ERIC Identifier: ED406717
Publication Date: 1996-06-00
Author: Weber, James
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Can Cutbacks Leave School Programs Viable? ERIC Digest, Number
Following the recession of the early 1990s, American industry cut operations,
keeping just enough staff to thrive at the bottom line. Likewise, most public
schools, out of financial necessity, have had to reduce costs, while maintaining
facilities and essential instructional programs and remaining accountable for
School downsizing can mean making painful decisions about program elimination
and staff layoffs. When the graceful options are exhausted, what can be done?
Like pruning an orchard, the downsizing of schools can be used to some
advantage--discovering and reducing programs of limited benefit, making
instructional programs more focused and more defensible, gathering detailed
information about district staff's efforts, and tapping into staff ideas for
HOW CAN WE DECIDE WHICH PROGRAMS TO CUT?
Preparation is the
best approach. With an ongoing program of self-examination, a district may not
have to experience the wholesale layoffs, unattended school grounds, and dark
buildings that we imagine in our worst daydreaming. With preparation, downsizing
will look like the pruning that well-run operations experience periodically.
Distinguish essential from nonessential services in advance. Rank programs
according to whether they meet legal requirements or satisfy student and
community needs. Writing about a successful approach that alienated neither the
community nor staff, Susan Black (1991) suggests a four-tier model for ranking
* Tier 1--programs mandated by law, school board policy, accreditation
concerns, state board of education, or school contracts. These programs cannot
be eliminated or, usually, much reduced. With care, they may be reorganized.
* Tier 2--core programs and graduation requirements. These programs, too,
cannot be eliminated, but they can be reorganized or reduced, as long as the
services are provided adequately, according to community standards.
* Tier 3--scheduled academic, elective, and support programs, such as the
fourth year of a language. Being careful to meet student needs for basic
education, these programs can be reorganized, reduced, or eliminated.
* Tier 4--truly optional programs. These programs can--and perhaps should--be
reduced, reorganized, or eliminated.
Placing programs into the lower tiers requires that several criteria be met:
low enrollment; high cost; low student-teacher ratio; limited contact with
students; schedule conflicts with more essential programs and courses; and
duplication of services in the district.
A similar approach has been used for budget reductions in one Oregon
district. Using three tiers, administrators in the North Clackamas district
identified those programs and courses that: (1) are required and directly affect
student graduation and promotion, (2) are essential in supporting student
graduation, and (3) are nonessential for graduation and promotion. The
flexibility of their approach appealed to a wide range of stakeholders (Daniel
Duke and Timothy Carman 1993).
WHAT INFORMATION IS MOST VALUABLE IN PLANNING REDUCTIONS?
system to rank services relies upon getting accurate and current information
about the district's programs.
* Rely on facts, not just advice. Before considering downsizing staff,
organizations can primarily rely on summary advice from their managers or
principals about priorities. Unfortunately, these opinions may be
unintentionally biased, favoring the status quo.
* Obtain detailed information about district jobs--actual duties, that is,
and potential job redundancies. Conduct an organizational review, J. Kent Oehm
(1991) suggests, that obtains reasonable levels of detail about how employees
actually use their time. Not so simple as consulting the job descriptions, this
involves actually interviewing a sample of staff and administrators, observing
how programs function and their rates of success.
* Get information about possible cost-savings from staff. Asking employees
how the company can save money and can turn out products more efficiently has
worked well in corporate life.
WHO SHOULD BE INVOLVED?
Get buy-ins from as many interested
groups as possible. A plan for restructuring a school or district should not be
a secret. Several groups may be directly affected by decisions to reduce staff
or services. Such stakeholders include parents and students, the teachers and
their union, noninstructional staff, and building administrators. Planners
should come prepared with accurate and current data. Adequate opportunities for
comment and suggestions can turn up uncertainties and gaps in information.
Regular progress reports from the committee planning reductions in programs
can be made to the superintendent, to the board, and to open meetings involving
In 1991-92, the North Clackamas, Oregon, school district worked out a
restructuring that included input from representatives of all district programs
as well as from community groups via town hall meetings. The restructuring
committee then took this information into account in offering a plan to the
school board. The process was not free of politics and pain, and some were upset
about the outcomes. However, the reductions in programs were made by informed
decision-makers after consultations with stakeholders (Duke and Carman).
