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Shared service project could be model for state

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Schools across the country have been reeling from state funding cuts sparked by the recession, and things are no different in Ohio. And in Yellow Springs, where school income tax receipts are forecasted to drop 30 percent this year, school leaders are grappling with ways to address the shortfall.

One way, according to a group of county educational leaders, is for small districts to work together to save money. Last month, these leaders kicked off the Greene County Shared Services Initiative, or GCSS, a program in which county districts seek ways to save money by sharing service delivery. The Oct. 19 kickoff event, at which Governor Ted Strickland spoke, took place at Wright State University.

“Change is inevitable,” Richard Lapedes said in a recent interview. “If we know that’s the case, it’s incumbent on us to be proactive and try to deal with it.”

Lapedes, a member of the Yellow Springs Board of Education, was instrumental in creating the GCSS effort. He’s also committed to helping to raise the money — $50,000 to $75,000 — to fund the county-wide project. No public funds will be used, according to Lapedes, and so far funding has come from the Morgan Family Foundation, the YSI Foundation, the Wright State University Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

The idea that small school districts could save money by sharing services is not new, but the Greene County initiative is the first in the country that’s a grassroots effort. As such, it’s caught the attention of Governor Strickland, who has stated that he’s keeping an eye on the project as a potential model for the state, according to Lapedes.

The concept behind the GCSS is that there are several ways that small schools could lower costs by banding together. A group of schools together can negotiate services from a larger base or take advantage of an economy of scale that most often only benefits larger districts, according to Jane Dockery of the Wright State University Center for Urban and Public Affairs, who is overseeing the initiative.

“Small districts show better academic performance, but at the same time could get the economic benefits of larger systems. We’re after the best of both worlds,” said Dockery.

In other states, shared service efforts have benefitted small districts in a variety of ways. In New Jersey, 23 county boards of education made a joint request for commercial banking services, negotiating an interest rate based on their combined assets. The effort resulted in a savings of $1 million in a year, according to Dockery.

Also in New Jersey, a cooperative effort among school districts to buy electricity for public buildings resulted in 5 percent savings on electricity in one year. And in Stark County, Ohio, a shared service initiative allowed a visiting teacher from China to teach Chinese to students in five districts rather than only one.

“Shared service delivery is a powerful way to increase access to a much greater range of courses than any small district can afford to offer by itself,” Dockery wrote in an executive summary of the project.

The GCSS initiative consists of school leaders from seven school districts in Greene County, plus the Greene County Educational Services Center, the Greene County Career Center, the southwestern Ohio Educational Purchasing Council, or EPC, and the Miami Valley Educational Computer Association, or MVECA. That the GCSS participants, who include superintendents, principals and other administrators, are those directly involved in educating children is critical to the effort, according to Dockery.

“We have people who are walking the walk saying what they think is possible for them to do, and where there could be meaningful results,” Dockery said.

All involvement is voluntary, and school districts are asked to take part only if they believe the initiative can benefit their schools, Lapedes said. Organizers are heartened by the extent of the buy-in so far, he said.

This year the GCSS participants are focusing on organization, and participants have divided into task forces representing six potential domains of shared services. The domains are transportation, special education programs, contracted services and agreements, information technology, administrative and financial services, and advanced placement instruction and curriculum.

The task forces will meet through the year to identify potential areas of shared services, and will deliver their recommendations in June, 2010, according to Dockery, who said the group hopes to implement some savings in the following school year. The GCSS goal is to save participating districts 5 percent a year of their operating budget.

It’s clear that, while all school districts are feeling the challenge of declining revenues, small districts are especially hard hit. Organizers of GCSS believe that shared service delivery is one way that those small districts, which allow children to be educated in their own community and which also provide an anchor for a small town, can weather difficult financial times.

“We have a dog in this race,” Lapedes said. “I believe in small, high-touch districts and don’t want the fiscal crisis to threaten them.”

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