Operational Savings Revisited

The topic of operational savings has again emerged in discussions surrounding South Kingstown’s facility application. Some have again advocated for an elementary school closure, some have claimed that simply taking space offline will suffice, and others have proposed radical changes to elementary configuration in our 4 schools. All of these miss a critical point. For the past 2 years we have been realizing (and spending) the same savings we would have received from closing a school.

Closing a school now will not yield significant personnel savings, but it would make the effect of these savings more comfortable for our families and children. When we began discussing our future elementary facilities, our grade cohorts were generally split into 11 sections (4 at PDES, 3 at WKES, and 2 at each of WES and MES). At the time I argued that keeping 4 schools would result in single section grades and lopsided class sizes (some very small classes and other very large ones).

That is exactly what has happened.

We now have no monolingual sections at WKES and several single section grades at WES. We are very close to also having single sections at MES (administration removed a planned K/1 split last year and added a second class very late this summer). We have 4 incoming K sections with less than 13 students and several other sections maxed out at 21-23. The smaller classes could have been further consolidated this year, yielding even more savings, although the uncertainty of COVID is an issue. In addition we now have fewer support staff at the elementary buildings, and are asking our remaining staff to do more to make up the difference.

Current section configurations as of September 11, 2020

Our kindergarten and first grade cohorts now are split into 9 sections, yielding savings of $520,000 this year alone. Where have those savings gone? They have been consumed by other budget priorities. Last year, just before the district again investigated the idea of a new high school at Curtis Corner, I spoke at a school committee meeting and discussed both my hopes that we could afford a larger investment and my fears that the district would not be able to earmark operational savings to help pay for debt service.

Over the past 2 years the district has realized nearly $1 million in operational savings from section reduction in our elementary schools but has spent those savings on other budget priorities. What makes us think that this behavior will change as more savings come to fruition over the next several years? As new kindergarten classes continue to be small, each year another cohort rolls up with 2-3 fewer sections than in past years, yielding an additional $250 – $400k in savings. How are we to trust that these savings won’t merely be consumed again?

The discussion of school consolidation needs to change. In my opinion, we should still close a school to make life easier for parents, children, teachers and support staff who are currently stretched thin, and doing so would yield some additional facility based savings. Going forward, we should ask ourselves more critical questions: How do we safeguard the savings we already realized” and who do we trust to manage the budget, not to mention a $100 million facility project without further impacting the experience of our students and staff.

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