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Executive Summary

Executive Summary Overview
Summary of Costs and Savings by Recommendation (Exhibit 4)

In March 2003, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn began a review of the Venus Independent School District (VISD) at the request of the VISD board, which agreed to pay for 25 percent of the review cost. Based upon more than six months of work, this report identifies VISD’s exemplary programs and suggests concrete ways to improve district operations. If fully implemented, the Comptroller’s 56 recommendations could result in net savings of more than $1.3 million over the next five years.

Improving the Texas School Performance Review (TSPR)

Soon after taking office in January 1999, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn consulted school district officials, parents and teachers from across Texas and carefully examined past reviews and progress reports to make TSPR more valuable to the state’s school districts. With the perspective of a former teacher and school board president, the Comptroller has vowed to use TSPR to increase local school districts’ accountability to the communities they serve.

Recognizing that only 51 cents of every education dollar is spent on instruction, Comptroller Strayhorn’s goal is to drive more of every education dollar directly into the classroom. Comptroller Strayhorn also has ordered TSPR staff to share best practices and exemplary programs quickly and systematically with all the state’s school districts and with anyone else who requests such information. Comptroller Strayhorn has directed TSPR to serve as a clearinghouse of the best ideas in Texas public education.

Under Comptroller Strayhorn’s approach, consultants and the TSPR team will work with districts to:

  • ensure students and teachers receive the support and resources necessary to succeed;
  • identify innovative ways to address the district’s core management challenges;
  • ensure administrative duties are performed efficiently, without duplication, and in a way that fosters education;
  • develop strategies to ensure the district’s processes and programs are continuously assessed and improved;
  • challenge any process, procedure, program or policy that impedes instruction and recommend ways to reduce or eliminate obstacles; and
  • put goods and services to the “Yellow Pages Test”: government should do no job if a business in the Yellow Pages can do that job better and at a lower cost.

Finally, Comptroller Strayhorn has opened her door to Texans who share her optimism about the potential for public education. Suggestions to improve Texas schools or the school reviews are welcome at any time. The Comptroller believes public schools deserve all the attention and assistance they can get.

For more information, contact TSPR by calling toll-free 1-800-531-5441, extension 5-3676, or see the Comptroller’s Web site at www.window.state.tx.us.

TSPR in VISD

The review began on March 3, 2003, with interviews and a public forum conducted at Venus High School from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The Comptroller’s office selected Texas Public School Consulting Inc., a San Antonio-based consulting firm, to assist with the review. The district paid $20,000 of the $80,000 cost, with the Comptroller’s office paying the remainder.

During the process, the review team interviewed district employees, school board members, parents, business leaders and community members. To obtain additional comments, the review team conducted focus group sessions with teachers, principals, parents and community members. To ensure that all stakeholder groups had input, TSPR sent surveys to students, parents, teachers, school and central administrators and support staff. TSPR received 131 survey responses from 15 administrative and support staff; four principals and assistant principals; 23 teachers; 15 parents; and 74 students. Details from the surveys and the public forum appear in Appendices A through F.

The review team also consulted two Texas Education Agency (TEA) databases of comparative educational information, the Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) and the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS).

VISD selected peer districts for comparisons based on similarities in student enrollment, student performance and community and student demographics. The selected peer districts were Dublin, Godley, Grandview and Rio Vista ISDs. TSPR also compared VISD to district averages in TEA’s Regional Education Service Center XI (Region 11), to which VISD belongs, and to the state as a whole.

During its six-month review, TSPR developed 56 recommendations for improving operations and saving taxpayers more than $3.4 million by 2007-08. Cumulative net savings from all recommendations (savings minus recommended investments or expenditures) could reach more than $1.3 million by 2007-08. TSPR recommends that VISD reinvest the bulk of the gross savings back into district operations to fund solutions to management challenges, curriculum, business operations and to raise teachers’ pay to help reduce turnover to the state average.

A detailed list of costs and savings by recommendation appears in Exhibit 4. Many TSPR recommendations would not have a direct impact, but could improve the district’s overall operations.

