Wednesday, November 13, 2002


Nebraska's third-largest school district couldn't help noticing the resounding "no" that voters in the state's largest district, the Omaha Public Schools, just answered to a request for more taxes.

But instead of taking a clue that the public can't take more taxes, the Millard Public Schools is going to go asking for more, anyway, with a telephone survey to Millard residents over the next few weeks.

That's disappointing to a longtime Millard school activist, Lisa Botkin. Three of her children have graduated from Millard schools and two attend there now. She wants the best for Millard schools, of course -- but she's also a mom. And moms are practical.

"Millard does not need to raise taxes and they do not need a phone survey," Mrs. Botkin says. "They need to think out of the box and get creative, and they need to do what businesses have done and are doing: a performance-based audit."

First, she calls for creativity in responding to the twin financial challenges of spent-out taxpayers and gigantic budget deficits in state tax funds. Districts should look to reorganizing and improving their own operations instead of trying to just get more money to keep what's already going, she said.

She said, for example, that the obvious solution to the declining enrollments in eastern Millard schools and bulging enrollments in western schools is not to build more buildings in the west, but to make the ones in the east more attractive to parents from the west so that they would transport their own children there voluntarily.

That would balance enrollments and save untold millions in ongoing extra transportation costs. Plus it would be great academically.

Mrs. Botkin envisions making Millard North Middle School into a Core Academy middle school, the traditional format that is so popular across the country but so rare in Nebraska. The Core Academy grade school is already operating in nearby Cather Elementary, and children at Montclair have been doing Montessori for years, so it would be a natural fit with the multisensory approach of Core.

A second idea from Mrs. Botkin is to make Central Middle School, also in a dwindling enrollment area, into a fine arts magnet middle school that would draw enrollment from all over, with transportation to and from school at parent expense.

Any additional staff training that would be required by these innovations would be available through Nebraska's lottery grants, which are intended to make possible innovative educational programs just like these, Mrs. Botkin said.

As for performance audits, which are like efficiency reviews, she said that common business practice has helped private-sector businesses streamline personnel and operations for years. They are forced to by the bottom line and the need to show a profit.

But school districts do not do them because the money supply has always been so reliable and they don't really have a measurable bottom line the way a private company does. Therefore schools tend to just add expense on top of expense without scrutinizing what makes sense to spend what, where. And therefore, schools are in sore need of performance audits.

Mrs. Botkin isn't talking about widespread reductions in force, going back to horse-and-buggy technology or anything like that. She just means giving the multimillions in the Millard budget what I call a "business bath."

You know: you don't let your child loll around in the tub for hours. You just wash those body parts most likely to be dirty. You know what they are.

It's the same thing with a school budget: there are certain places that are a little overfunded, where modest cuts or mere cost shifts could clean things up without a whole lot of effort. Yes, it may be painful for a few people in the short run, but in the long run, performance audits are great for the health and financial cleanliness of the whole organization.

Mrs. Botkin said she hopes that people will respond to the Millard district's phone calls with a respectful request that they explore all other options BEFORE they come looking to get more money out of the community. And that means she hopes people will demand creativity and performance audits.

Thinking out of the box, and a business bath: common-sense ideas. And I'll supply the rubber ducky for the business bath. Might as well have fun with it.

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