CENTS AND SENSE: While state auditors uncovered more than $200,000 in potential annual savings, Parsons USD 503 argues the cost-cutting ignores the realities of educating the district’s impoverished students.
By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — For just 15 extra minutes a day, Parsons Unified School District 503 could annually save $12,000 and cut five school days.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to state auditors after a voluntary performance audit of the southeast Kansas school.
But district officials and administrators are pushing back, saying the audit’s focus on dollars and cents simply doesn’t make much sense to them.
Kansas’ Legislative Division of Post Audit staff presented its findings — totaling more than $200,000 in potential reductions and efficiency changes — before a panel of state lawmakers March 5.
Among the least-controversial recommendations were that Parsons align itself with practices of similar districts around the state by eliminating one of its six maintenance staff positions, as well as sell up to five excess vehicles the district maintains.
But while such changes could be made with relative ease, Superintendent Shelly Martin criticized the majority of cost-cutting proposals laid out in the performance audit.
“It is unclear whether the audit team fully grasped the educational rather than financial costs of some of the recommendations,” Martin said in a letter addressed to auditors and state lawmakers. “USD 503 remains committed to ensuring that taxpayer dollars are utilized in the most efficient manner possible, while providing the best possible educational environment for some of the state’s most at-risk students.”
Last year, Parsons had roughly 1,200 students enrolled, many of whom come from an impoverished background. About 56 percent of district students receive free lunches, compared to the state average of 40 percent.
Among the more-controversial suggestions were that the districts make better use of procurement cards with a rewards-based system to reap upward of $14,000 in annual savings. Officials said such a move would be impractical without increasing staff on-hand to control access to the cards.
But some of the strongest rebukes came in response to auditors’ suggestions the district decrease the number of instructional coaches on staff, as well as cease busing for students who live within one mile of their schools.
Despite diminishing resources, Martin said the need for instructional coaches isn’t going to disappear simply because there isn’t enough room in the budget. Furthermore, USD 503 pledged to continue busing certain students after switching from a neighborhood school model to a more-centralized method in 2010. The ramifications of such significant changes could outweigh any perceived benefits, she said
“With so many other school districts within a few miles, parents have many options,” Martin said. “When parents elect to attend a neighboring district, USD 503 loses the resources that accompany that student. The loss of those corresponding per pupil state revenues could be substantially more than the cost savings associated with a particular recommendation.”
Of the 475 students regularly bused by the district only 37 — about 7 percent — were promised continued transportation following the shift away from neighborhood schools. However, auditors shared concerns of student safety, given that many students would be required to cross railroad tracks that bisect the community.
While constraining busing commitments could reveal $36,000 in annual savings, the reduction of instructional coaching staff could reap as much as $91,000 every year. Four of the peer districts to whom Parsons was compared use significantly fewer staff to perform work similar to that accomplished by instructional coaches, the report stated.
While thankful for the input of auditors, Martin accused them of not seeing the whole picture.
“(Some recommendations) although appearing to be ‘efficient’ when considering the financial bottom line, carry educational costs, which presently make their implementation unfeasible for our particular district.”
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