Acknowledgments

The Comptroller’s office and Texas Public School Consulting, Inc., wish to express sincere appreciation to the VISD Board of Trustees, Superintendent Dr. Jeri Pfeifer, district employees, students, parents and community residents for their assistance and input during the review. Special thanks go to Dr. Pfeifer, who arranged for office space, equipment and meeting rooms, organized meetings, responded to data requests and accommodated the review team’s needs.

Venus ISD

Located 25 miles south of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Venus lies between Alvarado and Midlothian in Johnson County at the intersection of U.S. 67 and FM 157. Once a rural farming community, Venus has become a small suburban community that continues to grow into a small suburb as the Metroplex moves farther south. Although past developments have been primarily mobile homes, future developments will include single-family residences. Student enrollment has doubled since 1996-97, and the district expects to grow another 19.3 percent in the next five years. Since a major obstacle to new developments has been the limited capacity for area water treatment, development should expand significantly once the Trinity River Authority opens the Mountain Creek Regional water reclamation plant in March 2004.

Exhibit 1 details the demographic characteristics of VISD, selected peer districts and the state.

Exhibit 1
Demographic Characteristics
VISD, Peer Districts and the State
2002-03
  Ethnic Group (Percent)  
District Student
Enrollment
Number
African AmericanHispanic Anglo Other Economically
Disadvantaged
Percent
Dublin 1,318 0.5% 45.05 54.1% 0.4% 61.8%
Godley 1,377 1.1% 12.6% 85.6% 0.7% 33.5%
Grandview 1,122 3.8% 11.7% 84.2% 0.3% 34.2%
Rio Vista 896 0.1% 6.6% 93.0% 0.3% 31.6%
Venus 1,871 2.6% 32.9% 61.1% 3.4% 62.3%
State 4,259,864 14.3% 42.7% 39.8% 3.2% 51.8%
Source: TEA, PEIMS, 2002-03.

In 2002-03, VISD serves 1,871 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 at four schools. Student enrollment consists of 2.6 percent African American, 32.9 percent Hispanic, 61.1 percent Anglo, 0.6 percent Native American and 2.7 percent other. More than 62 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

From 1997-98 until 2002-03, VISD increased enrollment by 44 percent (Exhibit 2). District officials expect enrollment to continue to increase by 100 students each year through 2007.

Exhibit 2
VISD Student Enrollment History
School Year Actual Student Enrollment Percent Change from Prior Year
1997-98 1,298 N/A
1998-99 1,391 7.2%
1999-2000 1,632 17.3%
2000-01 1,807 10.7%
2001-02 1,851 2.4%
2002-03 1,871 1.1%
Source: TEA, AEIS, 1997-98 through 2001-02 and PEIMS, 2002-03.

Over the past five years, VISD has improved its TAAS performance by more than eight percentage points. In all tests taken VISD students had an 80.2 percent pass rate in 2001-02. Although this score is an improvement over past performances, the district still falls below the state average at 85.3 percent and regional average at 87.7 percent. In 2001-02, TEA rated VISD Academically Acceptable. TEA also rated all the schools Academically Acceptable, except the high school, which it gave a Recognized rating. The district has 252 employees, 50.9 percent of which are teachers. Teacher salaries rank below all peer districts and the state. While VISD class sizes are generally smaller than state average, the teacher attrition rate, at 32.1 percent, is more than twice the state average of 15.7 percent.

The coordinator of Curriculum and Special Programs provided information on grade 3 students who took reading TAKS assessment in 2003. The results of this test show that 86 students out of 99 passed the TAKS reading assessment, which constitutes 87 percent of the class.

After lowering its maintenance and operations tax rate in 2001 to $1.20, which caused VISD to lose nearly $1.4 million in state aid and local tax revenue in 2001-02, the district increased its tax rate to $1.35 in 2002-03. The district’s total tax rate was $1.50 per $100 of valuation.

The district’s 2002-03 budgeted total expenditures amounted to $11.6 million. In 2001-02, the district’s fund balance equaled $2.7 million, or 24.3 percent of budgeted expenditures, above the standard 10 percent. The district spends 52.7 cents of every dollar on instruction compared to the state average of 51 cents. VISD plans to spend $5,748 per student in operating expenditures during 2002-03.

