First Person Tale of Cost-cutting Success- Levenson

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First person tale of cost-cutting success Nathan Levenson Former superintendent of Arlington, Massachusetts Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author Prepared for the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Institute conference, “A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving Students Better,” January 11, 2010 The collected papers for this conference can be found at Draft
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    First person tale of cost-cutting success Nathan LevensonFormer superintendent of Arlington, Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author Prepared for the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Institute conference,“A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving StudentsBetter,”January 11, 2010The collected papers for this conference can be found at  Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author 1  Despite declining resources, Arlington, Massachusetts Superintendent Nathan Levenson lead ateam of committed administrators and a courageous school board from July 2005 through August 2008 to award-winning growth in academic achievement. The shrinking budget wasn’t an obstacle to improvement; it was an instrument of their success. More children learning,however, wasn’t enough to calm the political firestorms that accompanied the tough and untraditional financial decisions that were necessary to raise student achievement. As I sat in the high school library during the winter of 2005 being grilled by the 17member Superintendent Search Committee, I was struck by how many questions centered onbudgets and budgeting. No one asked me about reading instruction, what skills students shouldmaster in the twenty-first century, or how to close the achievement gap. A school board memberdid ask, “Would I let people know what’s in the budget?”I was a bit disappointed. I had left the business world after 20 years to become asuperintendent. I wanted to discuss my theories for accelerating student learning but they onlywanted to talk about money. As I moved through subsequent rounds of interviewing, I learnedthat reading couldn’t be improved because, “We had to cut reading teachers a few years back”;that twenty-first century skills couldn’t be enhanced, “ Because we had no money” and we didn’tknow how big the achievement gap was, “Because we couldn’t afford to fund the data analyst.”This poverty mentality surprised me because the district spent the state average per pupil and hadtypical salaries scales for a middle class district. Little did anyone know that finding enoughmoney to fulfill our grandest educational dreams would be easy, that raising student achievementwouldn’t be hard, but navigating budget politics would be fatal.My MBA from Harvard Business School and experience as “budget guru” on myhometown school board carried the day. Arlington hired a nontraditional superintendent. The  Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author 2public announcement said I was the man to navigate a tough financial situation and bring newideas to the district. Privately, people whispered “This is the end of ‘old Arlington rule.’ Thetown had experienced a demographic shift, from predominately middle class, blue collar, IrishCatholics who lived in town for generations to now include a mix of young, progressive, urbanprofessionals. Unbeknownst to me, I was the standard bearer for ‘New Arlington.’ First, Show me the Money With contract signatures still damp, I launched a 50 person listening tour with school committeemembers, central office staff, curriculum leaders and principals. Very clear patterns emergedfrom the conversations.The school board members were smart, caring, thoughtful and somewhat lost. There wasdesire—but no plan—for moving the district forward. Past fights over small fundingdisagreements still loomed large, and a desperate want for more resources nagged at themembers. Collectively they concluded the district couldn’t improve until we found more money.The administrators had ideas, but little hope. They knew exactly how to raise studentachievement: Provide more and better professional development, align the curriculum betweengrades, provide intensive intervention for struggling readers, mentor new teachers and hirecontent strong special education staff. Rather than being excited to share their ideas, many foundour conversation depressing. Without more money, nothing would change, they told me. Likeasking a man stranded on a desert island, “What would you want to eat if rescued?” it was justhypothetical and a bit cruel. I pointed out that what they wanted didn’t cost much, maybe $1million, about 2 percent of our $50 million budget. Every administrator responded with tales of being denied a few thousand dollars for some top priority.  Draft: Please do not cite without permission from the author 3My last stop on the tour was the business office. At this point, I knew what to expect –“We have no money.” Instead, I learned that we might end the year with a deficit (which isterrible) or we might end the year with a sizable surplus (which isn’t much better), so I shouldprepare for both scenarios and be ready to spend down any surplus on the last day of the year. Iwas mystified. With less than six weeks left in the school year, it should be simple to forecastour ending balance. Yet for a hundred reasons, no forecast was possible—we didn’t haveaccurate budgets for many line items; purchase orders often get entered late; grants, which offsetthe operating budget, are handled by a different department and aren’t accrued in real time; etc.This made no sense to me, but I knew I wasn’t going to get an answer until the last day of thefiscal year.The listening tour revealed three truths:1) The school board didn’t have a plan, vision or strategy, but they controlled the budget.2) The administrators knew what was needed, but no one asked them.3) No one, including the superintendent, CFO or school board really knew where wespent our money. The Cornerstone: Knowing the Past and the Future An old Russian proverb tells, “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will take youthere.” The Arlington Public Schools needed a strategy for raising student achievement. Sincethe school board had final say on the budget, I focused on them first. I created a best practiceboot camp which included holding retreats, attending lectures, and using school board meetingsto discuss journal articles. Many of our meetings looked like college seminars with thoughtprovoking discussions and the Socratic method.
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