Reform efforts can bring budget solutions

(Editor’s Note: We provide this commentary to our Michigan readers because Mr. Hansen’s experiences in Texas may be helpful and inspirational in fostering school improvements here. Readers interested in more detail may access a longer document from which this commentary is condensed, at

My district, the Alief Independent School District (AISD), represents the southwest side of the city of Houston and the unincorporated sections of Harris County, Texas.

I was first elected to the AISD board in November of 1993. A decline in property values during the mid-1980’s attracted a much poorer population that could not previously afford to live in the area. One result of that migration was that student enrollment went from 21,000 in 1984 to 31,000 in 1992.

The administration and board of that period did not see fit to scale back any district expenditures and the tax rate subsequently soared. Student performance in the school district plummeted far below what it had been. By the time I was elected, over half of the students were failing the state TAAS exam and public confidence in the schools had evaporated.

The combination of rising tax rates and falling student achievement occurred at the same time as the national revolt that turned the Congress over to the GOP. Somewhat presaging the national “Contract with America,” the local Republican precinct chairmen got together and endorsed a slate of candidates. The pitch to the voters was “give us a chance to reverse the rise in tax rates and the decline in student achievement – if we fail, throw us out too.” Public dissatisfaction was so intense that the effort became somewhat bipartisan, as some of the Democratic precinct chairs assisted. Coupled with two incumbent Board Members who shared our goals for change, we reformers had in six months gained five of the seven Board positions and achieved control of the Board.

Just as in Michigan, voter turnout for School Board elections is extremely low. In our area, turnouts under 1% are common. Because of this and because of their low visibility, School Board elections are typically controlled by the employee vote. Prior to our reformist revolution every single incumbent Board Member had won because of the endorsement of the local National Education Association (NEA) affiliate. How can a Board be truly independent and focused on getting the best job done at the lowest cost under those conditions? It can’t, but by bringing in a substantial non-employee vote for the first time, we ended that monopoly control.

When the new Board took over and demanded serious improvements in instructional effectiveness, the then-Superintendent told us that substantial increases in taxes would be needed. We informed her that we had already had substantial increases in taxes and the improvements would need to happen with the money already available.

The biggest key to this has been controlling the numbers of non-teaching personnel. The typical school district has more than one non-instructional employee per teacher. We have lowered our ratio down to .85 non-instructional employees per teacher. Other important changes have been lowering the use of substitutes by getting teachers to have fewer absences, eliminating redundant administrators, negotiating better purchasing contracts, lowering architectural fees by reusing school designs, and using utility deregulation to lower electricity costs.

Excessive non-teaching personnel is part of the reason some of Michigan’s larger public school districts are seemingly unable to control costs. For example: As Andrew Coulson has pointed out, “Back in 1996/97, Detroit Public Schools enrolled 183,447 students, and employed 22,077 staff. Enrollment has fallen every year since, averaging 147,808 during the 2003/04 school year. Employment in the District has not fallen. It has risen to 23,800. So the Detroit Public School system is now employing 1,723 more people to teach an estimated 35,000 fewer children.”

Rather than take an adversarial or hostile stance toward district employees, we worked to convince them that important changes were in their interests as taxpayers and parents too. Often with their support, we implemented structural reforms that greatly assisted in cost reductions. The first of these was a move to decentralized management. Previously, the District was very centralized and campus budgets were completely controlled from the administration building. Frequently, campuses had more money than they wanted in some budget categories and not enough in others. So, the campus administrators would spend everything in the over-budgeted categories (under the use-it-or-lose-it rule) and then complain about a lack of funds in the under-budgeted categories. We went to a block grant system so they could use the available money where it was needed. Overnight the alleged shortages largely disappeared.

A major problem of all legislative bodies is the pressure from special interest groups. I worked out with the District Superintendent and CFO a program of block grants (we allocate $25 per student) to meet special resource needs. Staff and parents write up funding applications for projects or resources they believe their campus requires. The campus Shared Decision Making Council (SDMC) votes on which proposals to fund in a given year. These cannot be standard classroom resources or computers as there are separate campus allocations for those. This induces the campus staff and parents to prioritize needs for us. As soon as we implemented this, we stopped having a problem getting staff to serve on the SDMCs. After the second year of this program the Superintendent made the astonishing statement that it was the first time in his 20+ years as a superintendent that not a single administrator, teacher, or parent complained about a lack of instructional resources. How many school districts—whether in Texas or Michigan or any other state—can claim that?

I believe our experience gives hope to reform-minded school boards, teachers and parents still trying to win these battles in states like Michigan. Permanent change requires getting the staff to buy into the changes and thereby avoiding nasty, unnecessary, turf-protecting in-fighting. This only happens when their interests as parents and taxpayers are aligned with the community’s — which means working amicably on behalf of sensible efficiencies and cost restraint, implementing business-style management and giving parents more options.

If we can do these things in Texas, they could and should be done in Michigan as well.