A weekend interview with ...
... Chris Dunning, principal of Paul R. Smith Middle School in Pasco County. Dunning, like his colleagues, has been told he must cut his school-based spending by 10 percent for the second straight year. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the considerations that go into such reductions.
When they tell you that you are going to get a percentage cut to your school level budget, what's your first reaction?
(Laughs) Basically, how are we going to do that? What different pieces or places can we take away from to make that work. The budgets aren't very big from the starting point.
They aren't very big? How big are you looking at? Because most people would think a big school with thousands or hundreds of kids in it would have a large budget.
Yeah. I mean, everything comes in a little bit different area and money is designated for certain spots. But such as for my school, I'm supposed to have about 950 students next year. And my total budget for running the school is about $33,000 ... for a year. And that's buying paper towels, trash bags, paper for photocopies, you know, teacher supplies, ink cartridges. Everything to run that school. The wax for the floors, all those things have to come out of that fund. Now, there's additional funds that we get for media centers, text books - those are different funds we get. But for the actual operation of the school, that's the fund that I have.
If you have all those monies put into separate accounts and separate places, are specific things you can cut 10 percent across the board? Or is it a 10 percent prioritized so some things you might cut 100 percent and another place might be a 0 percent cut?
The ultimate goal is not to affect the students and not to affect the classrooms. So one of the major things that we look at is, can we get away with less trash bags? You'd be amazed - I think we spent over $2,000 on trash bags last year. When you count every classroom, when you count the cafeteria, when you count all that it's a lot of trash bags you go through. So it's more trying to look at those type of things.
Are there ways we can minimize the number of paper towels that we're using? Toilet paper? Stuff that doesn't affect the classroom is where we look first. Can we get away with not stripping a floor completely, where we have to use more chemicals and wax and those types of things? Because when you put a new floor down, if you have to strip it each summer and put five coats of wax on it, that costs a lot. So can we get away with four coats of wax? Will it hold up as well? That type of thing. ...
What's been nice is the superintendent has taken the same stance. So even like this year we had a 10 percent budget cut that came through on our school budgets. And she was able to give us the 10 percent that was supposed to go to the media, so we could keep up with the media books. Now next year I don't know what will happen with that. But it was nice that this year the superintendent had the same feeling that we need to do what we can for the classrooms.
So when you look at things like that, for the classroom, are there things that are completely off-limits for cuts, then? Things that you say, We have to have that and we're not going to cut that and we'll take it out of anything else to have that.
When I look at a teacher's supply money for the year, the teachers get depending on the school anywhere from $75 to probably $200. ... That's to buy the pencils, the paper, everything that they need. That money I try not to affect when I can, because they need that to have the supplies in the classroom. Now kids come with a lot of that, but as you get through the year the kids run out and they've lost it all and all of a sudden you're in a position where the teachers need those materials. So we try not to touch those. ... What I will do is ask the teachers, I really need you to think about the photocopies that you're making. Can we cut back on the number of photocopies? Because paper is like $26 a case or something like that. So when we look at that we try to save more that way. But definitely the classroom is the place that we try to affect not at all.
Do you ask families to contribute, either in terms of bringing extra supplies or doing fund raisers?
Different schools have different resources from their families. And our school we definitely have requested that parents and families send new pencils after Christmas. We'll put that in our newsletter: 'Keep in mind that kids are running out of supplies.' Maybe they'll make that one of their Christmas presents.... That will help us at the school. And, yes, some of our teachers will ask, Can you send in a pack of paper towels? Because if every family sent in a pack of paper towels, that would really save us money in proportion to purchasing those. ...
Do you worry that at any point you're going to have to cut into the classroom expenses because the money is getting cut just too close?
With the backing of the superintendent I really don't think that is going to be where it happens. I think at some point if you're talking millions of dollars, is our class size going to have to go up? That's a possibility. But we have the class-size amendment. ... So where is that money going to come from? Yeah, I worry that it will affect the classrooms in regard to some of the staffing formulas.
But that doesn't come out of your budget. That comes out of the district staffing budget.
So I'm thinking more along the lines of what you have in your specific control.
When you're talking about $33,000 to run a middle school, you're not talking about a huge amount of money in the scope of the millions. So with the superintendent putting that as a priority not taking the money away from the classrooms, I really don't think we'll have that much more cut from us. I mean, I think she realizes that we're already at bare bones. To run a building of that size with 950 students, 110 faculty and staff, that's not a lot of money to run that.
That's true. I read one story in Florida Today where they said the schools were going to ask students and faculty members to help clean because they were cutting back on custodial staff. It was in Brevard County. Do you foresee anything like that happening?
My school has only been around for two years. When we were opening school we had a community day where we had parents come out and they were helping put together furniture and they helped to get furniture into classrooms and those types of things. So those are definitely things that sometimes schools can look at to help and assist with. Your day-to-day upkeep you're still going to need your cleaning crew because you're not going to find parents to come in every day to clean bathrooms and take out the trash and vacuum the classrooms. It's not going to happen. But for your big projects yes, that's something schools can definitely look at. But it doesn't help you with your man-hours that you need throughout the year.
Are there any other ways that you see where schools might be able to avoid making this hurt? Not just by having schools cut corners ... but things that everybody can do.
The district has got a long list of things that they're doing. But things that we each talk about are, you know, looking at your getting your air conditioning at a level that people can still live in but is not overboard. Making sure that you're recycling as much as you can so you don't have as much trash and you don't need as many trash bags. There's different things that everybody can look at to make sure you're doing the best job that you can. Most schools already have energy patrols and kids that go around and monitor these things because we're trying to be green schools. But it's just a matter of taking another look to see, are there other ways we can conserve.
If you were going to tell the kids and the parents in your school what the budget crisis, as they're calling it, means to them and how they are going to be particularly affected by it, what would you tell them?
Right now I would tell them they're lucky that they have the superintendent that they have because she is truly trying to make it so it doesn't affect them. You look at some districts and the point is parents need to realize that this is affecting everybody. So I think some districts will jump right to cutting athletics. They'll jump straight to cutting out certain busing. They'll cut big things that will really affect parents so that they will call the legislators and do those types of things. I think our superintendent is really focused on not doing that when she doesn't have to. ... Because the kids come first. That's what we're here for.