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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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Though crediting the superintendent with reducing a top-heavy administration, Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade union, says she's frustrated by claims that the cuts have not harmed the classroom.

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Arts and vocational classes, for example, don't keep up with demand from students, she says, and often lack supplies. And new teachers were hired as temps last year, delaying their ability to build seniority and become vested in the pension.

"Our teachers and educational support professionals are really holding up [more than their share of] the system," Ms. Aronowitz says. A new contract is under negotiation.

Overall, the budget team says, there's been a spirit of cooperation throughout the district. But they also fielded accusations that they didn't care about kids.

After decades of growth in the district, enrollments have been declining in recent years, but "it finally took a new superintendent and a crisis to say, 'you do need to shrink, and ... it's time to start putting your money where kids get the most bang for their buck,' " says assistant chief budget officer Ron Steiger.

A former business consultant, Mr. Steiger came to Miami-Dade in 2005 through the Broad Residency, which brings people with business experience into school district offices to help them run more efficiently.

Many districts have outdated systems and layers of personnel that are no longer providing value, say officials at the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, which has placed 173 people in dozens of districts and attributes millions of dollars of savings to their initiatives.

Early on, Steiger's business-school friends who had gone on to work in private equity would ask, hypothetically, whether the district would make a good investment – was it using dollars wisely? At first, he couldn't give a ringing endorsement. Now, "we're becoming a good investment," he says, and as a leaner organization, it's easier to make that case to foundations and other would-be donors.

The $4.8 billion draft budget for 2009-10, approved last month by the school board, includes $56.5 million in the rainy-day reserve, an additional $50 million set aside to protect jobs in the event of future state cuts, and $10 million in case local property tax revenue declines further.

Unlike some neighboring districts, Miami-Dade has not laid off any teachers. And for this school year, it saved about 2,000 jobs, such as counselors and media specialists, with $125 million in federal stimulus funds distributed by the state. The district will also receive directly $180 million in stimulus to serve low-income and special-needs students over the next two years.

With that solid foundation, the superintendent is looking forward to implementing new initiatives, some of which could position the district well to compete for more stimulus dollars that the US Department of Education is leveraging to promote innovation. One is an expanded set of virtual learning opportunities called "Beyond the Bell," to supplement what's available during the regular school day.

Another – "Everybody Teaches" – expands what started last year by having more central-office staff spend time teaching. Carvalho hopes to break down the walls that often build up between school staff and higher-level administrators.

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