The Garden City School District could save between $1.1 million and $1.5 million annually with limited impact to students, a legislative post audit found. By implementing recommendations of the audit, USD 457 could save another half million selling a $300,000 commercial building being used for storage and closing a rural elementary school.
Selling the school would have a significant impact on students and the community, but it would net the district between $180,000 and $325,00 in savings annually. The other recommendations would have little to no impact on students, according to the report.
District officials reject most of the legislative post audit suggestions.
“Some of the LPA analysis appears to look at items in isolation and overstate potential savings,” an official response from Garden City Superintendent Steve Karlin reads.
Karlin lists a recommendation to eliminate seven clerical positions in USD 457 elementary schools as an example. According to the audit, the school district has more clerical positions than peer districts that operate more efficiently. Eliminating seven positions would save the district between $175,000 and $215,000.
“In our district we are well beyond the days that we can rely on counting specific positions to determine efficiency, because we have imposed reductions in so many areas in the past that important job functions are being assumed by those that are left,” Karlin wrote in his response.
Karlin told the legislative post audit committee last week that he would have a mutiny on his hands if he eliminated clerical staff.
In his written response, he wrote that since 2009, the district has made “very difficult decisions including the reduction or elimination of programs that affect our students.”
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, said every decision to spend more money than necessary is a conscious decision to remove money from classrooms.
“The students are rarely first,” he said.
In years when the district lost students, it added classroom teachers, but in years in which it was growing, it eliminated teaching positions. For example, the district lost almost 100 students between 2006 and 2009, but added 24 classroom teachers. The district added 80 students between 2011 and 2013 and eliminated 9 classroom teacher positions.
Karlin said the district is in the process of implementing some of the energy savings recommendations. Those would save the district up to $390,000 annually, but the district had concerns about how to finance utility and lighting system upgrades.
Garden City School District officials also refuted the need to pare down its custodial and IT staff. According to the audit, the district has more IT staff than comparable districts and more custodians than benchmarks set by the National Center for Education Statistics. USD 457 would save between $510,000 and $800,000 by eliminating some staffing in those areas. The district said it will retain one less custodian next year, though the audit suggested eliminating 7-11 custodians. The audit also recommended centralizing the IT staff and eliminating 8.5 full-time equivalent positions.
Other recommendations included reducing the amount the district pays to buy back sick time, reducing cellphone stipends or offering district-paid cellphones instead of stipends, and selling a commercial building the district uses for storage.
If the district implemented every audit recommendation, the Garden City School District would save more than $2 million annually.
School Legislative Post Audits
By statute state officials conduct three school district efficiency audits each year. Auditors look at one district with fewer than 500 students, one district with 500 to 4,000 students, and one district with more than 4,000 students each year. The Garden City district has 7,237 full-time equivalent students and an annual budget of more than $98 million.
Kansas school districts can volunteer for the audits, or auditors randomly select districts. Since 2013, auditors have completed efficiency studies for Ashland, Maris des Cygnes Valley, Attica, Parsons, Prairie Hills, Frontenac, Emporia, Auburn-Washburn, and Maize school districts.
A 2016 audit of the Maize School District revealed $2.2 million in potential savings. A 2015 audit of Auburn-Washburn School District yielded almost $800,000 in potential savings. A 2014 audit of the Emporia School District yielded more than $860,000 in potential savings.
In addition to the annual audits, in 2014, lawmakers appointed the one-time K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission. The commission was tasked with finding efficiencies in response to a 2014 Supreme Court decision mandating additional aid to poor school districts. Trabert served on that commission.
Trabert said the commission presented several opportunities for districts to save money that year.
“Many of the recommendations were rejected by school districts, and many were rejected for various reasons like, the community wouldn’t put up with that,” Trabert said.
Districts demanded maintaining local control, he said.
“In addition to having a negative impact on instruction, it’s not their money to have control over,” Trabert said. “Most of the money in virtually ever district doesn’t come from within that district. You can’t have absolute control over money that isn’t all yours. If it’s yours, waste it however you want. When you want to waste money and expect money from another part of the state to make up the difference, that’s taxation without representation. More importantly, it’s taking money out of the classroom.”
Auditors are set to examine the Bucklin and Labette County school districts later this year.