Times Hard Enough to Close Stone Spring for a Year?

DebSF -- February 25th, 2009

At last night’s City Council meeting,  councilwoman Carolyn Frank offered the possibility of closing Stone Spring Elementary for a year as a cost-cutting measure intended to help the school board slice an estimated $2.4 million dollars from it’s budget, according to WHSVStone Spring Elementary has the lowest enrollment of any of Harrisonburg’s eight public schools, with about 290 enrolled at the end of 2008. “It would save, I would think, a tremendous amount of money…if the other schools could absorb them without overcrowding,” says Frank.

What do you think?

80 Responses to “Times Hard Enough to Close Stone Spring for a Year?”

  1. As a teacher, I would be interested in hearing the ideas others have for cutting the budget creatively with minimal impact on the core mission of schools.

    Here are some possibilities (I’m not committed to any of these, just brainstorming):
    – Stop bussing students who live within a certain radius of their school.
    – Close one or two schools and offer school on a shift basis, with some going in the morning and some in the afternoon. This is done in many countries.
    – Alternately, move to a year-round school schedule with 1/4-1/3 of the students off school at any given time.
    – Move administrative offices to empty classrooms in the schools.
    – Crack down on free and reduced lunch fraud.
    – Look at new revenue streams and cost cutting for school nutrition program.
    – Integrate the PE and athletics programs, as well as relying more on teacher-led recess time, to reduce the need for more PE teachers.
    – Match special ed spending to money received in federal/state funds for that program.
    – Institute more electives that can be operated with very large class sizes (such as Rosetta Stone computer time, study hall, Drop Everything and Read classes, etc.) to absorb need for elective teachers.
    – Lease facilities such as auditoriums, cafeterias and computer labs to non-school groups on evenings, weekends, and during summer.

    None of these ideas make me stand up and cheer, but it’s time for some out-of-the-box thinking. Kudos to Carolyn for being willing to suggest something, just to get us out of our normal mindset of “this is how it must be”.

  2. Josh says:

    Interesting idea! Makes me wonder why Smithland Elementary School was built…

  3. JGFitzgerald says:

    Maybe a universal health care system: $2.7M off the top. Probably not that simple.

  4. As someone who attended a year of high school on a half-day basis I can say that is a very bad idea. You might as well close the school for all the educating that will be occurring.

    Something that guys like Landes, Lohr, Saxman, Gilbert, Obenshain and Hanger could be doing is to propose the lifting of state mandates (since they aren’t being adequately funded) so that school districts can look at shorter weeks, no SOL testing, less special ed., fewer bus routes, etc.

    I’m appalled that the school district doesn’t have contingencies for this thing, with related action items to implement and budget saving estimates. It isn’t like they just found out that the our state and local budgets are in ruins. What has the school board been doing all these many months?

  5. JGFitzgerald says:

    Realistically, the SB can’t begin serious budget prep until the Assembly produces a state budget. Then the SB presents something to the city, which tells them how much they can get, based on what the state tells the city, but only after the Assembly produces a state budget. The only way to screw it up worse would be to make Gilmore governor again. Those were the days.

    Seriously, there’s not that much more the SB can do when the state is telling them they have to do X, Y, and Z, and here’s funds for X, Y, and a half.

  6. Renee says:

    Jeremy, I think a great idea you have there is “Lease facilities such as auditoriums, cafeterias and computer labs to non-school groups on evenings, weekends, and during summer” though I’d add in athletic fields and classrooms, too.

    If the schools had some way to effectively manage the renting out of the facilities, and offered them at prices lower than the college and banquet facilities in the area, I think they could earn money.

    Athletic day camps, classes/tutoring, clubs, concerts, etc. could be held at the school buildings. My high school used to lease its auditorium and I think the gym and some classrooms, to a church every Sunday.

  7. Emmy says:

    I think that it’s great she’s thinking out of the box, but it seems as though she’s never been in a local school. I don’t think it’s possible for the other schools to absorb those students. That’s the reason they built a new school!

    I do think leasing the facilities is doable. You could even make them pay a refundable or partially refundable charge for any damage or cleanup that may have to be done on top of the rental fee. The idea of combining classes that could be done in a large group is a good one as well. I think looking to the teachers for suggestions is where they need to start.

  8. Tad says:

    You could raise taxes during a recession to make up the shortfall. You could have one principal and one assistant principal at HHS. You could lay people off. You could get rid of all of the computers that guzzle electricity all day long. You could make parents drive their kids to school. You could fire most of the administrative personel and make Doc Ford earn his six-figure salary. The fact is that local schools have been living the good life for nearly 20 years now. I find it hard to believe that there is not enough fluff within the budget that could be cut to make up for most of the shortfall.

