School districts get creative to cut costs

Posted: August 20, 2013

When schools open this month, students in Bristol Township will be hopping onto a fleet of new buses fueled by propane.

Beyond being more environmentally friendly, the buses are expected to generate a significant saving: The two-year contract the Bucks County district negotiated for propane sets the price at $1.50 per gallon, according to district Superintendent Samuel Lee, and the district has submitted a grant proposal to further lower costs.

Bristol, like many local districts, can use all the help it can get: As reported in The Inquirer last month, despite rising property-tax rates, the district had to close a $9 million gap to balance its 2013-14 budget. That trend - rising expenses outpacing revenue - has districts in the region looking for ways to stay afloat. And though the primary method is often to reduce staff or programs, districts are exploring measures that include propane-fueled buses, rearranging teacher schedules, and selling naming rights to school stadiums. The Methacton School District, in Montgomery County, is auctioning items on eBay for extra cash.

School officials acknowledged such measures are far from a panacea, and some, including the stadium naming-rights policies, have yet to yield results.

But even a minor saving can help, according to Brenda J. Bray, the Upper Dublin School District's business administrator.

"When you start putting things together collectively, yes, they do" make a difference, she said.

Alternative saving methods in the region are diverse, but one common measure has been tinkering with teacher scheduling.

In Montgomery County's Upper Moreland School District, Superintendent Robert Milrod said having teachers volunteer to teach a few extra periods per week (for which they are compensated) had resulted in the district's managing to maintain most curriculum offerings without having to recruit additional staff. The saving, he estimated, approaches $300,000 per year, the equivalent of three full-time staff members, because the district does not have to pay additional benefits or incur recruiting and hiring costs.

In Montgomery County's North Penn School District, director of business administration Robert Schoch said the district had been coming up with ways to fill vacant class periods with existing staff.

That proposal is just one of hundreds developed by staff and community members. Over the last three years, Schoch said, the district has hosted an "innovation celebration," where people can bring ideas for revenue growth or cost savings to district administrators. The last two events, each attended by hundreds of people, Schoch said, generated about 150 ideas.

Some of the ideas, he said, have proved significant.

For example, though the district began an energy-saving initiative four years ago, ideas proposed at the innovation gatherings - from switching to energy-efficient auditorium lighting to modifying default computer fonts to reduce the number of pages printed each year - have enhanced the efforts, Schoch said. Overall, he said, the energy-saving program has cut costs by more than $1 million.

A more mundane but common tack is charging for extracurricular activities, including sports and music.

"Pay to play," as it is commonly called, is widely practiced, according to Steve Robinson of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. In a recent statewide survey, Robinson said, 30 percent of public school respondents reported charging for sports, with an average fee of $65 per season. A further 21 percent had charged for other extracurricular activities, such as band or chorus.

Milrod, Upper Moreland's superintendent, said the district implemented fees last year. The marching band will get new uniforms in the fall for the first time in 14 years, an expense Milrod said was made possible by the fee-generated revenue.

Districts including Upper Moreland and Upper Dublin have considered selling naming rights for their stadiums. Neither has found a buyer, but Upper Dublin has sold a few thousand dollars' worth of advertising banners in its basketball gymnasium to local businesses, according to Bray, the business administrator.

Perhaps the most unusual twist in the hunt for new revenue comes from Methacton. It will begin to auction off unnecessary items on eBay.

"I know that there is potential for revenue generation by selling items that are no longer needed to a worldwide audience," Stuart Whiteleather, director of business services, said in a news release sent Thursday.

As of Friday afternoon, the district had listed printer supplies and two 16-seat school buses; the bidding for one of the buses was starting at $1.

The fine print, however, revealed a snag.

"Needs engine work," the listing wrote. "Not running."

Contact Chris Palmer at 609-217-8305,, or follow on Twitter @cs_palmer.

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