the Atlanta area won voter approval of a sales-tax extension that will provide more than $3 billion in funding for facilities. In Texas, each of five districts won approval of bond requests of more than $150 million.
But school districts should be cautious about moving forward with construction and make sure that operating funds will be available to open the school. In the Howell (Mich.) district, a $72 million high school was built to serve as a second high school. For 2007-08, the campus opened and served as the district's only high school while Howell High School was renovated; but in 2008, the district determined that it couldn't afford to open the second high school.
After sitting mostly vacant for most of three years, the Parker campus opened earlier this year as Parker Middle School. It replaces Three Fires Middle School, which was converted to an elementary school and replaced one of the district's older campuses.
Adopting sustainable approaches to construction and operations can help education institutions cut operating costs for utilities and provide a more healthful learning environment for students and staff.
Because education institutions are more cognizant that the costs for a facility don't end when construction is completed, more administrators have jumped aboard the bandwagon advocating the use of sustainable strategies in design, construction and operation of facilities. When they see an opportunity to build a structure that will ease the burden on their already hard-hit operating budgets, they become convinced that the green movement makes sense for financial as well as ecological reasons.
Organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council and the Collaborative for High Performance Schools provide reams of information about how to plan, build and run an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly facility.
4. Distance learning
One way to avoid facility costs is to find ways to serve students without adding building space. Advancements in video technology and online connections make distance learning a more affordable way to reach students.
Higher-education institutions have had a head start in this area; online schools such as the University of Phoenix have attracted hundreds of thousands of students to enroll in classes on their virtual campus. The online push now has made inroads in K-12 education. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics says that in 2009-10, public schools had more than 1.8 million class enrollments in an online course. Most — 74 percent — were high school enrollments, but even elementary students are learning online — 4 percent of the enrollments were from those grades.
Overall, 55 percent of public school districts reported they had students enrolled in online courses. Districts in more remote areas were more likely to have students enrolled in online classes. In districts classified as in a town (remote areas inside an urban cluster), 67 percent have students taking classes online, and in districts classified as rural, 59 percent have students in online courses.
The state of Idaho, as part of a school reform push, has mandated that beginning with the class of 2016, high school students must take at least two courses online.
5. New technology
The arrival of the personal computer into the classroom began transforming the education experience in the 1980s and 1990s. But what was cutting edge 15 or 20 years ago now is considered obsolete. Devices have become faster and more portable, and are able to provide more content.
E-readers and tablet devices, most notably the Apple iPad, enable students to gain access to textbooks, novels or other learning materials. Online access to textbooks saves students the effort of lugging a backpack laden with books to and from campus. Some schools are providing iPads to students as young as kindergartners.
Those who work with autistic students, who typically struggle with communication and social skills, say the iPad has enabled those students to interact more effectively with others.
The effectiveness of these new devices may wane as they evolve from a novelty into an everyday item, but by that time the innovators in Silicon Valley will have come up with other gadgets to amaze us and engage students.
6. Community outreach
The relationship between a school system and the community it serves is always important, but it becomes more critical when money is tight and people cast a more skeptical eye at school spending and policy decisions. Institutions that make an effort to keep constituents informed and welcome them as a resource are more likely to hold on to their support when tough decisions must be confronted.
Technology has made it easier for schools and universities to connect with students, staff, parents and other interested parties. When an institution needs to spread word about an urgent matter or just a mundane announcement, it can use text messages and e-mails to communicate immediately with thousands of people using cell phones or personal computers. In the last few years, Facebook and Twitter have been added to the list of avenues of communication.
E-mail accounts, voice mail and personal Web pages have enabled teachers to offer numerous ways for parents and students to communicate directly with them. Some schools routinely e-mail student progress reports to parents and send a notification when a student has received a failing grade for an assignment.
The popularity of YouTube and the ease of posting and viewing video online has led many school systems to provide online video streaming of live events such as school board meetings or athletic events.