  9. JGFitzgerald says:

    Leasing out school facilities sounds good, but keep in mind that Scout troops and other volunteer organizations use the schools after hours. Running government entities like businesses is an attractive idea, but it’s good to keep in mind that many government functions are public because private business can’t support them.

  10. So, Joe, what do you think SHOULD be done?

    I would still love to hear more ideas (from Joe and everyone else) because the clock is ticking on deciding how to cut $2-4 million from the current budget of $60.2 million.

    Also, please feel free to insert any Rosetta Stone building sale jokes you can think of into your suggestions.

  11. Renee says:

    A couple other ideas… offer more online classes for high schoolers (I know they already have some), and also encourage the high schoolers to do dual-enrollment in JMU/Blue Ridge, or to take classes at one of the technical schools, to reduce the student load at HHS – not sure how much savings come out of having fewer students, though. Certainly not millions.

    I also like Jeremy’s idea of putting the admin offices in the schools – you could fit several “cubicles” in one classroom – but are there really open classrooms in these schools?

    I also wonder how much money could be saved with energy-saving technologies or using alternative energy to supplement the power requirements of the schools.

  12. JGFitzgerald says:

    Gx,

    What should we do? Raise taxes on those who still have jobs. If we want government services, we have to pay for them. Oliver Wendell Holmes called it the price we pay for civilization.

    (Following up on the earlier specific, in a world where school facilities had a business value, private industry would build an auditorium and rent it to the schools, and the schools would save money from the outsourcing.)

    But back to the taxes. Some would argue that only those who use a government service should have to pay for it. So who pays for schools? The students and their families, or the businesses for whom the schools are training workers? Who pays for the police? Me, when I have to report my home has been burglarized, or the burglar, with the profit he makes stamping license plates?

    Obviously nobody wants to pay more taxes or get less government services, and I’d maintain that until that changes, we’ll do what we’ve always done: Increase spending when times are good; slow, but don’t decrease, spending when times are tough, and borrow money to pay for it.

    (That comma after the word “decrease” feels wrong, but I can’t think of the grammatical rule that governs it. My apologies in advance.)

  13. Deb SF says:

    Dual enrollment kids are either taught at BRCC by a conventional BRCC faculty member (like me) or taught at the HS, by a high school faculty member who meets the standards of the accreditation folks (SACS for us, in this case- not every HS teacher meets the criteria for teaching courses that are transferable to a 4-year college/university). Either way, someone has to pay the community college tuition for the kid. Both my son and stepson took BRCC classes while at HHS. I’m not sure how dual enrollment would save the K-12 system money, though on it’s own merits, it’s generally a very good thing for the kid.

  14. Emmy says:

    I was just reading something about cold school lunches on another blog.

    I wonder how much money it could save to do a cold lunch a few days a week?

  15. Josh says:

    I don’t like that idea. That’s the only decent hot meal some of these kids get.

  16. Tom Mendez says:

    Jeremy, thanks for several great ideas. The school board is looking at every reasonable avenue to cut expenses with the litmus test for each idea being “how much will this item impact the quality of education in our classrooms?” Joe knows first-hand how much unfunded mandates handcuff school systems. Unfortunately, there are some areas that cannot be changed even though adjustments make sense.

    Closing a school, laying off 40-60 people, and returning to crowded classrooms with 30 trailers would be detrimental to students and the community. It would also impact head start, pre-K and regional special education programs that are also housed in the schools (and for which the schools receive rental income for use of the facilities).

    It appears that the Federal Stimulus bill will restore $1.5M in state cuts making the task at hand much more attainable without dire, drastic actions.

  17. Emmy says:

    True Josh, I forgot about that. Scratch my idea.

  18. Karl says:

    I have always thought naming rights for sports venues would be a good idea.

    I see the headlines in the DNR now “Streaks season on life support after loss at RMH Center” or “Streaks dine on Wildcat in Cally’s Field opener.” I won’t make up a Pamela’s or Hole in the Wall headline, but do think it would be cool if they played games in/at “The Hole.” I certainly understand if Tom does not find that prospect to be cool, but the public hearings would be great!

  19. I can see the headline in the DNR now: “Pork” Will Keep Local Schools Open.

  20. Frank J Witt says:

    The HHS Golf Team could have an invitational at the city owned golf course and call it the “Hole In the Wall Opener” and anyone that gets a “Hole In One” could win some Weiners from Jess’s Lunch…

    Really though, ideas abound!

  21. Barnabas says:

    How early do the teachers show up?
    Could energy be saved by having them show up later and leave earlier, expecting them to work from home?
    What kind of light bulbs are they using?
    They don’t still have girls sports do they? (just kidding)
    Most schools seem to have really big windows. Windows tend to be an energy sucker, so they need some thick curtains.
    Does the milk have gold flakes in it?

