Gov. Wolf challenges Pa. schools to cut overhead

 Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

Philadelphia School District headquarters at Broad and Spring Garden streets. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

School districts across Pennsylvania have consistently made budget cuts for the past five years, and Gov. Tom Wolf is challenging them to find more.

The governor says employee suggestions have already found ways to save more than $100 million at state agencies as part of GO-TIME, the Governor’s Office of Transformation, Innovation, Management & Efficiency. So he’s asking schools to come up with their own cost-cutting ideas.

The Wolf Administration would like to see districts brainstorm ways to cut $150 million dollars from their spending on administration and transportation — the same amount he’s ordered government agencies to save.

Ed Smith, business director for Upper Darby School District, says they’ve already reduced administrative staff to the point where individuals are doing five or six jobs.

“I liken it to going on a diet. We’ve lost all the pounds that we can lose, I think,” he said. “And in fact unless we were to get more the funding, the next cut would be to take a limb off.”

He says the district already participates in several cost-saving consortiums for buying energy, supplies and health insurance.

A recent budget survey shows school districts across Pennsylvania have already made significant cuts, including central office and transportation costs. Nearly half of the respondent districts reported delaying or cancelling at least one major purchase or service this year, and more than one third of the districts reported cancelling and/or combining bus routes, shrinking bus fleets, and reducing or eliminating after-school bus services.

“Since transportation is non-mandated, it’s one of the areas that’s gone through significant reductions because reducing that cost means you didn’t take a teacher out of a classroom or get a larger class size,” said Jay Himes, executive director of Pennsylvania Association of School Budget Officials.

He says school districts can only be so efficient with transportation costs because they are mandated to transport students to private and parochial schools too.

The governor’s office says it recognizes schools have been doing more with less, but still wants them to try to find more efficiencies.

“I’m sure that there are school districts that are doing that already, but I’m sure that there are ways to improve or other new initiatives to be undertaken,” said Jeffrey Sheridan, spokesperson for the governor. “That’s all the governor is asking is for school districts to come up with ideas just like we are at the state level.”

Over the past few years, districts have cut their budgets to compensate for less state aid. Often they partner with Intermediate Units — educational agencies that work with all schools in a county.

Larry O’Shea, director of Delaware County Intermediate Unit, says joint purchasing for fuel and school and janitorial supplies has saved the county’s 15 school districts $5 million, but he’s looking for more.

“Things such as payroll, other financial management services may be appropriate areas where we could find some cost savings,” he says. “Cost-saving is really central to what Intermediate Units are all about.”

The state’s 29 Intermediate Units are reviewing ways to reach the governor’s request.

O’Shea says next year the IUs will be offering statewide alternative pricing for school districts to purchase Internet access that will be substantially lower than what they currently pay.

Upper Darby School District business director Ed Smith says he’s unsure if deeper cuts are wise.

“I think the danger of making further reductions is that you become less efficient and in fact you wind up not being able to do particular jobs well.”

The governor’s office says schools are not required to find these savings.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal