AISD 'Efficiency' Study: Not Exactly What the Doctor Ordered?

An efficiency study commissioned by AISD comes back with some surprising recommendations

AISD 'Efficiency' Study: Not Exactly What the Doctor Ordered?
Illustration by Leah Sharpe

Last August, Austin Independent School District commissioned an "efficiency study" from consultants MGT of America, in theory to provide material for discussing new directions and potential cost savings for the district. But this week – after the firm delivered a list of up to $392 million in potential savings over the next five years – district staff and the board of trustees are suddenly holding the report at arm's length and treating it like an uninvited guest.

All the materials in the report, especially the proposed cuts – as both the district and MGT point out repeatedly – are simply "options" that the district can adopt or ignore. AISD board Vice President Vince Torres, one of the early advocates for commissioning this analysis, disagrees even with calling it an efficiency study. He explained, "I'm an engineer, and efficiency means achieving the maximum output for the minimum input." The real purpose of the study, he said, was to "develop an objective way of showing the taxpayers that we're spending their money wisely."

The report does include many recommendations (like joining cooperative purchasing programs or using purchasing cards rather than issuing individual purchase orders) that the district could adopt as part of its next budget (due before the board in August). Torres said trustees are eager to pluck "the low-hanging fruit," where a change in process could save cash without impacting educational quality – such as cutting $250,000 budgeted for refreshments for committee meetings.

The report also puts a spotlight on central administration. It proposes beefing up the internal audit department, making it report to the board as well as the superintendent, and moving it back to the district's central offices as a gentle reminder that everyone, not just campuses, is subject to oversight. The study also suggests cutting out approximately $1 million in travel and cell-phone allowances for administrators, which it criticizes for being too generous and unrelated to miles traveled or calls made.

But not every suggestion would be so easy to implement or so palatable to the education community – such as a wide array of potential staff cuts, both in central admini­stra­tion and on the campuses. At the upper end of the pay scale, that means restructuring human resources to get rid of three positions for a savings of more than $375,000 a year. At the bottom end, MGT suggests ending the habit of keeping full custodial staffing over the summer and using specialist "deep clean" teams instead, saving $2.3 million per year. Staff reduction proposals are not surprising, Torres argues, because staff expenditures make up 85% of the district budget. But he was quick to add that cutting positions is not the same as sacking staff and that if the district does go down that path, it would show "a sensitive approach to transitioning personnel."

The most radical option would be closing up to eight schools. MGT estimated there are up to 16,000 "excess seats" districtwide and proposed closing seven elementary schools and one middle school. Mary McKeown-Moak, a senior partner with MGT, explained: "There are schools that are at 40 percent of their capacity. ... That means that they're not operating very efficiently." MGT came up with the figure of eight schools by subtracting the total number of current students from the total number of classroom seats (curiously, including seats in portable, or temporary, classrooms), thereby calculating the "excess," and then halving the number to allow for growth. But Torres says that calculation doesn't reflect real current or future needs and doesn't take into account issues like dropout rates. He compared running a school district to running an electric utility: "We have to have the maximum capacity to educate the maximum number of children we have to educate." A school under capacity this year could be over capacity next year, especially if its attendance zone were realigned.

Torres said he's also worried that the report "didn't seem to reflect the values of our community." (That's particularly disappointing, because part of why MGT got the $455,000 contract was that it has a local office.) For example, it suggests the district could save $50 million over five years by ending elementary art and music classes, another $1.8 million by halving the number of field trips, $18 million by cutting full-day pre-K to the state-mandated minimum half-day, and $31 million by slashing 248 special-education instructional assistant positions – based on special-ed staffing levels in other districts. Torres countered, "We value inclusion of our special education community," and said that's one cost AISD may be more willing than others to absorb.

Education Austin President Louis Mal­faro detected some self-justification by MGT in the study. He explained: "At the end of the day, they needed to come up with a big bottom line so they could say, 'Look at all this money we saved.' If they'd only come up with $20 million, people would have asked, 'What did we spend all that money on?'"

McKeown-Moak defended all these figures as merely options and said that "the study lays out the pros and cons" for every proposal. "If it was up to me," she added, "the board would not cut pre-K." The firm did just what it was asked to do, in her view, and it is up to the board and incoming Superintendent Meria Carstar­phen to choose which savings, if any, fit their vision for the district.

District staff will make a formal response to the study in August, but special assistant to the superintendent Milan Sevak argued that MGT missed a core part of their charge. He quoted from the study's executive report: "'The goal of the study was to identify opportunities for reductions in expenditures without adversely affecting student academic performance, losing District productivity, or reducing the quality of services' – there are several examples, and they themselves note that pre-K is one of them that would have an impact on student performance." Although the final decisions lie with the district, he said, "There's no sense of the report organizing it by, 'These are the ones that we really don't recommend.'"

Similarly, Torres questioned MGT's "tried and tested methodology" of using abstract "best practices" and restricting service provision to statutory minimums as a way to cut costs rather than by evaluating how best the district can reach its goals. "The only thing that I can think of is, 'To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,'" he concluded.

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AISD, MGT of America, Vince Torres, Louis Malfaro, Meria Carstarphen, efficiency study

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