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Schools can do better with less money

Budget cuts and demands for improved student achievement test public-school administrators more than ever – but, undaunted, some scrappy innovators are passing that test with an 'A.'

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Still, while basic savings on everything from cafeteria food to transportation are widespread, many districts anticipating the federal stimulus aren't going beyond stopgap measures, perhaps in hope of maintaining the status quo until the good times roll again, Mr. Kealy observes.

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"They're in a strange period of [wondering], 'How bad is it really, [and] is it going to turn around over the next year?' " he says.

In the meantime, school districts share a common quest to accomplish more with less. How successful will they be?

The Monitor took a closer look at Miami-Dade's transformation – and three examples of individual schools' approaches – to glean creative ways education leaders have been directing dollars in the hope of bringing out better results for kids.

While his colleagues cite Carvalho's methodical common sense, they also note that what he does is not common at all.

Out of seven superintendents that chief budget officer Judith Marte has worked for, Carvalho is the only one who has probed the budget line by line and vetoed hotel expenses for professional development or BlackBerrys for employees who didn't need them.

Chief financial officer Richard Hinds, who came out of retirement to work with the new superintendent, offers another anecdote: When Carvalho saw movers this summer clearing furniture out of a central-office space slated to become a new school, he canceled the $12,000 contract and rounded up school custodians, already on the payroll, to do the job.

Last fall, the budget team started at the top, eliminating about 350 positions in the central office (a 20 percent cut), including the seven with salaries over $200,000. More than half were reassigned to teaching jobs or other open positions.

By looking at average costs and best practices in other large districts, they found they could save millions on food and transportation and could cut dozens of assistant principal jobs. They froze hiring and all purchases of nonessential supplies. They trimmed overtime spending by more than $15 million.

Overall, the district cut 27 percent of central-office costs. Miami-Dade now spends less per pupil on those costs than any other school district in Florida, while before it ranked 27th, according to the district's analysis.

Input from principals and community groups was sought to help determine $55 million in cuts at the individual school level.

"It's like asking your kids to cut their allowance," Ms. Marte says, "but that's a good way to be innovative.... Let them decide what they can and can't live without."

A growing number of districts are placing such decisions in school leaders' hands.

"If [top administrators] say you have to fire all your librarians, but you happen to have this really great librarian who's doing more for reading instruction than anyone else ... it's not really useful," says Marguerite Roza, a senior scholar at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education. The flexibility "allows the school to ... maybe even do things better."