Operational Savings? (Counting Chickens Before They Hatch, Version 2.0)

To soften the blow of the over $67M price tag on the new building, the administration frequently refers to some $400 to 500K in ”annual operational savings” they say would result from their plan. Let’s take a closer look at that.

Where would this money come from?

Staff reductions would make up the bulk of projected savings under the reconfiguration/consolidation plan.

A large portion of the administration’s projected annual operational savings would come from having 5 fewer teachers ($59K x 5 = $295K per year). More on how they teach the same number of students with fewer teachers below. Another $90K would come from having one less assistant principal at $90K (although the organization of administrative staff of the proposed school arrangement to achieve this remains uncertain).

Because the proposed building has less square feet than the combined square feet of the current Wildwood and Fort River, they calculated that they will need 3 fewer custodians ($30K x 3 = $90K per year). Food service is likewise estimated to cost $35K less when 750 students share one cafeteria rather than two.

These staff reductions would also mean less fringe benefits to pay, so another $75K there brings the total to $585 per year.

But wait…. there’s less savings!

The proposed plan is estimated to require 4 additional bus runs to get students from all over town to both buildings. That’s $55K x 4, or $220K more per year bringing the total projected savings down to $365K.  And this is just the current monetary cost – it will likely rise in future years (if money gets tight, those extra buses might get cut resulting in even longer bus rides for the kids).

And it doesn’t reflect the significantly increased environmental impact of well over 100 additional bus miles driven every day.

How certain and accurate are these figures?

The projected savings are based on the administration’s plans to reduce staff in the proposed model. It does not entertain the possibility that there would be additional costs to the new system.

We’ve already seen 1/3 of the original projections disappear into higher transportation costs. It seems likely that there will be other additional costs that the administration has not anticipated. For example, the double bus drop-off/pick-up will result in half the student body waiting around while their colleagues are traveling between schools. Someone will have to be responsible for them during that time and that will mean increased expenses.

There may well be an increased need for support staff to manage discipline and logistical problems that frequently come with a large student body. Studies on large vs small schools point out that the hoped for economies of scale just aren’t there when the actual function of larger schools is realized.

What would this mean for students?

The “economy of scale” that was touted by the superintendent came from the original plan to have all elementary school students segregated by grade (all 150+ second graders would be grouped together, all 150+ third graders would be grouped together, etc.) as would already be the case under the grade reconfiguration/consolidation plan for kindergarten and 1st grade at a converted Crocker Farm.   In fact, the building design allows the school to be easily switched to this grade-separated configuration should the School Committee decide that it wants to do so (for example, to save money with further staff reductions).

In a school system like we now have, there are sometimes grades with too many students to be split into 2 classes while maintaining desired class size (less than 22 – 25, depending on the grade). The solution is to add a class, hence adding a teacher, to that grade and having a smaller number of students per class.

If all the students in town of the same grade are in one place, this situation can mostly be avoided by allowing administrators to shuffle the kids into 7 or 8 classes in a way that makes class sizes more uniform. Essentially, the proposed grade reconfiguration produces savings by decreasing the number of teachers while maximizing the rearrangement of kids, making it much harder for kids children and families to get to know one another.

How do the “co-located schools” factor into this?

By creating two “co-located” schools in the new proposed building, the problem of uneven distribution of students per grade is not necessarily entirely eliminated. Instead of 2 – 3 classes per grade per school (as we have now) or 7 – 8 classes per grade per school (as they originally proposed), there would be 4 – 5 classes per grade per school.  Also, one of the co-located schools has one fewer grade 2 -3 classrooms. That means that the vagaries of demographics can still result in years when one of the “co-located” schools has too many kids in a particular grade to meet the required limits on class size. The only solution then may be to “transfer” some students out of their districted “co-located school” to the other “co-located school”.

The compromise of “co-located schools” results in the worst combination of shared facilities for children and duplicated administrations. 750 students will share a gymnasium/auditorium, cafeteria, library, nurse’s office, entry plaza, and parent drop-off/pick-up.  Students and the staff would occupy a campus that can barely contain them once you account for the additional parking space, roadways, and roundabout (to keep vehicles away from a play area).  The outdoor play areas have been reduced  greatly from what students now enjoy at their three separate schools necessitating the shared use of middle school fields accessed down a steep slope.

Bottom line…

The annual operational savings are theoretical and primarily projected through staff reductions.  Whatever savings are possible will be decreased by known increased transportation expenses and unknown other costs of managing a very large building/student population.

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