Facilitator Jeff Wein says cooperation among rural Colorado school districts can go a long way toward improving efficiency and saving money. 

Though rural school districts find themselves isolated geographically, they do not need to be alone when budgeting for things like coursework, buses and digital technology for the classroom. A group of board members and superintendents from numerous districts in the San Luis Valley is meeting bimonthly to find new ways to collaborate and share costs to benefit the Valley’s approximately 7,700 students.

Students leave Haskin Elementary in the San Luis Valley at the end of a March school day and board their school bus. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

It’s an essential development in a time of cash-strapped planning.

Though cost-sharing isn’t anything new, it’s the intentional, regular collaboration by school leaders that marks this effort as unique. Sharing isn’t right in every situation, given that the state’s public schools are largely locally controlled. However, with cutbacks facing schools across Colorado, the timing has been just right to examine the potential for cost savings across districts.

Nearly a year ago, the Donnell-Kay Foundation funded a facilitator-led meeting hosted by the Centennial School District to gauge initial interest in cost-sharing. The Colorado Association of School Boards supported the gathering, and the response from the start was encouraging. Though it wasn’t entirely clear from the beginning which exact budget areas each superintendent could agree on, it was clear that finding common ground would be possible – a very good sign. Superintendents and board members from eight of the 14 San Luis Valley districts participated in planning meetings held in November 2011 and February and April 2012.

There are some resource areas where the San Luis Valley Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, has already shared.

For example, districts have collaborated on curriculum, athletics, transportation and professional development before. However, the sharing was never comprehensive enough to ensure that one district was not duplicating another’s efforts. At the meeting last fall, the participants reaffirmed their commitment to combine efforts in those areas where they had already made some progress.

The board members and superintendents also discussed new ways to work together for cost savings. Some potential areas: food service, personnel matters (sharing human resources, legal or auditing staff), and purchasing (supplies, fuel, or other equipment). Though not all these ideas are a perfect fit for collaboration now, they are on the table for implementation when the timing is right.

Sharing professional development

The first major cost sharing initiative was the valley-wide acquisition and professional development for the new Focal Point curriculum based on the revised Colorado content standards. Of particular note is the fact that the 14 San Luis districts aligned their calendars to allow for joint professional development activities, thus significantly reducing the cost of providing the training and support necessary for successful implementation of the curriculum.  Such alignment for professional development purposes is unprecedented in the valley.

In addition to the Focal Point curriculum, the two additional areas are moving forward this fall.

First, the superintendents are going in on technology grants together. Applying as a group both boosts their ability to win the grants and apply the money across programs that can be most useful for their rural districts. For example, all the districts may benefit from sharing distance learning Advanced Placement courses when individual districts may not have the demand and therefore cannot afford an Advanced Placement teacher on their own.

Second, the districts also will collaborate right away on bidding for fleet vehicles. Again, the superintendents recognize that taking offers as a group increases their power to demand competitive pricing for things like buses and other school vehicles.

Moving forward, the San Luis Valley Superintendents Advisory Council will be meeting every other month when the BOCES board does not convene to focus specifically on cost-sharing ideas and initiatives.  We will be following these efforts and will report back periodically on progress and outcomes.