School Business Officials Address Current Challenges

Associate Editor


Ever-tightening budgets, a phalanx of new health care reform regulations, and how to fund digital initiatives are pressing issues for today’s school business officials.

These challenges dominated workshops and informal discussions at the Association of School Business Officials International annual meeting and expo here this weekend.

“Until recently, you could count on having more to spend each year than the year before. The question was, ‘would it be 3 percent more or 5 percent more?'” Mitchell D. Chester, Massachusetts’ commissioner of education, told the group of 1,000 business officials in his welcome remarks.

“I suspect that era is over.  We have to be absolutely vigilant in the decisions we make about spending,” he said. School business leaders must think critically about how to leverage every dollar so it has the greatest educational impact, Chester added.

Over and over again, speakers at the four-day conference referred to “tight budgets” and “these turbulent times,” emphasizing the message that “doing more with less” continues to be a theme that resonates as strongly now as it has over the past five years.

Sorting Out Health Care Reform

The administrative obligations of health care reform are prompting many districts to hire one or two people to manage the responsibilities from new regulations spawned by the law, according to Susan Relland, an attorney who is vice president of American Fidelity Corp. in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Within the hundreds of pages of the law, many decisions were left to rules and regulations that would be promulgated by the appropriate agencies. Every week, new rules are being generated and released, she said.

One of the most critical steps a district needs to take is determining how many full-time employees it has, and who qualifies as full-time. To do that, districts need to keep accurate records of hours worked. Districts with more than 50 full-time employees fall into the “large employer” category, which has different rules than smaller employers.

“This counting hours is really a big deal,” she said.  Otherwise, employees who typically work six hours a day for four days a week, for instance, could be classified as full-time employees at 32 hours per week, without official records to indicate that their workday is limited. A 24-hour employee is not eligible for health care coverage; a 32-hour employee is considered full-time and eligible.

In the long term, Relland said districts have four choices. They can keep doing what they’re doing, assuming that their costs and administrative obligations will increase. Or, they can sponsor a plan, but transition to a lower cost design like a high-deductible plan. A third option, for districts with fewer than 50 full-time employees, would be to sponsor an employee plan via their state-run insurance exchange, paying one check to the exchange and turning over all administrative tasks to that entity. For larger districts, the fourth option would be to drop coverage, pay any resulting penalties, and leave employees to buy their own coverage on an exchange.

“We’ve seen employers talk about these four,” Rellan said, predicting that the last two may become more popular over time.

Managing Technology Costs, Launching Digital Initiatives

Several sessions focused on how districts are weighing decisions about technology, and funding them.

Districts making budget cuts in technology, for instance, might not understand that by removing dedicated IT support hours, they could be increasing indirect costs. “Typically, over 50 percent of the cost of ownership is when end users are trying to get something to work,” explained Rich Kaestner, project director for the Consortium for School Networking.

To make data-driven decisions about technology, districts can calculate the “total cost of ownership,” including the cost of the technology itself, IT services to support the technology like internet services, direct labor, and indirect labor in using it, said Kaestner.

Other ideas shared in the workshop included: 

  • Shaving 2.5 percent off the cost of leasing computers by going through a bank’s master-lease program, rather than the one offered by the computer manufacturer;
  • Using power management software to turn all network devices off and on at preprogrammed times, for a 58 percent reduction of electricity and an annual savings of $183,000; and,
  • Transitioning report cards and employee payroll online, using employee and parent portals for access, for an annual savings of $20,000 per year in paper and ink.

Representatives from the Masconomet Regional Schools in Topsfield, Mass. explained their district’s three-year project in choosing between tablets and netbooks, which it summarized and provided materials for at this site. Ultimately, the district chose the MacBook Air, for the reasons described here, with plans to roll them out first to teachers, then to students. The devices will be leased to families, who will own them at the end of the lease. Assistance will be available for students’ families who cannot afford the leasing costs.

Reporting on pilot programs using netbooks and laptops was essential, said Seth Goodman, IT director. “Interest started to flow in, and so did funding and support,” he said.

In all decisions about launching the initiative, it was important to “focus on teaching and learning, not technology,” said Ryan King, the district’s technology coordinator.

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