One School District’s Innovative Strategy in Preserving Student Services While Addressing the Fiscal Cliff: Smarter Scheduling

How school scheduling can help districts identify budget efficiencies without requiring program cuts, layoffs or sacrificing the student experience.

Timely software helps schools with their scheduling processes to balance instructional, staffing and budget priorities. (Timely)

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As the chief academic officer of Lubbock Independent School District, which serves approximately 25,000 students in West Texas, I am ever mindful of budget constraints that could impact our classrooms and students. As we prepared for the current school year, our district, like so many others across the country, faced a host of complex funding and academic challenges: The pandemic has exacerbated achievement gaps, taking a major toll on students both emotionally and academically; our enrollment has fallen approximately 9% over the span of the last five years; and the financial pressures caused by that enrollment decline are soon to be compounded by the expiration of federal ESSER funds. 

As we set out to make plans for the 2023 academic year, my team knew that we needed to somehow simultaneously ‘right-size’ the district while also enabling investment in new initiatives to enhance academic outcomes and the student experience. 

I often read and hear about the fiscal cliff. It’s a serious matter we can’t ignore. But there is seemingly a void of ideas, solutions or tools to equip us as district leaders to better confront and work around these looming financial challenges. Thankfully, we landed on an innovative and replicable strategy that allowed us to find budget efficiencies without sacrificing the student experience, without requiring any program elimination, and without laying off any staffers. We did this through an unconventional route: smarter school scheduling. 

Thanks to a partnership with Timely, a new organization dedicated to helping schools build better master schedules, we utilized middle and high school scheduling as a vehicle to balance our academic, staffing and budget priorities for the new school year. 

In total, across 14 middle and high schools, we identified significant savings by scheduling class sizes and teacher loads more consistently across schools. For the second consecutive year, our district maintained an overall average class size target of 24, a figure still below the Texas state average. But initial analysis revealed significant variation of class sizes and teacher loads across schools, and often within individual schools, driven by inefficient staffing and scheduling.

Through careful and intentional resource allocation enabled by Timely, we addressed a long-term challenge of mismatched resources and student needs – some schools and classrooms were unintentionally over-resourced while others were under-resourced. In total, our district identified 37 positions we eliminated through vacancies created by attrition, representing a savings of $2.2 million, which we then reinvested into new priority areas, hiring additional core subject teachers and staff for special populations. And, critically, we avoided teacher layoffs and took the first step of a multi-year plan to more efficiently allocate resources to schools given budget pressures while strengthening transparency and partnership between schools and the central office.

Why Scheduling Matters 

The master schedule is the beating heart of a school. It is an incredible fulcrum of the student experience, teacher experience, and innovative staffing and budget solutions. And yet in districts across the country, school leaders routinely struggle with the development of their schedules. And their counterparts within central offices are often not equipped to support them and lack visibility into the staffing and scheduling decisions made at individual school sites. 

When done poorly, we miss opportunities to build a schedule that addresses students’ needs while efficiently maximizing resources. For example, a common practice of schools is to roll over the prior year’s schedule with the teachers who are returning the following year. This may seem like the safest approach given the complexities of a secondary schedule, but there are often inefficiencies in schedules, and over time they can be calcified and assumed to be the norm. Instead, we built a bottom-up schedule based on what our students were requesting and needed, which changed the paradigm. 

The reality is student course offerings don’t always align to the needs and requests of students, there is an overall mismatch of resources across schools, certain classes are under-enrolled while others are over-subscribed, and students from historically marginalized backgrounds can be disproportionately impacted. As a result, schools may find themselves unintentionally allocating resources in a manner that goes against their own goals and objectives, with the lowest class sizes in advanced classes, electives and/or upper grades. 

Scheduling has regularly been one of the hardest things we’ve had to do each year in Lubbock. But our recent work has taught us that it need not be a process we simply suffer through and endure. 

To the contrary, it’s a process that can now help us prioritize and enable broader academic, staffing, and budget goals. And most importantly, strategic scheduling can help ensure that all students get access to the courses they want and need to be on track to graduate, remain inspired to attend and excel in school, and be empowered to pursue a postsecondary pathway. 

Schedules = Values 

The school schedule reflects values and priorities. With upwards of 85% of a district budget dedicated to personnel, there are few questions more paramount than how your staff and students spend their time every day, what positions you’ll hire for, how many teachers you will hire, and how students will be able to interact with them. Equitable resource allocation across schools, proper access to core courses and electives, and dedicated support to sub-groups begins with the development of a school schedule. And perhaps the most overlooked aspect of scheduling is the ability to develop innovative staffing and budgeting solutions. 

When scheduling is approached strategically, which requires the right tools and support, there is an immense opportunity to address critical priorities with district staffing, budgets, and academic goals. Lubbock demonstrated this is possible. Without this approach, we would have faced the possibility of teacher layoffs and program eliminations. What’s more, our district has built on this progress by enhancing our timelines, systems, processes, and tools so that the annual scheduling process will be an ongoing opportunity to ensure efficient and strategic use of resources.

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