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Seven proven ways to save on school budgets

As with personal shopping, it might be best to hold off on purchases until either a sale comes along, or some extra cash is freed.
As with personal shopping, it might be best to hold off on purchases until either a sale comes along, or some extra cash is freed.

Despite some small signs of an economic recovery, states continue to struggle with their budgets—and districts are still finding it necessary to cut costs wherever possible. But such drastic measures as laying off staff and cutting valuable programs are not always needed, especially if you’re savvy enough to know of some often-overlooked ways to save.

In this article, you’ll find seven helpful suggestions from superintendents, technology directors, and teachers, explaining how their schools have managed to save money—because if there’s one thing this tough economy has shown, it’s that money matters.

1. Become more energy-efficient.

According to Kathleen M. Airhart, director of schools for Putnam County, Tenn., the last two fiscal years have been difficult for her school system. Month after month, state and local revenues have declined as a result of lower-than-anticipated sales tax growth.

“The school board and administration have been forced to make extremely difficult decisions in reducing expenditures and operations for our system, [cutting programs] that had been standard practice for many years. With an anticipated sales tax loss of near a million dollars for 2008-09, I … was constantly seeking solutions that would not directly impact teaching and the classroom,” Airhart explained.

She decided to look at how the school system could save money by reducing its energy consumption, but added: “The energy savings … would have to be found by reducing energy consumption with what equipment we currently had available, and not by spending thousands of dollars to change out operational systems. I have always considered myself to be somewhat of an environmentalist … but how could I convince my system of 19 schools, 1,100 employees, and 10,000 students to do the same?”

Airhart decided the best way to get buy-in among stakeholders was to conduct a contest among the county’s schools to see which school could save the most energy.

“I promised the group that the winning school would receive six new interactive whiteboards … as a prize. I suggested energy savings ideas such as turning off lights when leaving the room, unplugging computers and electric appliances when not in use, removing small heaters and refrigerators from classrooms, and using fluorescents versus incandescent [bulbs] in small [light] fixtures. I suggested getting teachers and students involved in making a school-wide change to energy efficiency,” said Airhart.

The finance department carefully tracked kilowatt usage at each school by comparing kilowatts expended during the same month in the previous year to those used in the current year. Each month, officials tracked the accumulated savings as a total percentage from one month to the next. This energy savings spreadsheet was shared at each monthly leadership team meeting and at each school board meeting.

In talking with the supervisor of plant operations, Airhart also discussed the variables that could be controlled as a system, such as programmable automated heating and cooling controls in some schools. They agreed to set thermostats four degrees cooler or hotter across the system and to turn down the heat or turn off the AC during nights and weekends. At older buildings, which were not automated, they requested that principals do the same. The maintenance department helped schools lower the lighting output in hallways and other high-traffic areas. They also decreased nighttime safety lighting in buildings to lower but safe levels.

By the contest’s end, the school system overall had saved more than 15 percent of its previous year’s energy usage, simply by developing better energy-use habits. “The net savings for the system last year topped $450,000 and well exceeded my hopes of saving a few thousand dollars,” said Airhart.

This year, with the availability of state Energy Efficient Schools Initiative funds, Airhart says her system will begin changing out lights in older buildings from T-12 to T-8 fixtures.

But it’s not just Airhart’s district that is making a difference.

Elizabeth Peterson, a special-education facilitator at Houston Hill Junior High in Alabama’s Montgomery Public Schools, said savings came when her district installed energy-efficient light bulbs and upgraded several heating systems.

“These were installed with a guarantee, so if [they didn’t save money], the company would have to repay us,” Peterson said. “Another way we are saving money is by unplugging unnecessary items like microwaves and small refrigerators. Teachers are going to share these spaces instead. It has been determined that if we turn off our computers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., the district will save $200,000 out of a $5.2 million annual electrical outlay.”

“Our county is also saving money [by] automatically shutting down all computers at 5:30 each night,” said Ruth Allen, instructional technology specialist at Lambert High School in Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools.

Allen said teachers who are still working at this time can abort the automatic shutdown, but otherwise, any computer that was left on will not use electricity all evening.

Ron Walker, superintendent of Geary County Unified School District 475 in Kansas, said his district also found a quick way to save about $28,000 per year by asking employees to turn off their computers at night. “It costs an average of 35 cents [per week] to run each computer at night,” he said. “We have about 2,000 computers in the district. This is about $700 per week, $2,800 per month, and over 10 months, we save $28,000.”

2. Go paperless.

“We found a way to save more than $6,000 a year and increase our productivity at the same time,” said Brenda Speer, superintendent of the Bynum Independent School District in Texas. “We decided to use our SchoolReach notification system to eliminate mailers. We stopped sending out individual student progress reports and report cards. Now, we send them home with the students and send a SchoolReach voice-mail message alerting the parents.”

By using a paperless notification system, Speer’s district saved an instant $700 a month on postage and found that communication with parents also increased. After realizing the system was a success, the district began using SchoolReach to send out paperless newsletters, announcements, and reminders.

“Our school reduced copying charges and the amount of paper we purchased by sending our flyers, bulletins, and newsletters out by eMail,” said Kelly Hamilton, librarian at Hunt Elementary School in Plano, Texas. Families without internet access or an eMail address can still receive these materials the traditional way.

