A school district losing students can’t effectively reduce an $80 million deficit by simple cost-saving initiatives, according to a school finance expert at Georgetown University.
Marguerite Roza, executive director of the Georgetown Edunomics Lab, said it requires deep cuts – like what Fort Worth ISD is doing by downsizing its administrative staff.
Just before spring break, Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Angélica Ramsey gathered 150 to 200 employees and told them their departments would be reorganized. The district presented the employees with three options: resign, resign and reapply for a new position or resign and retire.
It is unclear how much the district is attempting to save in making these cuts — mostly to central administration and teaching and learning center staff — since some positions will be consolidated and others will enter new jobs, such as teaching.
Similar cuts are happening in other urban districts, such as Chicago, Roza said. Announcing the job cuts and giving employees the chance to apply for other positions was a thoughtful move by Fort Worth ISD, she said.
“In the Chicago case, at least some of them didn’t want any change, which to me suggests that there’s not really understanding around how the district’s resources go or respectful of the district’s responsibility to deploy resources in a way that maximizes value for kids,” Roza said.
Early signaling of job changes instead of waking up one morning and getting laid off makes good financial sense, she said. Often, districts are hesitant to cut labor and not upset employees.
Waiting too long can deepen the financial hole and leave no choice but for more layoffs.
An option some districts choose is a hiring freeze, Roza said. But a hiring freeze can lead to not filling teaching positions, which is bad for students, she said.
Fort Worth ISD’s current enrollment of just under 73,000 students and a budget deficit of $80 million is a “sizable gap,” Roza said.
“You can’t cut that by rejiggering transportation and saving on electricity or trying to switch over to digital communications instead of paper and postponing buying textbooks,” she said.
That Fort Worth ISD has an overabundance of administrators and not enough teachers doesn’t surprise her, Roza said. Employees who “get promoted away from working with kids” often don’t want to reenter the classroom.
“The choice would be to hire more people in classrooms, and then lay off those administrators,” Roza said. “That would be the alternative. That’s a hard one.”
Outside of Cowtown, districts face similar challenges
Declining enrollment is not an issue unique to Fort Worth ISD. Birth rates seem to be down for the long haul and the federal government is forecasting a half-percent reduction in students per year for the next decade, Roza said.
Fort Worth ISD is considering closing some campuses, but has not yet announced which ones.
Sometimes in urban areas, districts want to hold on to their school during a time of declining enrollment, and might consider leasing the building for a few years – and end the lease if enrollment picks back up.
“But holding on to staff for a period that long, the math doesn’t work out,” she said.
Closing schools also decreases a need for staff and saves money, Roza said. For example, if a district has 100 schools it needs 100 principals, but if it dropped to 90, the district can save money by eliminating 10 principal jobs.
“People will say you should hold on to the staff and keep all the buildings open because maybe the capital will come back,” she said. “Usually, that strategy doesn’t work well. When people resist the change thinking there’s going to be a normal bounce back – sometimes the bounce back takes 30 years, and there’s not enough reserves to spend that money for 30 years.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.