Although TSPR found many exemplary programs and practices implemented by hardworking district employees, it also noted that VISD confronts a number of challenges including:

  • regaining control of district finances and internal controls;
  • managing student enrollment growth and improving student performance;
  • improving organization and planning; and
  • documenting policies and procedures.

Key Findings and Recommendations

Regain Control of District Finances and Internal Controls

Provide board members training to help them fulfill their oversight responsibility for the district’s financial resources. When the VISD board lowered the maintenance and operations (M&O) tax rate from $1.47 per $100 taxable value to $1.20 per $100 taxable value for the 2001 tax year, the district lost $1.15 million in state aid and $151,173 local tax revenue as a result of the lower M&O tax rate. Board members said they did not understand how the decision would impact the district’s revenue and relied entirely upon the former superintendent’s recommendation. Even though all board members have exceeded the required board training hours, none reported receiving adequate training on the basics of school funding mechanisms. Additional training on the basics of school funding mechanisms can give the board a better understanding of the financial operations of the district and enhance their decision-making processes.

Eliminate secondary block scheduling and increase the VISD teacher pay scale to improve regional competitiveness and enhance the district’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified, experienced teachers. VISD’s block scheduling may have little impact on teaching effectiveness; however, it dramatically increases staffing costs because it requires more teachers. A 1999 Texas Education Agency research study, Block Scheduling in Texas Public High Schools, found that factors other than types of schedule have a greater impact on overall student performance. As VISD enrollment continues to increase, staffing costs will also increase. VISD’s teacher pay scale ranks significantly below state and regional averages. As a result, the district has experienced a teacher turnover rate of 32.1 percent, which is 16.4 percentage points higher than the state average. The district also has a higher percentage of beginning teachers than its peers and the state resulting in less experience in the classroom. By converting from the block schedule to a modified or traditional seven-period daily schedule with teachers teaching six periods, VISD could hire 12 fewer teachers saving more than $1.8 million over the next five years and pay teachers a competitive wage, which would help it attract and retain qualified, experienced teachers who can improve the district’s performance.

Generate and review budget variance reports and review the coding on the transactions flowing through the accounting system. The district exceeded its overall expenditure budget in the general operating fund by $139,279 during 2001-02. The district’s expenditures not only exceeded the budget at the functional level, but exceeded the total budget as well. According to the district’s audit management letter, part of the budget overage was attributed to expenditures being coded incorrectly.

Develop a tax collection policy that sets a 96 percent targeted collection rate. VISD lacks an aggressive tax collection board policy and, as a result, the district is not collecting enough of its property taxes from area taxpayers. From 2000-01 to 2001-02, the district’s delinquent roll increased $143,158. As of March 2003, the district had 823 delinquent tax accounts dating back to 1982. The district’s total tax collection rate for 2001-02 was 92.7 percent. TEA’s Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST) states that a total collection rate of greater than 96 percent is favorable. By increasing tax collection to 96 percent, the district would realize more than $270,000 in additional revenues over a five-year period.

Develop a procedures manual on handling cash that requires proper internal controls. VISD lacks a cash management procedures manual, resulting in poor cash handling practices and an increased risk of theft and the associated liability. A strong system of internal control formally documented in procedures can help the school district ensure that staff handle and use resources properly and according to management and the school board’s directives.

Manage Student Enrollment Growth and Improve Student Performance

Develop and update curriculum guides for all courses and ensure vertical alignment across all grade levels. VISD lacks curriculum guides and a curriculum alignment process to help build instructional knowledge from one grade level to the next. Each school independently establishes its curriculum and curricular materials, which makes transition from school to school and grade to grade more difficult. Developing and vertically aligning curriculum guides at a five-year cost of nearly $39,000 for all courses will help the district focus its efforts on improving student performance.

