By Jeff Keeling
Members of the Johnson City school board’s “efficiency task force” have a message ready for the City Commission when they meet Thursday: “We took seriously your directive to engage in some ‘deep soul searching’ about our budget, and we have some hard numbers and some observations to share with you.”
Comprised of board members Kathy Hall, John Hunter and Lottie Ryans, the task force – with help from central office staff and others – has zeroed in on a broad array of expenditures in the system’s $65 million budget since its first meeting in September. It was formed after a contentious budget season last fiscal year that ended with the commission voting down a tax increase 3-2, and the schools getting some, but not nearly all, of the funding they’d requested.
During that process, commissioner David Tomita implored the school board to take a more managerial approach to its budget and seek ways to save, whether by cutting expenses that may not be necessary or by approaching things differently.
Monday, Hunter said he understands Tomita’s perspective. He will lead a PowerPoint presentation and discussion at city hall Thursday, and said his group has plenty of evidence – from thousands saved on computers due to a change in bid practices to cost reductions from changes in paper consumption – that point to its having engaged in a sincere effort.
“I can say without a doubt we have definitely done that this year, and if anybody can’t see that they just haven’t been to the meetings,” Hunter said.
Hall, the board’s chairman, said the school system has always striven to operate efficiently, but added that this year’s process, though born of necessity, has set a new tone.
“I expect this started some momentum toward getting more than one department in a room at a time and saying, ‘how can we do things differently, or better, or more efficiently.”
That approach spread to all staff with a mass email in January asking for suggestions of how to do things differently. It drew more than 50 responses, and has yielded several changes. The savings on the computers, totaling more than $20,000, came with a change from only using the state bid process to bidding the purchase out, and a number of other purchasing process changes could be on the horizon.
“I’ve been very pleased about how people have been willing to make dramatic shifts in processes or the way they’ve done business,” Ryans said.
School leaders also are looking at increasing the amount of bulk buying done in collaboration with other school systems. On the paper usage front, Mountain View Elementary cut its copying costs by a full 50 percent – those expenses come out of “site-based funds,” so the school can shift the savings elsewhere. That change prompted Director of Schools Richard Bales to issue a “10 percent challenge” to the other schools in hopes that they, too, can find savings they can redirect to academic enrichment.
The task force found numerous other small gains, and has asked the city to rebid its banking and audit services, which include the schools, in hopes of more savings. Some efforts led to the discovery that the current approach is the least expensive. Mowing was put out to bid, and 26 companies showed up to a pre-bid conference. Three of them bid, but no bid was more cost-effective than the in-house approach, members said.
For all its discoveries, the process didn’t present the system with a fiscal “silver bullet,” Ryans said. Total savings don’t add up to 1 percent of the budget yet, which is unsurprising considering that labor comprises about 80 percent of the system’s costs.
“I think we would be naïve to think that there are not going to be some revenue challenges for which we will then be asked to figure out what we can do to help stay within a budget or realign, whatever it might be,” Ryans said. “We always have to be on our game about that. We don’t know what’s going to come out of Nashville or our other funding streams.
“So we need to be able to sit down and evaluate what we’re doing, is there another way, is there a better way.”
Ryans said she believes the school board should be primarily an advocate for the best interests of the school system, and not a fiscal manager, but that the current fiscal climate makes some management role a necessity.
“From my perspective it just says we look a little deeper, we understand a little more. We are governance. We are here to make sure we’re being good stewards of the money we’re given, but we’re not going to tell Dr. Bales how to run the organization.”
The fiscal year ends June 30, by which time a budget for the new year must have been passed on three readings. School board members already have presented the commission with a rough idea of new expenditures – totaling several million dollars – that may be requested above this year’s budget levels.