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Seriously data-driven decision making: Searching for solutions to operational challenges, big city districts found answers for each other.

With the economy still stuck in low gear and states approaching the "funding cliff " that marks the end of federal stimulus help for education, almost all school districts will be feeling even more financial pain than they're experiencing now.

The nation's largest urban school districts typically feel this pain more acutely than most, squeezed between their commitment to higher achievement and the disproportionate effect of unemployment on high-density areas.

But there's good news amid the bad: Contrary to the stale stereotype of big city districts having bloated budgets, some of these school systems are showing schools nationwide a way to save money by working together.

In 2004, years before the economy went south, chief financial officers of the nation's largest districts proactively set a stiff challenge for themselves under the aegis of the Council of the Great City Schools: To save their schools serious money, they would build a data system that would be the envy of any cutting-edge corporation.

The Key Performance Indicator (KPI) system now allows each of the nation's largest urban school districts to compare, at high levels of detail, the performance of business operations, finance, human resources, and information technology across all 65 of the largest urban school districts in the nation. District leaders can calibrate comparisons based on geography, cost of living, union status, and hundreds of other variables, and use dynamic data modeling to instantly calculate the effect of potential changes to the bottom line.

The idea was to make themselves as highly accountable financially as their districts had become academically. In much the same way that student data systems have helped foster responsiveness in teaching and learning, the Key Performance Indicator system uses sophisticated data modeling to help districts cut costs, improve efficiency, and serve student populations more effectively.

Using Six Sigma methodologies for defining, quantifying, and aggregating data, participating districts share and compare information on more than 3,000 data points. Dynamic data modeling allows leaders to analyze the effect of a variety of "what if" scenarios on their district's bottom line and has been key to creating the benchmarks that have saved participating districts millions of dollars.

In many districts, the extensive data analysis and modeling afforded by KPI has led to surprising solutions to financial woes. In Florida, for example, Orange County Public Schools sold 271 of its buses after comparing its transportation metrics with comparable districts--an unexpected $1.9-million boon for the district. In New Mexico, Albuquerque Public Schools used the system's metrics as leverage in negotiations with its Internet service provider, ultimately saving the district $200,000 a year.

Comparing operations with similar districts has also helped school officials eliminate bottlenecks. For example, Seattle Public Schools used data from the system to revamp its requisition process for textbooks, computers, desks, and other essentials, shifting the brunt of those requests online. In Ohio, Cincinnati Public Schools tapped KPI to revamp staffing and supply practices in food and custodial services, and increased maintenance training. Together, these changes have saved the district between $10 million and $12 million a year.

More than saving money

KPI is also helping drive more significant foundational changes within districts, which is now critical as their leaders face the need to address declining funding in increasingly strategic and sophisticated ways. In Chicago, for example, district leaders are using benchmarking data from KPI to create performance metrics for "cost centers," such as transportation and food service. The school board of Boston Public Schools is making KPI a key tool for decision making. Orange County Public Schools uses the system to benchmark departments against those in similar districts as part of a value-added scorecard system that will track progress toward key operational goals.

Along with cutting costs, KPI is also helping districts determine where to invest. In Seattle, for example, district leaders compared their protocols to other districts, identified gaps, and enrolled 93% of their staff in professional development training to improve effectiveness.

The creation of the KPI system has proven to be a proactive response to the financial realities districts now face. But it's also helped shatter dated stereotypes about how the nation's largest urban school districts steward public funds entrusted to them.

Like any responsible organization focused on its mission, districts in the Council of the Great City Schools meticulously track where every dollar goes--not only because every dollar counts, but because those dollars can be put toward expanding the work districts do. KPI now allows districts to share and leverage data as never before, putting cost savings to work reinforcing infrastructure, improving school safety, and investing in high-quality academics--goals that would otherwise be much harder to achieve in an era of limited funds and ever-tightening belts.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Shrinking Schoolhouse

As dollars for schools decline, K-12 schools need to reduce staff and focus efforts. How do schools realistically "do more with less"? Kappan will be publishing articles related to this throughout the year. We are seeking manuscripts that help educators address these issues:

* What ideas will benefit school and district leaders as they balance conflicting needs and conflicting challenges? What disasters are looming as budgets shrink?

* If teachers are a finite resource, how can schools/districts best deploy them where they matter the most?

* What is the role of technology in helping schools work smaller and smarter?

* If schools and districts must abandon the 25-to-1 student-to-teacher model, what other models could be adopted to ensure high-quality learning?

* Where are there examples of schools and districts that have successfully reduced themselves and continued to provide highquality learning for students?

Submit manuscripts to

MICHAEL D. CASSERLY ( is executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, Washington, D.C.
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Author:Casserly, Michael D.
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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