Develop an instructional plan that specifically addresses retention levels in middle school students. VISD experiences high retention rates in grades 6 through 8. The district retained 7.7 percent of grade 6 students compared to the state average of 1.5 percent, 5 percent of grade 7 students compared to 2.5 percent for the state and 5.7 percent of grade 8 students compared to 1.9 percent for the state. Studies show that children who fall behind by one or more grades are at a higher risk of dropping out of school. By developing an instructional plan that includes an accountability component to periodically assess strategies used for remediating students in these grade levels, the district will not only be able to bring down the remediating students rates in this area but, more importantly, focus on student success.

Improve Organization and Planning

Reorganize the facilities department to reduce the director’s span of control. The director of Operations, Maintenance and Transportation has more direct reports than he can adequately manage and supervise industry standards. In addition to managing the district’s facilities, the director oversees transportation without any supervisory or lead person’s assistance. Besides handling risk management, the director also serves as textbook coordinator, attendance officer, supervises PEIMS coordinator, AEP coordinator and JJAEP liaison. The director’s numerous responsibilities prevent him from addressing some of the Maintenance Department’s needs. Shifting some duties to other personnel will give the director necessary time to oversee operational processes ensuring that staff perform quality work and develop an effective maintenance operation.

Implement industry meals-per-labor-hour standards and adjust staffing levels to achieve recommended standards. The district’s meals-per-labor-hour (MPLH) ratio is below industry standards, which means that VISD has more staff or hours than needed to prepare the number of meals served. The district can increase MPLH to meet industry standards by reducing the number of hours worked, increasing staff productivity or increasing the number of meals served. Eliminating 55 hours per day could save the Food Service Department more than $526,000 over five years.

Annually evaluate and set prices for full priced meals to equal the cost of those meals. VISD’s low student meal prices, which rank below peer district averages, contributed to the VISD food service deficit of $271,166 from 1999-2000 through 2001-02. The district forecasts a net loss of more than $56,000 for 2002-03. While state rules prevent food service operations from earning a profit, districts should set meal prices to recover costs. VISD charges $0.29 less than the peer district average for the full price student lunch and $0.23 less than the peer district average for full price student breakfast. Setting meal prices at a cost recovery level could help the district realize additional revenue of nearly $133,000 over a five year period.

Document Policies and Procedures

Develop written procedures for central administration functions in business, personnel and other administrative functions. No written procedures exist for the operations of business, personnel, fixed asset control or other functions performed by central administration. The lack of written procedures for the functions performed by central administration allows for inconsistent practices and subjective interpretation in administering those functions. A manual would describe the step-by-step instructions for each administrative function and prevent violation of legal and local policies.

Develop and implement a comprehensive purchasing procedures manual for users.VISD does not have a purchasing procedures manual that establishes purchasing controls or provides guidance to campuses and employees in other departments when making purchases. Each employee orders and buys merchandise without knowledge of state purchasing laws and district policy. A comprehensive, up-to-date purchasing procedures manual for users would serve as a guide for district staff to ensure legal compliance and financially competitive purchases.

Develop a contract management policy and procedure that requires legal review and input prior to final board approval. VISD does not have a formal contracting process or policy to ensure that a legal contract expert thoroughly reviews all contracts. No centralized depository or file exists for district contracts, making it difficult to monitor or determine current district contracts or monitor them. For example, contracts that received no legal review or was missing information included the $298,000 a year custodial services contract, the Multi-Regional Child Nutrition Co-op Interlocal Agreement, the Resolution of the Board of Trustees approving the Interlocal Agreement between Region 4 and the Texas Cooperative Purchasing Network and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officer Memorandum of Understanding. Without strong contract monitoring efforts, the district may not be receiving the expected high-quality goods and services for which it contracted. Developing a contract management policy and supporting guidelines will reduce the district’s exposure to liability, help monitor contract performance, track contract expiration dates and ensure contract completion and enforcement.

Develop new job descriptions for each position in the district and update them regularly to reflect job changes. Not all VISD job descriptions accurately reflect the position responsibilities, and some positions lack job descriptions. Some of the current job descriptions are too general. For example, the accounts payable/receivable/purchasing clerk’s job description incorporates generic job descriptions for an accounts payable clerk and purchasing manager but the individual does not have purchasing responsibilities. No job descriptions exist for food service personnel, bus drivers, mechanics or maintenance personnel. Well-written job descriptions will enable VISD to determine salary and position title/classification as well as the position’s designation under the Fair Labor Standards Act and delegate responsibilities within the district’s organization.

