By Niki King
A lights-out and power-down week in Shelby County Schools over Christmas break ended up saving the district money, but the savings didn’t materialize quite as expected.
As a cost-savings measure, the school district instituted a “shut down week” between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day that included curtailing energy use at the central office and all 11 schools in the district.
Principals and administrators in the central office, such as assistant superintendents and directors, were essentially furloughed.
Superintendent James Neihof said the measure didn’t save quite as much money as leaders hoped, but it still proved beneficial, particularly in giving administrative staff some much-needed down time at the holidays.
“Our administrators work really hard and the opportunity to spend that time with their families rather than emailing each other, catching up on phone calls or paper work, was something a lot of them appreciated,” he said. “I had people coming up to me saying ‘thank you,’ that they needed that time more than they even realized.”
The district had estimated powering down all its buildings could save as much as $10,000 in utilities. But, after electricity bills were recently tallied, the savings were more like $4,800.
“We had hoped it would be a little more, but it was hard to predict,” Neihof said.
The buildings were left dark, cold and unused that week. If basketball teams requested practice time, they were asked to dress warmly. A staff member checked periodically to make sure no pipes froze and that cafeteria freezers were still working.
School board Chairman Doug Butler said he didn’t field any complaints about the shut-down week and applauded efforts to save utility costs as sound fiscal management.
“I salute those individuals who were willing to make that sacrifice (in pay) for the austerity measure the superintendent suggested,” he said.
Far more money was saved in salary reductions than power costs. Eleven principals and 11 central office staff lost about $250 to $350 a day for the four furlough days that dovetailed with regular holiday leave days. The salary savings totaled about $40,000 for the district.
“That’s significant when trying to save jobs,” said Finance Director Greg Murphy. “Every bit helps.”
Neihof noted that $40,000 nearly equals the salary of a starting teacher.
He said only the highest-paid staff members were targeted “because I thought it was important for folks at the lower end of the salary scale to not bear the brunt.”
The central office classified staff were not penalized financially because the district moved three of their leave days originally scheduled for spring and fall breaks into the holiday break schedule instead, enabling the office to completely shut down.
The administrators affected were notified of the reduction in contract days prior to last year’s May deadline for such action.
Eddie Oakley, principal of Shelby County High School, said he ultimately appreciated the mandatory time off.
“If you allow us to be in the building, we work too much,” he said.
Oakley is a senior administrator, with only about three years left before retirement.
“You never want to go backward (in pay), but I thought it was good for me and the district,” he said.
He said he thinks his colleagues felt the same way.
“Nobody really grumbled loudly, maybe there was some grumbling in passing, but they understood it was good for the district,” he said.
Murphy said he’s heard of other school districts instituting shut-down weeks as well, like Marion County, which closes during the last week of June and the first week of July.
“It was a stone we felt like we needed to turn over before we turned others over that might be more painful,” he said.
Neihof said the school’s $44.5 million budget is tight because revenue hasn’t kept up with the cost of inflation or expenses. The district’s student population has grown steadily over the last decade, more than 25 percent, he said, with boom years 2006 and 2007 bringing in more than 600 new students. This year, the district will absorb an additional 160 students.
He said the district has instituted other cost-saving measures as well, like replacing buses and roofs less frequently.
Neihof said he’s not sure yet if the district will conduct the shut-down week again. He’s also said other districts considering a similar measure should weigh factors other than the financial ones.
“For us, the salary issue alone doesn’t make it worth it. You have to decide if the intrinsic value of increased family time makes it worthwhile, and for us, it does. I think it’s worthwhile even if we could give the money back,” he said.
— King is a writer from Louisville