Tuesday, February 15, 2011

School Budget Hacks: A Few Ideas to Save Money

School budgets are shrinking.  It's an inevitable fact.  It's a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future.

I have always been interested in the idea of self-sufficiency.  How can any organization or individual survive without any outside assistance?  In a time of crisis, it is comforting to know survival doesn't necessarily have to depend on others.

For schools, this idea manifests itself in savings.  Self-sufficiency for public schools is impossible.  Trying to become as self-sufficient as possible could be a worthwhile aim, however.

Over the years, I have proposed many ideas that would result in cost savings.  To the best of my knowledge, all were dismissed for a variety of reasons.  Most of the ideas involve technology.  Why?  My Master's degree is educational technology.  A majority of our class time was spent exploring methods to implement technology while saving money.

Perhaps some school (or organization) could benefit from these ideas.

Problem: How does a school acquire computer hardware?

Traditional answer: Get bids from corporations, spend a huge chunk of money on new equipment.  Fund with some sort of technology millage (i.e.- hit up the taxpayers).

My answer:  Solicit donations.  Businesses are always replacing computer hardware.  Small businesses do this on a fairly regular basis.  Large businesses do it on a frequent basis.  These businesses usually have to pay to dispose of hardware.  Alternatively, they can donate the hardware to a non-profit (like public schools) for a tax write-off. 

Even better, universities also replace hardware and have to dispose of the old stuff.  The advantage of large businesses and universities- the equipment is usually standardized, which makes maintenance slightly easier.

I started a program in my classroom using this exact model.  Businesses donated equipment.  I enrolled in Microsoft's Fresh Start program and received copies of Windows to install on the computers.  I used Open Office as my office suite.  I taught a group of kids how to maintain the entire lab.

The entire system worked perfectly.  Every kid had access to a computer.  If something broke, we had an army of eager kids to fix it.  They were learning an excellent real-world skill.  If it wasn't fixable, we had plenty of replacements.  We used open source software for everything.  On some computers, we used Linux instead of Windows so kids could learn that, too.

All of our computers were approximately three years old, and we had the capability to upgrade every year.  Based on my limited research, I would have been able to secure hundreds of computers every year... FREE!  There was zero software cost.  Zero maintenance cost.  Zero hardware cost.  Students learned real-world skills.  I even had computer business owners volunteer to help teach the kids or do work themselves.   Common problems like vandalism disappeared because kids took personal ownership in the lab... it was theirs.

Ultimately the program came to an end because class size exploded.  i no longer had the physical space in my classroom.

This program could be set up pretty much anywhere by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computer hardware and software.  Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new equipment that has to be maintained and eventually replaced, consider this no-cost idea.

Problem: Computers need an operating system.

Traditional Answer: Microsoft Windows.

My Answer: Linux.  Back in the day, the Linux operating system was pretty complex.  There was a sharp learning curve to be able to effectively use it.  Those days have long since passed.  There are many versions of Linux available today that are easy to use.  Some are even geared toward education.

I have quite a few techie friends, several of which manage networks.  They rave about Linux!  It's easy to use, easy to administer, and perfectly stable.  Best of all, Linux is free.  Instead of spending a boatload of money on Windows upgrades every few years, move to Linux.

Problem: Students need an office suite to do work.  Specifically, they need a word processor, presentation software, and the like.

Traditional answer:  Microsoft Office.

My Answer:  OpenOffice.  I already mentioned this above, but it is worth mentioning again.  The software is free, stable, and easy to use.  It has the ability to handle many document types, many of which MS Office cannot handle.  Like the other stuff from above... it's free.

An alternative solution is Google Docs.  This is interesting... when Google first released the online-based suite, I suggested our school use it as an altrenative to MS Office.  The idea, like the others, was shot down.  This year, they decided to start using it.  Too bad it took a few years for that one...

Problem: Students and cell phones.  Cell phones have become staples in our lives.  Almost everybody carries them, including our students.  Schools are spending increasingly greater resources to fight cell phone possession.

