By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — State auditors have uncovered seven digits worth of savings within one Kansas school, but just how far district officials will go to realize those savings is yet to be seen.
As part of the state’s annual analysis of education spending, the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit presented Tuesday their findings after putting Emporia USD 253 under the microscope. In all, auditors suggested more than $1.1 million in potential savings.
The biggest numbers were also among the most difficult to swallow for Emporia school district officials. Focusing on the district’s charter school, Turning Point Academy, auditors suggested savings of $260,000 by merging school operations with another existing district building, or saving as much as $600,000 by shuttering it entirely. While the school is designed to accommodate 200 students, enrollment during the 2012-13 school year was only 67, down 42 percent in the past three years.
The innovative school focuses on project-based instruction, but while reading scores are on par with the rest of the district, math scores are lower.
“District officials acknowledged the current structure of the charter school is not sustainable but expressed concerns about how the community might react to closing the school,” auditors stated.
Trim the fat
Judging by Kansas Department of Education efficiency guidelines, auditors figure the USD 253’s food service crew is significantly over staffed. Salary and benefits for the 50 employees on hand composed about 45 percent of the district’s $2.3 million in food service expenditures last year.
The abundance of help has led to some duplication of duties, requiring more staff to prep and serve a small number of meals in multiple locations than would otherwise be necessary.
“Some staff are only responsible for serving food and cleaning up afterward, but still work a full seven hour day,” auditors wrote. “Based on our observations while touring district kitchens, some staff did not appear to be fully occupied during their shifts.”
In all, auditors estimate the district could save about $190,000 by reducing about 14 full-time food service positions.
Roughly $313,000 in savings could be accrued by restructuring classes and schedules at district middle and high schools in cases in which a class was not filled to capacity. Doing so would allow for six fewer classroom instructors across the two buildings, though staff reductions are never without some amount of opposition. Adjusting the same positions to part-time to accommodate the increased efficiency would reap about $215,000 in savings.
“Officials told us they prefer to offer more classes to allow students greater flexibility in their schedules,” auditors stated. “However, the departments most affected by consolidating classes not filled to capacity are core departments such as language arts and science. Because the district offers a large number of these courses, reductions in scheduling flexibility would be minimal.”
Ring it in, charge it up
The smallest savings – though still totaling more than $76,000 – were most favorably received by district officials. Auditors suggested USD 253 could save upward of $42,000 through increased use of procurement cards. A further $34,000 in savings could be found by better utilizing the federal E-Rate program to manage cell phone costs.
As it stands, the district spends about $45,000 annually in cell phone stipends for various staff members. But if the school district took over cell phone payments directly, it would qualify for an 82 percent reimbursement rate. The one hangup? District officials were concerned some employees might get annoyed by having to carry around more than one cell phone.
“It is true that if employees want access to their personal cell phones during the day, they would have to carry two phones,” the audit stated. “However, carrying a personal cell phone would be an employee’s choice and not a business necessity.”
Superintendent Theresa Davidson thanked KDLP staff for scrutinizing her district’s expenditures.
“Each time we are able to see the district through a fresh pair of eyes, we grow. This experience has been no exception,” she noted.
Davidson was hesitant to commit to the largest-possible savings by reducing operations, in one form or another, at the district’s charter school.
“The option of closing the charter school completely would be considered only after all other options have been exhausted and would be weighed alongside the elimination of any other activity, program or building in the district.”
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