May 23, 2000

Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen


As the school year winds down at the Ely schools many parents are viewing the school year with mixed feelings. Everyone is proud of the new crop of graduates. It is always uplifting to see another group of seniors ready to move on to the exciting world of college or elsewhere. However, many parents and teachers are aware that something is not right in the district. They found the budget process for next year, which brought so many cuts and increases in fees, to be very one-sided. At the heart of it is a superintendent that lacks the will to bring about change, a school board where many members are burnt out and desire as little on their plate as possible, where a long reigning chairperson refuses to expend her power, unless it to preserve her position. A final element of this weakened district is that the business office uses outdated bookkeeping practices that have been abandoned by modern business. Which of these is the key reason for this feeling is hard to perceive. Perhaps with a more receptive board our superintendent would feel empowered to cause more change. Perhaps a stronger superintendent could inspire our board to want change.

Whatever the cause we currently have an inefficient school system where the taxpayers' money is poorly spent. When it was discovered that the coffers would soon be bare the governing body showed it was poorly equipped to deal with it. The results are poorly thought out budget cuts that are unpopular with both teaching staff and parents. Spending procedures that could have avoided much of the pain are not implemented because of the lack of leadership from both the administration and the board. Many staff members have suggested improvements only to be ignored.

In the end it is the children that pay. Old programs that are worthwhile are truncated or canceled. New programs that other schools are finding success with are blocked and untried.

Teachers who would love to improve the quality of education in Ely are frustrated and demoralized. Spare staff time is spent deploring the current situation, instead of moving ahead.

It is the same for both business and schools, either you change to keep up with the competition or you die. Our district faces declining enrollment and must either find better methods of educating our young people with less money or we will see our independence go away.

A prime example is that the district still does not utilize the Internet as a means of finding supplies for the school at the lowest possible price. Corporate credit cards are being used all over America to take advantage of the Internet. Billions of dollars are being invested to create a new marketing system that will allow for maximum price efficiencies. The latest example is B2B or Business to Business purchasing where businesses deal with each other directly rather than use a middleman.

Our school district is missing a prime opportunity to save money on: school supplies, fuel oil, phone service, Internet service, and educational resources from the Internet. I have in my business efforts seen cost savings of as much as 70% when comparing prices on the Internet with those from old fashion brick and mortar establishments. Despite our superintendent's promise, there has been no movement for a school charge card to take advantage of Internet savings. Some teachers have used their own credit cards to save the district money, only to have the business office chastise them.

The modern notion of buying merchandise on a world wide auction where savings can be very big is so foreign to the business office they go nuts when you can't state a precise price on a requisition. Yet millions of Americans are saving billions of dollars by purchasing this way. New computers, copiers, tools, musical instruments, electronic equipment that is all new, fully warranted are going for fire sale prices on the Internet while our school still pays top dollar. It is equivalent to someone insisting on paying list price for medical care instead of taking advantage of the discounts the insurance companies get.

Our school board needs to join the rest of the world. The entire business department needs to be overhauled and brought up to date. Few people realize our district still stores financial data on microfilm. I thought that went out with the 1960s. Much of the financial data is kept track by arcane methods. With millions of dollars of equipment the district still doesn't have a computerized inventory system. Index cards are used for inventory. Many items listed on inventory cards don't exist or are impossible to verify because of a lack of an organized tracking system.

Some staff are totally insensitive to the idea of price comparing. If a supplier was good in 1978 it should be good know. This is not true of all staff. Most teachers who have a budget really work hard at trying to make it go as far as possible. They often drive to Duluth to save money for the district, instead of incurring shipping charges. However, as it stand the administration has no credible means of screening for high prices.

As someone who has worked in both the private and the public sector, it is easy to see why government has a reputation for spending money unwisely. They have that reputation because they earned it. Unless, those elected or hired keep up the pressure to not have $600.00 hammers, and enforce updated business practices, the waste will continue.

So many government employees don't understand why we taxpayers get so angry at such waste. It is because we only want the best. We want our schools to provide the most opportunities for our children and to not waste money on overpriced hammers.

I have avoided naming particulars in this article, because it is not important to cast blame on anyone individual, other than our school board and top administrator. They need to poke their noses into where it belongs. They need frank and honest discussions with all staff. They need to set the highest example for those who work for them in their quest for the most education for the dollar. They must realize that a top to bottom review of business practices every other year is a matter of survival or failure.

Ely's School District may need to shrink another 20 or 30% before it finally stabilizes. I firmly believe there is at least that much waste in our school system. I commend the school board in their allowing Johnson Controls to bring our energy waste down. That is a good start. Now they need to address the other areas that they have ignored for too long that will enable more efficiencies which will allow our district to survive. If not, I urge all parents to work toward the change we need in the next school board election.


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