By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — Dearborn Public Schools officials unveiled results of a districtwide benchmark study at the Board of Education meeting Monday, highlighting several key areas where the cash-strapped system could cut costs.
But due to differences in accounting practices across districts, the study only serves as a starting point for district administrators as they try to whittle down a projected $11 million budget deficit for the next school year. More analysis, more data and a better grasp of the reporting mechanisms is needed before substantive actions can be taken, officials said.
“This is only phase one in the process,” said Supt. Brian Whiston. “The next phase will be to find out why the numbers look the way they do and, if needed, how can the district make improvements.”
The study, performed by Plante & Moran in conjunction with Rahmberg Stover and Associates, compared the operations of DPS to other similar districts drawing on a number of educational databases, both national and local.
Although officials insist the data is very raw and that certain numbers could be skewed due to reporting discrepancies, they acknowledge that there are several areas that need further review.
One is staffing. Relative to eight other like-sized southeast Michigan districts the study found that on average, DPS had 15 percent more educational related staffing on a per-pupil basis. That includes administrators, teachers, support staff and nonclassroom professionals.
While DPS has nearly 2,500 more students than the combined average of 15,257 for the other eight districts, it also carries 400 more employees, according to the study. The study also found that DPS has a higher proportion of custodial staff than other similar districts in Michigan. From an average of in-state, 10,000-plus student districts, the study noted that DPS spends 18 percent more on facility maintenance, with DPS custodial workers responsible for 20 percent less square footage. Whiston already has confirmed that the issue will be addressed.
“I’m cutting 15 custodial positions, so that should help to bring those numbers in line,” Whiston said.
Another area officials pledge to look at, and one of the most glaring discrepancies in the report, are transportation costs. On an annual, per-rider basis DPS transportation costs are more than double that of other southeast Michigan districts.
That could be attributable to low overall ridership within the district, as only 17 percent of DPS students take the bus, compared to an average of 65 percent in the other surveyed districts.
“The district was built with the idea that kids would walk to school,” Whiston said, pointing to the relatively high number of schools within DPS.
“But as enrollment has expanded, especially at Fordson, we’ve been forced to bus some kids across town.”
The final issue raised in the study was natural gas costs. Comparing DPS to seven Oakland County districts, the study found that DPS paid nearly 60 percent more per square foot for natural gas.
Currently the district purchases its natural gas through a consortium of local districts. The gas — used primarily for powering boilers — is purchased on futures contracts and can fluctuate greatly depending on when the gas was purchased. Business Services Director Robert Cipriano said he is looking into the discrepancy to determine if it’s caused by gas purchased at an inflated price, due to poor insulation in the district’s aging buildings, or some combination of the both.
While the study offers some valuable insight into possible cost-saving measures in the district, the business-oriented Whiston offered some hope to union workers concerned about losing their jobs.
“We will not privatize.” he said. “I have told Bob (Cipriano) that he can go out and get bids, but we will always give the union a chance to match it.
“If it’s a million-dollar difference, we will sit down with (union representatives) and say ‘how can we save a million dollars?’”