I recently wrote a guest column in which I outlined a plan to decentralize the Lee County School District by breaking up our very large school district into five smaller community school districts. I made this recommendation for some of the very reasons that our citizens chose, in the 1950’s, to decentralize the statewide school system, by giving home rule to the individual districts. At that time it was determined that the state was too big and the individual counties were too disparate and their needs too different, to be well served by leaving total control of the education system in the hands of the education establishment in Tallahassee. Of course, in 1950, Lee County’s population was approximately 23,000 while it is now close to 600,000, which is 26 times what is was when the state decentralization law went into effect. As a result of the enormous growth in both the state’s and the school district’s population, the same problems that plagued the state education system which caused the counties to demand home rule, now similarly affect the very large countywide school districts which include high operating costs , little academic progress and less parent involvement.
While most people who contacted me have expressed support for the plan, there are a small number who have expressed concern that its implementation would increase the size and cost of the bureaucracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth because any successful plan to decentralize the school district would include the reduction of administrative positions and transportation costs, and empowering local communities to decide how funding is to be allocated to the classroom. An analysis of administrative positions based on State ratios suggests that the district could readily eliminate 100 positions for a cost savings of about $10 million. To avoid duplication of services the new zone boards would pick the services they require for operations such as transportation, food service, payroll, computer support etc. based on a menu of options provided by the Central School District. Since each zone will have a budget based on student enrollment similar to Charter schools, it will pressure central staff to keep operation costs competitive with the private sector or face the possibility of losing these services to lower cost providers.
Another essential component of such a plan would be to hire an independent auditor to conduct ongoing financial and operations audits of our multibillion dollar school district to minimize waste that is inevitable with such a large budget. This is routinely done in private industry for good reasons, including reducing costs and fraud prevention. In addition to the auditor, who will save the district more money than the cost of his salary, it’s long overdue for the school district to implement zero based budgeting, which will make the budget much more transparent. Finally, and this may be a small savings but its symbolism would make a strong statement, the salaries of school board members should be reduced to match the salaries of state legislators for a reduction of about $8,000 per board member.
Over the past seven years the District spent over $8 billion on education. During that time reading learning gains in Lee County for all students, was only 1 percent. The current plan is simply not working.
Please e-mail your ideas or questions to the School Board and me @ firstname.lastname@example.org .
— Robert D. Chilmonik of Cape Coral is a former member of the Lee County School District