Small savings could pay off big for schools

The state Auditor's Office completed a performance audit that makes suggestions on efficiency. The suggestions are worth considering.

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Education should be the state's top priority. Unfortunately, the state's current financial problems have caused the Legislature to limit increases in education spending, which has forced schools to trim programs in the wake of rising costs.

As a result, citizens and lawmakers are frustrated.

How does Washington state improve education without generating more revenue or raising taxes?

State Auditor Brian Sonntag's Office has come up with some viable possibilities. The Auditor's Office recently concluded a performance audit aimed at finding ways to save money outside of the classroom so more money can be spent in it.

School reform advocate Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Police Center, commended the auditor's report for its wealth of information and practical advice for school districts, The Associated Press reported.

The state spends $12 billion a year on schools, with about 60 percent funding teacher salaries and classroom work. That's a pretty standard percentage across the nation.

That's because public schools in the 21st century have been given responsibility for far more than educating students. Schools are a place where society has stretched out its social safety net so kids who are hungry can get meals or those who are in crisis can get counseling. Schools attend to medical needs and much more. Even getting students to and from classrooms is expensive.

Money that doesn't directly fund teachers and classroom activities goes toward transportation, food, sports programs, nursing, counseling, outside help for special education students, administration and a variety of administrative office functions.

The audit said reallocating just 1 percent of school spending from administrative offices to the classroom would be enough to pay for more than 1,000 teachers statewide.

It also suggested savings could be achieved through buying fuel for school buses in bulk, using more USDA surplus food in the lunchroom and looking at having some services provided by the private sector.

The audit suggests cutting staffing dollars by making such changes as hiring licensed practical nurses instead of registered nurses for school infirmaries, sharing costs with neighboring districts and contracting with the state or education service districts for some things.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, to his credit, said he was open to some of the ideas.

All -- from educators to parents to citizens -- should be open to reasonable ways to squeeze savings out of operating school districts so more money is available for the classroom, which is where it is needed most.

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