Report suggests Milwaukee school districts should share services

A Public Policy Forum study released in late March suggested that Milwaukee County suburban school districts should look into sharing services to save money.

The report, titled “Spending Outside of the Classroom,” collected data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction showing how each district spends money on support services in comparison to other districts both inside and outside the county.

“We looked at expenditures that were non-instructional,” said Anneliese Dickman, research director at Public Policy Forum. “That includes more administrative (services), food service and buses.”

The report found that Milwaukee County suburban school districts tend to spend more on support services per pupil than other districts across the state, with 14 of the 17 Milwaukee County suburban districts at or above median values in support service expenditures.

Dickman said there are already plenty of districts in other counties that share services with one another.

“There are quite a few that contract together for food or transportation,” Dickman said. “They have people who work part-time in one and part-time in another.”

College of Education Dean William Henk said sharing services is a great idea.

“School districts working together to control costs and expand services makes an enormous amount of sense to me,” Henk said in an email. “Shared services is not only a good idea from the standpoint of efficiency, cost savings and program breadth, but it may soon become a necessity.”

Henk also said minimizing costs is critical, considering recent statewide cuts to public education.

“Most people labor under the assumption that suburban school districts do not face fiscal challenges like urban districts do, but that’s only partly right,” Henk said. “There is no question that the Milwaukee Public School District has endured a momentous financial hit, but many suburban school districts have clearly felt the impact of an $800 million (state) budget cut to public education.”

The report identified cooperative health insurance purchasing, back-office operations and regional networking as three areas for potential sharing that could save cost.

Sharing services already regularly occurs within local governments, according to College of Education associate professor Ellen Eckman, who is also a village trustee in Shorewood.

“We invest in shared services (in Shorewood) quite a bit,” Eckman said.

Even though she believes it is beneficial, Eckman said the process of sharing services should start small.

“Schools and their communities have a huge identification with each other,” Eckman said. “You don’t want to begin proposing a (shared) high school. You could have districts start with sharing the purchasing of paper and supplies. You start sharing at the lower level until they are more comfortable.”

Eckman said Marquette has a graduate exchange program with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in addition to regular communication between the two schools.

“At the graduate level, if UWM is offering a course that we don’t offer, you can take it there,” Eckman said. “We also have a lot of cooperation among the schools.”

The Public Policy Forum is hoping its report creates a discussion among the school districts.

“We were really hoping to just put the numbers out there to see how they compare to one another and just spark the conversation,” Dickman said.

The report also found that Nicolet, one of the wealthiest Milwaukee-area districts in terms of property value, has some of the highest expenditures per pupil, while the largest districts, Oak Creek-Franklin, West Allis and Wauwatosa, have some of the lowest.

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