Exemplary Programs and Practices

TSPR identified numerous “best practices” in VISD. Through commendations in each chapter, the report highlights model programs, operations and services provided by district administrators, teachers and staff. The Comptroller encourages other school districts throughout Texas to examine these exemplary programs and services to see if they could be adapted to meet local needs. TSPR’s commendations include:

  • Through a partnership between VISD and the city of Venus, district libraries have large, balanced collections and provide a wide variety of services to district students and the Venus community. Because it also services as community library, the high school library provides a multitude of services. These services include a summer reading program, Internet access and word processing computers, movie rentals, copy and fax machines, Spanish materials and home access for a virtual library through TexShare, an online database. The library is open to VISD students and the community during and after school hours and on Saturday mornings. Because of this partnership, the library has received $134,000 in a variety of grants to provide VISD students and the community with many services.

  • VISD has implemented a recruitment plan to address teacher job vacancies in the district. In spring 2002, VISD initiated a recruitment plan to take a more proactive approach regarding district teacher vacancies. The district’s annual teacher turnover rate is 32.1 percent. The district’s recruitment strategy includes attending job fairs, analyzing applicant source information, quality of applicants, number of hires per job fair and other relevant data. After analyzing relevant information, VISD staff adjusts the district’s recruitment efforts. Prior to adopting this recruitment approach, VISD consistently had trouble filling vacant teaching positions because of its low salaries and rural location. An effective recruitment strategy helps VISD meet its staffing objectives.

  • VISD has taken steps to establish an employee safety program to reduce employee accidents. VISD implemented a district safety program to reduce workers’ compensation costs and address a previous hazardous employer classification. In 1994, the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission identified the district as a “hazardous employer.” The district initiated a safety program to reduce the number of district accidents. The director of Operations, Maintenance and Transportation said the commission removed the “hazardous employer” classification in April 1995. The district’s ongoing safety program includes monthly building inspections conducted and documented by the school principals and the director of Operations, Maintenance and Transportation. In addition, the program requires each school administrator to conduct seven-minute monthly safety meetings with employees at each district location.

  • VISD has established a committee to review and update its Emergency Procedures Manual and Critical Incident Plan annually. After the district experienced a critical incident, it recognized the need to develop a community-wide advisory committee that included members from the law enforcement department, fire department, community and district. The committee provides input and exchanges ideas on how to improve the district emergency procedures.

Savings and Investment Requirements

Many of TSPR’s recommendations would result in savings and increased revenue that the district could use to improve classroom instruction. The savings opportunities identified in this report are conservative and should be considered minimums. Proposed investments of additional funds usually are related to increased efficiencies or savings, or improved productivity and effectiveness.

TSPR recommended 56 ways to save VISD more than $3.4 million in gross savings over a five-year period. Reinvestment opportunities will cost the district more than $2 million during the same period. Full implementation of all recommendations in this report could produce net savings of more than $1.3 million by 2007-08.

Exhibit 3
Summary of Net Savings
TSPR Review of Venus Independent School District
Year Total
2003-04 Initial Annual Net Savings $134,617
2004-05 Additional Annual Net Savings $266,883
2005-06 Additional Annual Net Savings $286,588
2006-07 Additional Annual Net Savings $289,688
2007-08 Additional Annual Net Savings $289,288
One Time Net (Costs) Savings $121,791
TOTAL SAVINGS PROJECTED FOR 2003-08 $1,388,885

A detailed list of costs and savings by recommendation appears in Exhibit 4. The page number for each recommendation is listed in the summary chart for reference purposes. Detailed implementation strategies, timelines and the estimates of fiscal impact follow each recommendation in this report. The implementation section associated with each recommendation highlights the actions necessary to achieve the proposed results. Some items should be implemented immediately, some over the next year or two and some over several years.

TSPR recommends the VISD board ask district administrators to review the recommendations, develop an implementation plan and monitor its progress. As always, TSPR staff is available to help implement proposals.