Traditional Answer: Set increasingly restrictive policies and consequences to punish possession of cell phones.

My Answer:  Understand basic human psychology.  First, cell phones aren't simply technological toys to today's students.  They are their primary means of communication.  As humans, we have a drive to communicate... we're social animals.  When we ban cell phones, we're not banning a toy, we're banning communication.

Second, the fact that they are banned increases the desire to use them.  Most teens, in an effort to exert their independence, engage in rebellious behavior.  Setting strict rules only heightens the desire to rebel. 

If we respond with indifference, we remove a major thrill of using the phone.  Cell phone use would drop.

To further erode the allure of cellphones, we could adopt them for classroom use.  I proposed a program a few years ago that would use student cell phones as student-response systems.  Using a free website, a teacher could pose a question to the class.  Students would text their answers to a specified number, which would tabulate their answers.  The results would then show up on an overhead screen.  It's cool.  The real benefit- by making cell-phone use a part of the classroom experience, we further decrease the rebelliousness of its use.

Additionally,almost all cell phones today can be used as still and video cameras.  With free online editing software, teachers could do video projects without any cost to the district. 

Problem:  Paying for extracurricular programs can be very expensive. This is especially true for non-athletic programs as they often do not have the support of booster groups.

Traditional Solution:  Pay for the programs with school funds or have the groups fund-raise.

My Answer:  This isn't so much a unique idea, but rather a plan for a multi-faceted approach to fund-raising.  Don't rely on school funding (spend that money in the classroom) or have students do fund raising (takes their time, gets annoying).  After all, how many candy bars and do-it-yourself pizza kits can your community buy?  instead, plan one huge event and leverage various groups to increase its fundraising capacity.  This is what I did:

This was developed more or less by accident, but turned out to be a huge event with incredible potential for growth.  I had a few people that came to me with the idea of creating a gathering of barefoot runners (it's a hobby of mine) for a large race here in Michigan.  The idea eventually evolved into an attempt to break a word record fr the most barefoot runners ever to run in a single race.

After doing research, we found the Guinness stipulations wouldn't allow us to use that race.  We needed to find another location.  We were set to use a friend's business, but a fellow teacher approached me about a 5k she was planning as a fundraiser.  Realizing the barefoot race would be an excellent opportunity to boost the attendance for her 5k, we decided to move the event to my school.

The event itself ivnoved student volunteers, several of our non-athletic extracurricular groups, community volunteers, alumni, several local businesses, and a large international corporation.  We were able to leverage all of these groups to publicize the event.  We managed to attract about 300 people to the event.  Some came from as far away as Georgia and San Diego!  For fundraising, we had our school store make t-shirts that were sold, and I gave them copies of my barefoot running book to sell.

The best part- the local news picked up the story, which resulted in several newspaper and TV news stories immediately before our district was voting on a bond proposal.  We had a positive, fun story about our district... it was great PR!

The event was held and it was a ton of fun.  Unfortunately we didn't set the record as there were several logistical mistakes I made.  Guinness had very specific accounting procedures, which I messed up.

After the event, I was flooded with interest from runners and sponsors... they wanted to know what they could do to be part of the 2011 version.  Unfortunately the district put an end to the event, but this is what could have been:
  • Several major corporations were prepared to sponsor the event, which would have included valuable publicity AND plenty of freebies to distribute to participants,
  • Several local running groups were eager to get involved,
  • Participation was expected to explode... perhaps several thousand participants.
 If we would have attracted a conservative 2,000 participants, charged no participation fee, and sold one tshirt to each for a profit of $10, we could have raised $20,000 in one evening.  It would have been an event that would unite students, community members, local businesses, and large corporations.  It did and would provide great positive PR for schools.  It's a model that could be used in a variety of settings.

These are just a few ideal someone could use in an educational setting.  As costs rise, it makes sense to cut spending in areas that can be replaced by free alternatives.  
Do you have any similar ideas?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below!


No comments:

Post a Comment