A consultant's report says should cut $23 million in expenses, and at the same time, the school district is well managed.
The suggested cuts will be analyzed further at a March 13 special Board of Education workshop. The report prepared by MGT America, which was hired by Gulf Coast Community Foundation, was released Friday in Venice at a press conference.
Several of the 73 recommendations focus on cutting salaries and looking at collective bargaining issues. Sixteen of the recommendations were identified as having fiscal impact that could represent significant savings over five years if all were adopted.
The study was conducted in November so that any recommendations with fiscal impact could be considered in the district’s budget planning for the 2012-2013 school year.
The consultant recommends that the school system works with unions to remove seniority as a basis for personnel assignments, as well as moving to an interest-based bargaining model to prevent locked-in debates during bargaining.
The consultant says that the "process begins with understanding the problem and identifying the interests that underlie each side’s issues and positions."
MGT's senior consultant Skip Archibald told WWSB that bargaining issues are hurting the system:
“Union contracts have some provisions in them that really are difficult to administer when you have declining resources you find yourself maybe having to lay people off and so worth. The seniority system is a handicapping condition, and we think they're going to have to review that,” Archibald.
Staffing accounts for almost 80 percent of the district budget, according to school officials. Archibald said the recommendations that would yield the largest savings also would be the most difficult to execute because they would involve collective bargaining.
MGT also recommended that the district conduct a comprehensive salary review. Though they recognize that the Sarasota community supports having salaries that attract the best talent, the study said the district should set benchmarks regarding where salaries need to be to achieve that goal.
Superintendent Lori White said in The Herald-Tribune that some cuts could affect the school district's quality. The paper also pointed out that across-the-board raises teachers were recently given was tied to an initiative to provide more planning time:
"The district added 30 minutes to the school day in 2006 to give teachers more time for planning. The move, which included paying teachers more, was one of the district's campaign pledges to get voters to extend the extra 1 mill property tax for local schools, which was approved. Most of the saving would come from lowering salaries.
"Most teachers and administrators feel that additional instruction time is necessary," White said."
She also told WWSB that cutting salaries further would be difficult:
"After multiple years of reducing our staff and even having less compensation, we took more furlough days this year, our teachers have not had an increase, so it's hard times to keep reducing."
The study recommended that the district should create an internal audit function, which would require create new positions, according to the school district, but staff finds that internal auditors could identify areas that would lead to significant savings over time.
Some of the recommendations involved more efficient use of facilities savings in construction costs. It was recommended that the district reduce its inventory of portable classrooms, for example. Again the process would require an investment in the short term but would be expected to yield a savings in the long run.
Archibald said Friday that the report has 73 commendations of best practices that the district follows, which is a significantly larger number than MGT usually identifies.
He said that number is important because the best way for school districts to improve is to build on their strengths. It also should give the community a high level of confidence in the quality of their schools, he said.
Archibald pointed out one area in which the district not only excels, but could be a national model: planning.
“The quality of the planning in the Sarasota County Schools is more than a best practice,” he said. ”It is a centerpiece that other districts all over the country could adopt to their benefit.”
Although school districts are often criticized for having too many administrators, Archibald said Sarasota’s administrative staffing generally is in line with best practices around the country. The district has fewer administrators than are generally recommended in central administration and at the high schools.
He said that about 60 percent of the savings from MGT recommendations would be realized in instructional program areas.
White said she appreciates that the community members who initiated the MGT study are sincerely interested in helping Sarasota County students succeed. She said the study is a concrete example of community leaders supporting the district’s continuing efforts to improve its already high-quality educational services.
White said the district will look closely at the MGT recommendations to see if they can be implemented without impairing programs.
“It’s always a balancing act,” she said.
White said it was helpful to have a new set of eyes look for areas where continuing budget reductions can be made, but the implementing the MGT recommendations will require very hard decisions.
“I wish there was some low-hanging fruit that we missed,” she said, “but there wasn’t.”
The entire MGT report is posted on the district website at www.SarasotaCountySchools.net.