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Efficient schools, major cuts / December 10, 2012
After a brief hiatus with the changeover of school superintendents, the school efficiency study is back on the Halifax County School Board’s agenda — with recommendations for the trustees to trim school staffing levels, reorganize the Central Office and shutter two schools.

Each topic is dealt with at length in the school efficiency study produced by Prismatic Services, which began its review under the administration of former school superintendent Paul Stapleton. On Thursday, Prismatic founder Tatio Prieto met for two hours with School Board members and current superintendent Merle Herndon to go over 122 recommendations for making school operations more efficient.

Prieto highlighted the top 13 recommendations that her firm identified as having the greatest potential to achieve savings for the school division.

Prismatic’s call for closing two elementary schools would yield the greatest expected savings, but the idea has run into resistance from some trustees who have suggested they are not ready to make such a dramatic change in the school division’s footprint.

Prieto told the trustees Thursday that while closing two schools could well result in little or no reduction in the number of teachers, it would eliminate administrative, custodial and paraprofessional positions and produce additional savings through lower utility costs and eliminated bus routes.

“One of your largest expenses is in buildings and their maintenance,” she said. She estimated savings of $2.75 million through closing two elementary schools.

“This is a major area that will require time, careful study and community input,” she advised trustees. Such a move requires “thoughtful consideration to the unintended consequences.”

The school division could save another $265,310 by “rebalancing” elementary class loads each year to ensure equity among the schools, Prieto said. She noted that as matters now stand, some classrooms in the same grades have as many as 25-28 students while others might have only 12-15. Classroom sizes could be balanced more evenly while still adhering to Virginia Standards of Quality for average classroom size, she said.

Prieto ventured that the school system could eliminate at least five elementary teaching positions and perhaps as many as 10 by reducing the number of classes. She said Prismatic estimates $264,100 could be saved at the high school and middle school by allowing student-teacher ratios there to rise. Surveys suggest that at least another five teaching positions, perhaps several more, could be eliminated at the two schools.

Herndon advised the School Board that class sizes are being analyzed, and the division also is reviewing teacher schedules and student-teacher ratios. She also said the personnel files of all teachers are being reviewed to determine the current number of years of experience and matching salary levels. She said that after a final review of all personnel files, she will recommend a policy to the board to prevent any further inconsistencies in employee pay scales. Her budget plans, now under development, will include a request to the Board of Supervisors for a 2.5 to 3.5 percent pay raise for all employees next year, Herndon said.

On the subject of a Central Office reorganization, Prieto said additional savings of $160,000 could be achieved by reorganizing the department of administration and the department of instruction into a single department under a chief academic officer. She said the school system should eliminate two executive director positions and one testing coordinator position, and then create a single post of chief academic officer.

An updated central office structure — adopted by the School Board on July 23 — includes instructional technology, professional development, accountability and student services lead positions. The updated structure is intended to clarify roles and relationships of each office and lists the persons responsible for specific jobs.

Another $185,360 might be saved by reassigning school custodial staff based on a standard workload of cleaning 20,000 square feet per day, with employee working eight hour days. This would permit the elimination of seven full-time custodial positions, said Prieto.

Another $240,000 to $400,000 could be saved by reducing those bus runs that have less than a 75 percent efficiency rating. She also urged trustees to budget some $750,000 annually to replace aging buses and suggested that activity buses be eliminated and the car fleet reduced.

Prieto suggested “staggering of bell times” — which could, for example, result in a later school day for the high school — as a step that would allow buses to make more double runs. Combining two bus routes into one would result in savings equivalent to the salary of one teacher, she said.

The Prismatic study also points to a potential savings of $280,444 in the division’s food service by reducing the daily labor costs by 155 four hour shifts. And another $5,000 - $10,000 might be achieved by collecting payment for all adult meals that are served; another $53,173 could be gained by increasing the number of student-returned applications for free and reduced lunches.

She further suggested that the school system should look for ways to save on health insurance costs. Prieto was advised that health insurance is being put out for competitive bids next year.

Another $4,800 could be saved and space freed up in the high school by removing the lockers there. Likewise, safety would be improved, Prieto said.

Prieto recommended that as a first step towards implementing the recommendations, division leaders should identify those which can be acted on immediately or within the next three months. She suggested the 13 she cited as a starting point for action.

In addition to the 122 recommendations made in the report, Prismatic also offered 38 commendations for exemplary processes and practices at local schools.

“The high number of commendations awarded is a testament to the strength of the school division and the dedication of its staff,” the Prismatic team wrote in its report. “On reviews such as this, a typical ratio of commendations to recommendations is one to four. HCPS has been awarded commendations at a rate of one to three, clearly indicative of the high level of efficiency and effectiveness already present in the division.”

Six of those commendations were for the transportation department, which was cited for bus drivers’ concern and caring for all students, as well as the low driver turnover rate and low bus accident record.

Another six recognized division management for its efforts to seek outside funding and its comprehensive update to the policy manual. The report also cited the efforts of the Special Education and Federal Program departments for use of data in guiding program decisions.

The division was commended for providing dual enrollment opportunities as well as multiple enhanced learning opportunities for all students and multiple options for gifted students across all grade levels.

Commendations were offered to personnel and human resources for their loyalty as reflected by their longevity as employees (especially the deputy school superintendent) and for accuracy in the assignment of salaries to teachers.

The facilities management division was commended for promoting pleasant and well equipped spaces as well as a well maintained department and the monitoring of energy consumption.

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