Half fast analysis

cost-cutterIn the midst of The Great Recession, when the economy was foundering and tax revenues scarce, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury analyzed the county’s 31 school districts looking for cost savings in the system.

“The 2009-2010 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury reviewed school district administrative expenses and costs in an attempt to find efficiencies that could minimize the impact of an ailing economy on education.”

This was definitely a worthwhile project and I commend them for taking it on.

What did the Civil Grand Jury find?

Here’s their report:

“The Grand Jury recommends the consolidation of four elementary/middle school districts into two union districts. The creation of these union school districts will offer improved efficiency and cost savings. The path to consolidation is difficult and time consuming, but the financial situation justifies the effort.”

The Grand Jury’s recommendation to consolidate many small Santa Clara County school districts into fewer large “unified” districts was based on a then-recent consolidation of four north Sacramento school districts into a new “Twin Rivers Unified School District.” In its report, the Grand Jury cited Twin Rivers saving 7% of total expenses.

Pretty impressive cost savings, I’ll admit.

The Civil Grand Jury recommended consolidating Los Altos (K-8) School District, Mountain View-Whisman (K-8) School District and Mountain View-Los Altos (9-12) High School District into a single unified district of 21 schools and 12,500 students, with a combined annual budget of $135 million, similar in many respects to Palo Alto Unified School District.

As it did for Twin Rivers, consolidation was projected to save our local districts 7% of total expenses, more than $9 million annually, mostly administrative costs.

BUT… in any analysis like this, it’s critically important to use a comparable “case study” and this seems to be where the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury goofed badly.

Bad comps + Bad analysis = Bad recommendation

It’s elementary: If I’m hunting for cost savings in your district operations, I need to understand your operating model at a detailed level and how similar your expenses are to those of the case study I’ve based my savings estimate on.

Knowing a little about LASD’s budget and how thin its administration is, I was very skeptical about the projected savings. I wanted to understand what pre- and post-consolidation expenses looked like for Twin Rivers to see where the 7% savings came from. I also wanted to know how similar Twin Rivers’ pre-consolidation expenses were to current expenses of our three local school districts, to see whether their cost savings might be replicated here. Simple enough, I called up Angie Cardozo, foreperson of the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury to get their original source materials.

Now, I don’t want to sound like an ingrate, since service on a civil grand jury is a very nice thing to do for the greater good, but I was shocked when Angie Cardozo told me:

“I’m sorry, I don’t have any of that information. You now, we’re all just volunteers doing our best.”

blonde_momentsSay wha?! Based on one “case study” of questionable relevance that you haven’t analyzed in any rigorous way, you’re recommending that our well-run, successful districts merge? This certainly isn’t what I’d call “doing your best.”

The next step in the process was for the individual school districts to submit a response to the Grand Jury’s recommendation. You can review the responses from LASD, MVWSD and MVLA, which all say pretty much the same thing:

“Thank you for your concern but you seriously have no idea what you’re talking about. Consolidating districts would increase our expenses much more than the 7% you think it could save, and frankly, our boards and communities would never go of it. We’re not going to do it.  Buh-bye.”

So… IF the whole point of the Civil Grand Jury’s exercise was to identify cost savings, and IF the consolidation recommendation was based on saving 7% of expenses, BUT the Grand Jury was just fundamentally wrong about the potential savings, THEN you’d think that would be the end of this, right? Wrong. This idea of consolidating public school districts in Santa Clara County is still alive and kicking.

Q:  Why hasn’t this idea died?
A:  Because the Santa Clara County Board of Education likes it.

Yes, the County Board that has spawned 38 charter schools that, in the words of the Board Members themselves, are “separate districts” (with administrative cost ratios that exceed those of typical county districts) wants to meddle further with healthy districts.

Why can’t they leave their hands off healthy districts? Because billionaires like Reed Hastings think the whole problem with public schools is elected boards.

I kid you not. Stay tuned for more


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