It's a mantra that has been repeated so often that by now it should be hard-wired into every education administrator's brain: Deferred maintenance bad, preventive maintenance good. But when maintenance budgets often are the first target of spending slashers, maintenance efforts are likely to fall short of that goal and become a matter of "we'll do what we can with what we've got."
When billions were being spent on school construction and renovation in the building boom of the 1990s and 2000s, the sense was that schools and universities were catching up on the backlog in maintenance that had piled up because of years of neglect. But the budget reductions of the last few years have erased much of the progress.
An October 2011 study from the Council of the Great City Schools looked at data from 50 of the nation's major city school systems and found that they had $46.7 billion in repair, renovation and modernization needs, and $14.4 billion in deferred maintenance needs.
"Renovation and maintenance needs include HVAC upgrades; plumbing, roof, window, and door repairs; fire code and other safety upgrades; interior and exterior painting; sidewalk and parking lot repaving; electrical and lighting upgrades; locker and boiler replacements; kitchen upgrades; bus-depot repairs; masonry repairs; security systems; and updated technology," the report says.
The school districts in the study estimate that if money were available, within one year they could begin meeting about 12 percent of their repair, renovation and modernization needs ($5.6 billion); and 29 percent of their deferred maintenance needs (or $4.1 billion), the report says.
8. Reduced space
The dire financial status of many school systems has made it more difficult for them to continue operating schools efficiently. Administrators and school boards usually turn to building closures as a last resort. In better economic times, districts gave those schools a longer leash, but in the current climate, many buildings that had been operating under capacity and in neighborhoods without prospects for regreening have been closed down.
School systems should examine carefully what they plan to do with campuses when they cease operating as schools. They have to weigh the short-term advantages of a quick real-estate sale against the long-term prospects of needing the classroom space again if enrollment rebounds. Earlier this year, the Minneapolis school district experienced an enrollment increase after years of decline, and announced plans to reopen three schools that had been shuttered.
If a district decides to hold onto a closed facility, either for strategic reasons or because no buyers are interested, it must be prepared to keep the building and grounds secure. If it doesn't, the campus could become an eyesore or attract vandals.
Another way to deal with underutilized building space is to have more than one school share a campus. In New York City, the effort to establish new schools has bumped up against the limited space options in the densely populated city. The result is that space sharing has become commonplace. The city education department says that about half of its schools are "co-located."
"Sharing facilities is a rewarding experience for many school communities, but it requires cooperation and flexibility," the department's website says.
But where that cooperation does not exist, competing schools have come into conflict when they feel the schools they share space with are not compatible with theirs.
9. Environmental health and safety
Schools and universities may offer creative and innovative curriculum and instruction, but if the facilities where learning takes place are unsafe or unhealthful, they are failing to meet their responsibilities.
Administrators must be aware of how building construction, choice of materials and equipment, and cleaning and maintenance practices can affect the air quality inside a learning environment and create a "sick building." Allergens and other substances in the air can trigger asthma or cause other illnesses among staff and students.
Making sure that building materials and cleaning supplies do not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air will keep potentially dangerous substances from harming the health of students and staff. Maintenance workers should make sure that heating and cooling equipment are working properly so that the learning spaces have adequate ventilation.
Schools and universities have a responsibility to keep students and staff safe and campuses well protected. In the majority of instances, the police and security staffs on campuses take the role of protecting students, but the enduring image of campus security in 2011 shows how quickly security steps can spin out of control and become a public-relations embarrassment.
Students engaged in a non-violent sit-in at the University of California, Davis, refused to disperse, and campus police reacted by pepper-spraying students directly in the face. The video of the incident spread quickly across the Internet, and outrage over the incident became national news.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi said she did not authorize the pepper-spraying and apologized to students. University of California System President Mark Yudof has appointed a task force to investigate the incident and recommend ways to improve campus police procedures and policies.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].