As the news about state education budget cuts continues around the nation, charter schools try to figure out how to balance budgets (as do their district counterparts). Layoffs, salary reductions, program cuts, class size increases are all on the table. There are few ideas that are not being considered. Some schools are fortunate enough to be growing or have strategically added classes to get more students. This adds to the normal excitement of running a charter school. For some schools, it means a more crowded building. For alternative schools that I know, it means the potential of more discipline problems because supervision of already troubled kids is more difficult. It also means that administrative staff will likely have more to do. For small schools, it may mean closure as there may be few ways to accommodate cuts. It will mean more combining of grade levels in small schools. Those are the traditional ways of dealing with budget cuts.
Could there be more creative ways? Here are a couple of ideas that probably won’t make it on most people’s tables, either because they are too radical or current education laws won’t allow them to happen.
- Increase hybrid programs and share buildings. This would allow schools to reduce one of their largest expenses while serving the same number of students. The downside is that parents or students may not be able to deal with a hybrid schedule.
- Move to classes that are based on student performance levels rather than age. This could reduce the overall number of classes.
In addition, while the current environment makes it difficult, schools need to remained focused on both their mission as well as their life cycle stage as they make cuts. Many schools with relatively small class sizes may have to increase class size to make cuts, but they should still maintain their strategic goals in teaching method and curriculum if possible. They should also remember where they are in maturity, so that if they need a renewal strategy, they budget at least some amount for refreshing their culture.
Cuts in personnel should also be strategic. Is a given position one that might be permanently eliminated? If so, then that position ought to be eliminated first. Is there a good person who might be able to perform another job function? This is more difficult because it might involve terminating a less competent person. However, no option should be automatically taken off the table.
Doing more with less is an absolute necessity in the current environment. I know that most people in education are trying to restore the dollars that either have been or will soon be cut for 2011-12, but like the rest of our economy, I believe that these cuts may well be necessary. States don’t have money. There are few ways of getting extra money, and tax increases in most states will be very difficult to swallow. Educators need to think creatively about what is really necessary. In any event, the next 18 months will be exciting for charter schools. I hope that leaders make good decisions about their cuts, and that they don’t just provide for survival, but that charter schools cut in ways that allow them to thrive.