The DeSoto County School Board got a mixed report card of sorts, earning praise from a North Carolina-based school efficiency consulting firm, SEC of Charlotte, Raleigh and Lexington, N.C., for its efforts to trim administrative costs and eliminate positions in some areas while drawing constructive criticism in other areas.
The DeSoto County Schools Operational Efficiency study gave specific recommendations for staffing and personnel positions in a confidential report but most of the discussion was open and candid as they discussed needed changes in open session at Thursday's school board meeting.
The consultant group was tapped in 2014 by former DeSoto County School Superintendent Milton Kuykendall to perform an in-depth study of the school system and come up with ways to make Mississippi's largest school district more efficient.
Among its findings is that the DeSoto County School District is one of the state's top performing districts, an achievement made all the more remarkable due to the fact it ranks 90th in taxpayer expenditures per student.
In essence, the group found that DeSoto County taxpayers get the most bang for their buck, or in this case, taxpayer dollar.
"To be this high ranking and be ranked 90th in per-student property tax, it lets the taxpayer know they are receiving high value for dollars being spent," said Hank Hurd, MBA, CPA, a founding partner of SEC, or School Efficiency Consultants.
Hurd noted that DeSoto County Supt. Cory Uselton, now in his first full school year as school superintendent, and the current board have cut $1.1 million from the school budget, mostly in administrative costs. Uselton took office in January of 2016.
"With I-269, there will continue to be growth here," Hurd said. "You are exponentially drawing new students into the district," Hurd said.
However, his associate, Frank R. "Ricky" Lopes, found needed consolidation in services, especially in the technology department and decried the fact that during the two months the team was evaluating DCS services, the team "saw where the Central Office was overstaffed compared to other districts."
The SEC team also "noticed there were a lot of clerical staff" despite the onset of technology which would render many of these positions obsolete.
The team recommended consolidating technology/instructional technology and MIS, or Management of Information Systems, and that a director of technology oversee all areas.
Also, it was pointed out that the school district was overly generous to school bus drivers and cafeteria workers in allowing 40 days to be taken under federal Family Leave Medical Act provisions which is "far and above what federal regulations call for."
The study recommended moving some full-time positions to part-time and Uselton interjected that there were no immediate plans calling for that at this time.
"Every dollar you save that can come back into the classroom is a dollar you can use to make a child successful," Lopes said.
Other criticisms is that the Central Office seems to overly rely on benchmark assessments as far as measures of academic proficiency.
For students in danger of failing, smaller groups of one to three with intense remedial help may be needed, according to Lopes.
In a curious recommendation, while the group recommended cutting down in Central Office staff, findings were that a Chief Operating Officer be created to assist Uselton so that he can concentrate on his larger superintendent duties on a day-to-day basis.
Another curious comment was that the term "Central Office" had a negative connotation and the term should be recast as "Central Services."
Another finding was that the district contracted out too many services, such as plumbing and electrical work, and needed to have more in-house people that could perform that work instead of "generalists" who act in that capacity.
Uselton, in a statement, said he and the board welcomed the findings.
"The school board members and I have been working to streamline our district operations over the last 13 months so that we can offer the best product possible," Uselton said. "We want to make sure that we allocate our money wisely. We want to minimize district-level spending so that we can maximize our allocations to the schools. The school board has been very supportive throughout this process. We have saved the district over $1.1 million this year through the elimination of positions at the district office, but we know that we have to continue to find more ways to save money and to become more efficient in how we operate."
Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.