Thursday, February 13, 2014

Operational Cost I: Introduction

The Iowa City Community School District is really worried about operational costs right now. Operational cost is a key metric that school districts use to evaluate the success of a school. I think it is a mistake to put too much weight on this metric, but even if it is a higher priority for a district than I think it ought to be, its actual use needs to be critically evaluated.

Here is a graph I've constructed based on the 2012-2013 data about elementary school operational efficiency:

On the one hand, it provides evidence that there is a strong negative correlation between cost per student and elementary school size. This is consistent with the message from relevant studies and our local administration. On the other hand, it reveals a much more complex relationship than bigger schools have lower operational costs than smaller schools. I will be asking a number of questions about these matters over the coming weeks in order to better facilitate discussion about operational cost in general and in our district more particularly.

A couple of caveats are in order: first, the information is a one-year snapshot. There could be peculiarities to this particular year that explain the results.

Second, the graph is based on controlling for special education and at-risk funding so that we get a much better idea of the funds that we are allowed to generate as spending authority for general education students. Special education funds have their own funding category, as do At-risk funds. Thus, I thought it important to control for those factors in my analysis. Likewise, special education classrooms also mean that a school with a larger proportion of special education funds probably also have fewer general education students than a comparably sized school with a smaller proportion of special education funds.


  1. Michael, I don’t know if the administration is truly concerned about operational costs although an administrator or two may want the public to be. The district's practice is and has been to budget expenditures at the maximum authorized spending authority, and then the district manages spending in the General Fund via its line item budget. This means the district’s certified budget should exceed actual expenditures--ICCSD’s certified budget is a worst case scenario.

    Some time ago, I saw information the district put together about staffing and operating costs. The gist of it was supposed to be that smaller elementary schools are more expensive to operate than larger elementary schools—it looked to me like it was put together more to sway the public than a real analysis, and I found it inadequate. I certainly wouldn't characterize what I saw as strong evidence in support of larger elementary schools' efficiencies.

    Whether certain schools are more operationally efficient to operate than others depends on the specific facts of each school being examined so I would disagree that smaller elementary schools aren’t as efficient to operate as larger elementary schools—that depends on the school and how expenses are loaded. I spent many years working with numbers (among other things) and here are just some examples of how numbers can be skewed: 1) put more experienced expensive teachers at one school than another, 2) when the neighborhood grays, don’t readjust boundaries to bring in students to better utilize existing physical space, 3) manipulate how you allocate administration expenses, 4) don’t put enough money into repairs and renovations over the years so utilities cost more, 5) don’t properly define administration expenses, and 6) close a small school only to spend more money educating children at a larger school because you have to spend a bunch of money bussing, Plus, the district can also go to the School Budget Review Committee and ask for modified allowable growth for items like the special education deficit. Upon approval, this impacts our property taxes.

    My own opinion is that some healthy skepticism of the district’s numbers is called for, and that children aren’t like widgets.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mary. I think some of your explanations may very well explain some of the variance, and I'll talk about some in subsequent posts.

    And I strongly agree with your claim that particular factors at a school are probably much more predictive of operational efficiency than school size.

  3. Mary, you said, "it looked to me like it was put together more to sway the public than a real analysis". I can't agree with this statement more, except that I can. I feel like everything this administration has asked for has been a case of Mr. Murley having them put together a case to "to sway the public than a real analysis". It really started with how I watched Murley's approach to the City High field and it's only increased since then. When I watch Dr. Dude report out on something he has worked on with what appears to be less influence from Mr. Murley, i.e., no preferred predetermined conclusion, I feel he does so pretty fairly. ..but I don't think that's often the case between Murley and his supporting cast of characters. Too often it appears to me that Murley, or perhaps he and his "team", have set their goal before they come to the public with the entire picture of pros and cons. When they come to us with a picture that only supports the outcome they already seem to have chosen, they make a case based on all pros and no cons...or they present a case with mostly pros well-researched but little evidence and often a lot of, I don't knows about the other ways of looking at a "problem". Because they do this so strikingly, and redundantly, it has brought me to the point when I question everything they present very carefully because I no longer trust them to do an open-minded approach. An example, when they didn't "want" the board to support the field fix at City High, turf was portrayed as too costly, too dangerous (ankle injuries etc.), too everything. Yet nobody in administration, or the board, publicly raised the same questions, let alone so many cons, when they just worked through West's approval for turf. Why was one school's turf the worst idea in the world and the others not even a topic of discussion on the same points?