CAN WE PREVENT LOW STAFF MORALE?
When programs and services
are cut, two classes of staff are affected: those who are laid off and those who
remain. As David M. Noer (1993) points out, managers often concentrate on the
matters affecting those who are laid off: who will be cut and what will be the
arrangements for termination benefits, outplacement services, and other "final" things. This focus is understandable.
In schools, the consequences of layoffs strike hard on the remaining staff.
The instructional staff must teach the same numbers of students (or even more
students) with less funding. The strain can range from wearing to crushing.
In his study of two Oregon schools before and after major budget cuts,
Gregory A. Smith noted that teachers had to be less flexible in their larger
classes, simply to preserve order. For teachers in those schools, the issues
were not only physical but social, as remaining teachers felt demoralized.
Noer's studies of layoffs in corporations make clear that some strategies can
help employees cope after downsizing. Because staff have a thirst for
information about which programs are vulnerable, planners should communicate how
decisions are being made and where the priority programs lie. At times of
crisis, such as downsizing, leaders should also "lead with the heart first and
follow with the head"--that is, first acknowledge the staff's feelings and
difficulties and then analyze the reasons and the areas for creating
efficiencies to deal with the new, more strained arrangements.
Tell the truth, Noer insists, and never say, "The cuts are over now. There
shouldn't be any more." Staff members who survive will remember what the
planners did and said before the layoffs.
HOW WILL DOWNSIZING AFFECT STAFF CREATIVITY?
on how the reductions in staff are handled. Newly reorganized schools are often
confusing and frustrating places for experienced staff. Equipment and support
services are often reduced before staff layoffs. Thus, what used to take hours
to accomplish may now take days. Paper may be rationed or unavailable for
copiers. Teachers or administrators whom a teacher used for advice or
collaboration may now be gone. In business downsizing, it has been observed,
productivity rebounds before creativity. That is, people learn to cope before
they learn to innovate.
Teresa Amabile and Regina Conti (1995) studied creativity in one corporation
before and after a major downsizing. They make three primary observations.
First is the importance of existing work groups to employees. Problems arose
when new work groups were formed from what remained of old groups. The more
unstable the work group, the more impediments to innovation.
Second, open communication between decision-makers and staff allowed more
creative work after layoffs.
Finally, they found, the degree of downsizing that staff anticipate in the
months before layoffs correlated with greater or lesser creativity in the months
following. Those who expected more layoffs reported lower levels of risk-taking,
less creativity, and lower morale. Innovative work can survive when staff spend
less time anticipating a downsizing.
For an organization, the benefits of reducing costs are clear: an invigorated
ability to provide present-day benefits to clients and reserve resources for
future uses. Schools may find it hard to adopt this view--unlike corporations,
their return to stakeholders may not be obviously enhanced by downsizing.
However, the strategies needed to reduce costs and refocus programs in the short
term may be perennially useful--in allowing schools to remain effective in
rosier times ahead.
Amabile, Teresa, and Regina Conti. "What
Downsizing Does to Creativity." Issues and Observations 15, 3 (1995): 1-6.
Black, Susan. "Cut Without Killing." The American School Board Journal 178, 5
(May 1991): 31-33. EJ 425 590.
Duke, Daniel L., and Timothy J. Carman. "Implementing an Orderly Budget
Reduction Process: A Case Study." Record in Educational Administration and
Supervision 13, 2 (Spring/Summer 1993): 85-90.
Noer, David M. Healing the Wounds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
Oehm, J. Kent. "Enhancing Productivity: A Structured Approach to Downsizing."
School Business Affairs 57, 9 (September 1991): 22-24. EJ 432 715.
Smith, Gregory A. "Living with Oregon's Measure 5: The Costs of Property Tax
Relief in Two Suburban Elementary Schools." Phi Delta Kappan 76, 6 (February
1995): 452-61. EJ 497 518.