St. Louis County Schools “Red Plan”

“district administration refused to provide any clarification, and urged school board members themselves not to respond to the newspaper’s questions.”

I probably haven’t mentioned the other school building disaster in St. Louis County for better than a year. That was the abysmal experience of the rural schools in the interior of the County the St. Louis County Schools which were advised and built under the direction of Johnson Controls. The Timberjay Newspaper summed up the sorry current finances of that district in a story a friend sent me. Their Administration advised their elected School Board not to talk to the press. There is just no way to put any positive spin on their experiences, hence the quote that precedes this paragraph. Sounds familiar:

Restructuring provided minimal savings

As school district officials campaigned to win passage of the controversial school restructuring plan in 2009, they argued that the proposed closure of community schools and construction of new consolidated schools would save the district more than $5.6 million dollars annually and put the district on a firmer financial footing for years to come.

But the majority of the savings touted by school district officials and their consultant Johnson Controls never materialized when the district implemented the plan beginning in the 2011-12 school year. In fact, school district budget data shows that district costs rose in key categories, such as transportation and operations and maintenance, despite JCI’s promises that those costs would decline.

The savings shortfall was, perhaps, most pronounced in operations and maintenance. District officials argued that “right-sizing” from seven older K-12 buildings to four new or renovated K-12 buildings plus a renovated elementary school would achieve $1.24 million in annual savings. But the district’s operations and maintenance costs, which averaged $3.7 million a year in the three years prior to implementation of the restructuring plan, spiked to $4.4 million in the first year with the new configuration. At the time, school officials pointed to one-time costs as the district adjusted to the new facilities, but the district’s operating and maintenance costs jumped again the following year, to $4.75 million. While the district, in part thanks to lower fuel costs, was able to trim its operating costs to $4 million in the 2013-14 school year, costs jumped again the following year. Since the restructuring, the district has spent an average of $4.4 million a year on operating and maintenance, according to data submitted to the state Department of Education. That represents a $700,000 annual increase, or 19 percent, in operational costs— far from the $1.24 million in savings that district officials and JCI representatives had touted. The additional cost of maintaining expensive infrastructure, like community water supplies and wastewater treatment facilities, which were required for the district’s new and renovated facilities, only added to the financial burden.

The district is also spending more on transportation than it did prior to the restructuring. The district spent an average of $1.7 million on transportation in the three years prior to implementation of its school plan. In the first year under the new configuration, transportation costs spiked to $2.1 million and have risen every year since, through the 2014-15 school year, when the district spent $2.35 million transporting students and staff. Transportation costs for the just completed school year are not yet available from the MDE and it’s possible that the significant reduction in fuel prices in the past year helped trim some of the district’s costs. Even so, higher transportation and operating costs associated with the restructuring have added roughly $1.2 million annually to district expenses, and have prevented the district from achieving the financial turnaround officials had sought.