Like many schools across the country, Mesquite Elementary School, in Tucson, Arizona, is constantly striving to make the most of a limited and, lately, shrinking budget. With Arizona 49th in the country for per pupil spending, Mesquite starts out in a tough spot. Additionally, its school district, Vail, has some of the lowest per pupil funding, administrative funding, and teacher salaries in southern Arizona, with administrative costs at half the national average. On top of that, a local ballot initiative to sustain the district’s budget was voted down last year, and their capital budget was cut 75 percent by the state of Arizona. Yet remarkably, the Vail District has the greatest academic success in Arizona, with every one of its schools labeled as “excelling” by the state.
Connie Erickson, founding principal of Mesquite, and current principal Katie Dabney have found that fiscal creativity is key in finding ways to “squeeze a little water out of the rock,” as Erickson describes it. Here’s how they do it:
1. Re-envision roles.
Any principal will tell you that losing teachers is one of the most painful consequences of budget cuts. Dabney lost her art teacher, two other specialists, and a classroom teacher last year. As a result, she reviewed her remaining staff and created a plan to fill in the gaps. She decided to put two classified employees (noncertified teachers) in larger roles -- running the library and the computer lab. To implement their Reteach and Enrich program, she uses every teacher on staff to provide student instruction during the daily sessions, including her P.E. teacher and music teacher.
2. Use the web.
Perhaps the most significant budget-saving technology at Mesquite is the Vail school district’s Beyond Textbooks system. This online resource is a highly organized repository of pacing calendars, classroom-tested lesson plans, presentations, and activities shared by teachers throughout the district, as well as 40 other partner districts and charter schools across the state. Thanks to this invaluable trove of resources, Mesquite has not purchased textbooks in the last five years.
3. Make the most of what you have.
It may seem like common sense, but treat your supplies like they’re not replaceable. Mesquite teachers put plastic sheet protectors on their worksheets so that students can write on the plastic, then wipe it off, which keeps the sheets ready for reuse year after year. Student handouts are printed on colored paper to indicate that students should not write on them, so they can be reused as well.
4. Think like a salesperson.
Dabney obtained expensive student handbooks for free by striking a deal with the studio that produces the school’s student photos. She collaborated with fellow principals in the district, who also use the same studio, and promised contracts with all the schools in exchange for the free handbooks.
5. Just ask.
It’s surprising what you can get by asking. There are a lot of businesses and organizations that support education and want to help. Things you can ask for (and will likely get) include school supplies, volunteer hours (e.g., from senior citizens, high school students, clubs such as Kiwanis or Rotary), pro bono work (e.g., landscaping, graphic design), books, and free meals from local restaurants. And when you make purchases, ask the seller to throw in something extra, like free shipping. Can’t hurt to try.
6. Go paperless.
In Mesquite classrooms, students use wipe-off slates to write down answers and do work that would normally be done on pieces of paper. Dabney went to Home Depot, bought one huge slab of wipe-off particle board for $90, asked the store to cut it up (which they did for free), and walked out with 600 slate boards. Additionally, they have document cameras in the classrooms that eliminate the cost of handouts. Rather than sending home flyers, all the teachers have online blogs where they can post newsletters, homework assignments, and other information for students and parents.
7. Know your bottom line.
Vail superintendent Calvin Baker is all too familiar with the pains of budget cuts. He checks every difficult decision against his philosophic bottom line: improving student achievement. He asks, “If we take this away, will the academic performance needle move in the wrong direction?” Conversely, he also poses the question: “What are the things that we can take away? If they’re not going to impact student achievement, then maybe, painful as it may be, those are the things that have to go.”