Voices in Education

For Next Year’s Budget, Rethink the “One-Per-School” Rule
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 28, number 5). Copyright 2012 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Like many a middle child, I was always certain my father favored my brothers, at my expense. My older brother got more freedom, and my younger brother got more help—regardless of our ages. My father’s only defense was, “I love you all, but your needs are different.” I swore I would never do this to my kids . . . until I became a father.

The wisdom of this approach, however, really came home when I was serving as a superintendent during some tough financial times. That’s when I came head-to-head with what I call the “One-per-School” way of budgeting staff. Most district budgets are devoted to personnel and really answer two questions: How many people will we hire in a given role (measured in full-time staff equivalents, or FTEs), and which schools will they be assigned to?

According to the commonly used, but seldom-challenged, One-per-School Rule, the fair way of budgeting is to assign equal numbers of staff to all schools, especially when it comes to specialists. If one school gets a full-time librarian, for example, then all schools in a district should get the same. What I discovered was that rethinking “what’s fair” can help a district of 10,000 students save hundreds of thousands, or even a million-plus, dollars a year, without taking away a minute of instruction or support from students, and can actually increase services for many children. Treating every school the same is often confused with fairness; but, in reality, it is bad for students and wasteful of resources. As budgets shrink and staffing decisions get heated, the One-per-School Rule exemplifies equal but ultimately unfair and wasteful budgeting.

I remember a school board debate over librarians for our seven elementary schools. Whether we could afford to keep them or not was hotly argued. One side said, “Keep the seven”; the other said, “Regrettably, we must cut them.” In months of discussion no one suggested keeping five or four or three librarians—it was seven or nothing. One-per-School seemed set in stone; anything else would be unfair. But how was it fair? The seven schools were very different. One had more than 400 students, while another had just 200. One was walking distance to a local library. Another school had an endless supply of parent volunteers.

The One-per-School Rule certainly didn’t seem fair to the librarians. In one school, a full-time librarian taught just 12 periods a week, and in another school one taught 22 periods. It also didn’t seem fair to students. In the small schools the librarian could host extra literacy events, but no one was available to do this in the large schools. Taxpayers didn’t win either, since per union contract each teacher was expected to be assigned 25 teaching periods a week, and thus only 4.5 FTE librarians, as opposed to 7.0, were required—a potential savings of nearly $200,000 a year.

In my experience advising districts, I have discovered just how deep—and extreme—the commitment to the One-per-School Rule can be. For example, in one diverse district of 25 schools, it was tradition to assign one social worker to each school. I was incredulous when I heard this. I pointed out that one school had about 200 well-to-do elementary students and another had 2,000 urban high school students. The chance of a troubled student at the high school getting more than a minute’s attention from the lone social worker was nil. The need was much greater at the high school, but not the staffing. When I pointed this out, the superintendent, annoyed at my recriminating tone, shot back, “How could anyone decide who has more needs? The principals would never agree with my assessment of need, and the social workers hate being in two buildings.” There it was—the two reasons that 2,000 students had to share one social worker.

Fortunately, it’s not too difficult—at least on paper—to budget more fairly. The way to begin is to start by determining the level of need. In my district, for example, every school had one reading teacher. Students in small schools received extra reading help every day; but in large schools with lots of struggling readers, those students got extra help just two days a week. We routinely gave benchmark assessments that identified struggling readers. So going forward, we assigned reading teachers to schools based on the number of students behind in reading. Some schools got 1.8 FTE others 0.6 FTE. Every struggling student could now receive extra help five times a week. This new definition of fairness—student-centered, not adult-centered—caught on. A year later, the principals themselves suggested reallocating the reading staff among the schools midyear, after the winter assessments, to ensure equal support to all struggling readers.

Politically and socially, replacing the One-per-School Rule with needs-based budgeting is trickier but still doable. The concern about traveling among schools raised by my “one-per” superintendent friend was echoed by many teachers. Working across multiple buildings is no fun at all. Rather than being part of two schools, the itinerant staff aren’t part of any school. They aren’t invited to the faculty meetings or staff birthday parties. They are, however, expected to attend meetings in one school on days that they are scheduled to be at another school. We solved this by making sure that each traveling teacher was assigned one primary building in which they are welcomed like family. They attend key meetings at this school and not as many meetings in the other schools they serve. Staff schedules were built around the guiding principle that no one should be asked to be in two places at once. This allowed us greater staffing flexibility and addressed legitimate staff concerns.

In times of declining resources and frequent reductions in force, abandoning the One-per-School Rule for art, PE, music, library, technology, speech and language, psychologists, social workers, reading, ELL, and other programs can reduce the budget without reducing services to children. For many students it will actually increase services. And, from a student’s point-of-view, is the only truly fair way to budget.

About the Author: Nathan Levenson is managing director of the District Management Council and a former school superintendent. He is the author of Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools: How to Survive and Thrive in Tight Times (Harvard Education Press, 2012).