  22. Bubby says:

    Or…”It Ain’t Kosher, But What the Valley Caucus Can’t Deliver, Surely the Democrats Will!

  23. linz says:

    Kudos to Carolyn for having the guts to suggest something outside the box that, although there are pros and cons, is not totally out of the question. At least it raised the bar for coming up with ideas.

    And I digress… It is very frustrating to see everyone working so hard to come up with ideas to save $1.5 mil, when if the city had gotten the original 2008 assessed value for the police building and property, the city would already have almost 75% of that needed money actually *in cash* to use toward this current school budget crisis… not just ambiguously promised to somehow filter its way into the city somewhere. That cash in hand would mean less budget cutbacks affecting the quality of education (and selfishly, maybe the teachers would have gotten their cost of living raises this year). The city and the schools operate out of the same pockets, so I wish some of the decisions made, like practically giving away property to Rosetta, weren’t so exclusive of one another.

    Maybe we could invest in a time machine to go back and fix that issue and others like the golf course. :)

    Oh, and why with all these needs, does the local stimulus request list include $15 mil for a parking deck/SCHOOL OFFICE? Ugh!

  24. JGFitzgerald says:

    Good ideas in concept, but moving in the wrong direction. Teachers often buy their own supplies, and they’re already working at home. The schools don’t have a single problem that can be solved by less money. Really. Want to save local government money? Let’s have firetrucks and police officers respond more slowly. Let’s allow potholes to develop more fully before patching. Let’s close the pool for a year. Let’s have everybody go without water one day a week and still pay for it.

    Nah, too much trouble and inconvenience. Let’s take it out on the schools.

  25. Jamie Smith says:

    Tad is right about “fluff” at the SB offices. Their website shows 8 administrators at the HPD building with SIX secretaries. At the old house they show 9 administrators with FIVE secretaries. Hardly anyone uses secretaries any longer what with word processors, e-mail, etc. Perhaps they continue to do business the same way they did when the old house was built.
    Tom cites help from the stimulus money but what do they do next year?

  26. Lowell says:

    Refresh my memory please, how many offers had been made to purchase the building for $1.5 million? And who was it who had that deal jerked out from under them so it could be given to RS?

    Are you a teacher linz?

  27. JGFitzgerald says:

    All due respect, you can’t figure out staffing needs from a website. Anybody want to spring for an administrative study of the school system? I’d guesstimate about $150K. But let’s wait and do that in a boom year, not try to do it on the fly in a slow year. Unless we want to take the $150K away from another department (skipping a day of water each week is still on the table) or raise the real estate tax rate a penny.

  28. seth says:

    much as i always thought the vending machines in school were kind of shady (in that they allowed kids to make really poor nutritional choices), i wonder if there isn’t some more money that could be made from that sort of thing.

  29. Renee says:

    @DebSF – I guess I was under the impression that the families paid for the dual enrollment tuition.

  30. Jamie Smith says:

    JGF, I suspect you could tell a lot about staffing levels by simple observation, and review of job descriptions..wouldn’t take a full blown study, just someone who understands efficiency.

  31. Renee says:

    And I’d be all for closing down the golf course and funneling that money into the schools before laying off teachers and increasing class size…

  32. Bill says:

    What about a 4 day school week. That would cut 20% off of your transportation costs and school cafetera costs. It would also, by virtue of traveling less miles, increase the life of school busses and reduce the maintenance costs. Lights in the building would be reduced by about 12-15%/week. Schools would not have to create “bank days” for snow, and with a creative calendar, schools might even be able to start later in August and get out earlier in June or late May. Some students at BHS did some research and their studies point to some pretty good savings. School systems in other parts of the country have been on a 4 day week since the mid 1970’s. Statistics indicate that students achieve higher test scores, are absent less, there are fewer office referrals, and higher teacher morale, with a cost savings of about 12% to their bottom line. Something to think about, particularly in the county with the number of busses and the miles they travel on a daily basis, the twenty or so school buildings they have to light up every day, and the 11,000-12,000 students they feed five days/week.

  33. Deb SF says:

    Renne- families do pay the tuition. But a lot of the dual enrollment classes across the state are taught by HS teachers in the HS, others are taught by CC faculty in the HS. I’m not sure where the cost saving is going to come from. If the kid is taught in the HS, as I understand it, the CC keeps a % of the tuition and the HS gets the rest.

  34. Josh says:

    Bill, how would a 4 day school week impact parents that will need childcare on the 5th day? Maybe the schools could rent out facilities on the 5th day to private childcare programs? :)

  35. Bill says:

    Josh, from what I’ve read, the childcare issue was the biggest concern in areas that have switched to the 4 day school week. What those communities found that the childcare issue wasn’t as big as a problem as they thought it might be. New “cottage” industries, for daycare developed and they found a ready supply of workers because of the number of high school students that were off from school. In some cases, a few schools in their systems were leased on the off days to provide the service. Necessity is often the mother of invention.

  36. Lowell says:

    Bill,
    Could you source the research you cite?

    And please explain your understanding of “bank” days?

    Also, could you share the number of instructional hours required of school districts by state mandate and how that issue could be resolved?

    Could you name the school systems who have found so much success with a four day week since the ’70s? How are they doing with NCLB? How are they doing with the increase in bureaucracy and paperwork?

    Please provide the data regarding fewer referrals for discipline, fewer absences, and higher test scores?

    And I’m very interested in the claim of higher teacher morale.

    Your post is fascinating and I really look forward to your response with the corresponding studies and data.

    Thanks so much in advance!

    Lowell Fulk

  37. Bill says:

    I’ll need to go into my “archives”, but will report back soon.

  38. Lowell says:

    Thank you. This is discussion which could be very helpful.

  39. bill says:

    I might be able to help. “Bank days” – School systems extend the hours students are in school on a regular school day in order to bank time in the event of snow days. In Rockingham County we bank five days. If we miss school, we don’t need to make up the days until we exceed the five days.

  40. Tad says:

    With respect to determining staffing needs from a web site. A definitive judgement certainly can’t be made by just viewing a website. However, as an employee of the state of Virginia and having worked in two seperate govt. agencies I think it is a safe judgement to make that there is fluff in the school systems. Fluff is never justified but likely to happen when govt. coffers are overflowing. Those days are over. The fluff must be cut. In the school system it seems reasonable to start in the admin building and cut staff. I hate for people to lose their jobs, but salaries and benefits make up the vast majority of expenses to the school system and as such should be where you cut first.

  41. JGFitzgerald says:

    School budgets have been strapped for years, perhaps decades. Their coffers have never overflowed. It didn’t start with the recessions; it only worsened. Why, exactly, would administrators add fluff positions at their central office, and why would the School Board let them, when there are identified shortages in the classrooms? To accept the idea of over-staffing at the central office, one has to believe that these extra positions are identifiable by looking at a website but somehow escaped the notice of not just the superintendent, but a generation of SB members. I suppose one could accept the idea that pointy-headed liberal education bureaucrats don’t know how many employees they need, but the SB members, to whom we thus ascribe random cluelessness, include a builder-developer, a state policeman, an insurance executive, a pharmaceuticals representative, a university admissions director and a physician, just to name a few. None of these people was smart enough to look at the website?

  42. Tad says:

    Yes, merely looking at a staffing listing at a web site is no way to determine over-staffing. You win that point. But I find it hard to believe that Harrisonburg Public schools are run on such a tight shoe string budget that there is not one position in the admin office that could be cut. H’burg would be the one example in a sea of bloated govt. agencies whether it be local, state, or national. Should we spend more money on education? I vote yes. Should we eliminate unnecessary program and staff that are wasting tax payer dollars? I vote yes. Since, no one with a brain cell is going to call for higher taxes today the way you close a $2-$4 million dollar hole is by plugging it with the things you don’t really need or fluff. If you are suggesting that the current and past school boards, even with their lofty backgrounds and pedigrees, might be incompetent that is certainly something I could agree with.

  43. JGFitzgerald says:

    “Lofty” is your word. But, what the hell, let’s play Government, the game where you get to spend your own tax dollars. Choose your level: town, where your taxing levels are set by the state, county, and federal entities, the person you’re taking the money from lives next door, and the things you have to do are set by state and federal officials often working from rules designed to satisfy insurance regulations. You roll a six and pull a card from Community Chest, and it says you have to fix six potholes, and the annual budget only allowed for four, but there was an ice storm, and maybe you can just fill them in with sand until the next budget year but the federal MUTCD (sorry, rules say you have to follow it any time you touch asphalt) says no sand. Players two and three, state and federal, shrug and go for snacks and say it’s your problem, while player four, constituency, plays a Chance card that says you’re overstaffed in the streets department. Player five, county, knows he has to draw a School Board card on his next turn and wants to know if everybody can play Chutes and Ladders instead. But player four still wants his position cut, and there’s another ice storm in the forecast so you’ve got to play it out. Oh, and by the way, player six thinks you’re corrupt.

  44. seth says:

    i think he’s finally losing it….

    :)

  45. Jamie Smith says:

    I believe we have a case of PTSD brought about by too much exposure to local politics!

  46. JGFitzgerald says:

    Or perhaps unfettered annoyance at people who think they can understand complex systems like fluid dynamics or government because they stayed in a Holiday Inn last night.

  47. seth says:

    well played

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