For the Oregon City School District, switching from direct printing to a print server model has saved money and eliminated unnecessary printing costs, said Micah Baker, the district’s technology coordinator. The print server helps administrators analyze printer usage, report usage statistics to principals who then can work with staff to reduce waste, and crack down on student abuse by linking a user name with every printing job.

Baker said his district also has reduced printing costs by setting up a wiki “to support paperless data sharing and collaboration for our professional learning communities.”

“To save on printing costs and to avoid purchasing multiple licenses of Adobe Pro, we downloaded Cute PDF Writer and installed that on all of our computers,” said Alma Row, director of data and instructional technology for South Western School District in Pennsylvania. “The next vital step was to make sure our teachers understood the value of printing to PDF rather than to hard-copy print.”

In addition to digitizing announcements, Kent Intermediate School District in Michigan has moved all its course evaluations online and gives completion certificates electronically, said one of the district’s professional development coordinators.

3. Build partnerships and leverage grants.

Rather than spend school funds on items such as classroom books, rugs, furniture, and cameras, Horace Mann Elementary School in Binghamton, N.Y., uses grants from sources such as Teacher Center, DonorsChoose, Dollar General, and Lowe’s, among others, said teacher and librarian MaryAnn Karre.

“Grants might not be an overlooked source, but many [schools] don’t take [full] advantage of them,” said Karre.

For California’s San Diego Unified School District, landing a major grant from the state education department was critical to implementing its “AP Alliance Project,” which aims to increase the participation of low-income and underrepresented students in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, said Donald Mitchell, director of the AP Incentive Program.

This project, funded for a three-year period, includes six high schools and eight feeder middle schools. Community partnerships also play a huge role in the success of the program, Mitchell said, “by providing academic support, mentoring, internships, job shadowing, counseling, performance rewards, and incentives to both teachers and students. During the first year of our grant, our partners contributed over $700,000 in total value to support our grant efforts.”

For example, grant partners—including universities, colleges, community organizations, and businesses—have offered free college courses, laptop computers, classroom enrichment materials, field trips to local museums, and more. 

By taking advantage of grants and partnerships, Mitchell said, his district is able to offer a 21st-century education to students, high-quality professional development for staff members, and opportunities that otherwise would not be available as a result of budget constraints.

4. Virtualize computing.

Desktop and server virtualization has saved many districts thousands of dollars in hardware and software costs. For example, desktop virtualization allows schools to buy inexpensive “dummy” terminals or leverage older machines with less processing power, by presenting an interface for applications that actually are running on a central server—with only the screen shots and keystrokes moving between the desktop and the server.

Jim Gerlach, technology coordinator for Bishop McGuiness Catholic High School in Charlotte, N.C., says his school has saved a “fortune in the last four years using Xtenda virtualized workstations from NComputing.”

According to Gerlach, NComputing’s workstations cost about $75 per station (plus the cost of a monitor, keyboard, and mouse), use little power, and extend computing as needed for “a fraction of the cost of a full computer.”

“We have been able to have 275 workstations for the cost of 125 computers—each with its own discreet login, network storage, access to software, and internet access and filtering,” he said.

The Hudson Falls Central School District in New York took virtualization one step further, implementing a district-wide strategy of desktop virtualization that has changed the way the district handles instruction, said Greg Partch, director of education technology.

“We began the effort in 2000 by deploying 50 thin-client devices and now have in excess of 1,800 virtualized desktops,” he said. “The solution involves the use of HP Proliant C7000 blade servers running Windows 2003, along with Windows Terminal Server and Citrix MetaFrame 4.5 coupled together to make up our Presentation/Terminal Server environment. The conductor of this orchestra is an ‘Application Portal Delivery System’ from ClassLink Technologies, called ClassLink Launchpad.”

Launchpad, an OS-like system, packages and delivers a customized Windows XP desktop for almost any application that runs in a Windows environment. The desktop can be theme-based, presenting only the appropriate applications based on the user’s needs.

“Our themes are created by grade or building to provide only those instructional technology tools to support the curriculum. Theme-based desktops can be created on the fly in a matter of minutes to support a lesson or unit,” Partch said. “The thin-client desktop devices include some legacy PCs and Macs but for the most part are now HP t5540 thin-client devices that can be purchased for much less than a traditional desktop and require very little setup.”

He concluded: “The real savings in this solution is that all applications run and are maintained on the servers, thus eliminating the need to manage desktop clients.”

5. Create wish lists.

As with personal shopping, it might be best to hold off on purchases until either a sale comes along, or some extra cash is freed.

“When we consider purchasing audio-visual programs, including documentaries, lecture series, and feature films, we develop ‘wish lists’ and wait until many items go on sale,” such as from conference specials or other sales promotions, said John Deats, director of the Learning Resource Center at Midland College in Texas. He added: “Savings of 20 to 50 percent or more are not uncommon.”

“Schools don’t even have enough money for supplies and equipment,” said Robert Tolmach, CEO of WellGood Classrooms LLC. “Sales of cookie dough and wrapping paper are burdensome and grossly inefficient.”

According to Tolmach, a new nonprofit organization called ClassWish makes it easy for teachers and schools to attract the financial support they need. Teachers and school leaders create wish lists, just like shopping online. Parents, neighbors, alumni, local businesses, and others see exactly what is needed and how they can help. Contributions are tax-deductible, and ClassWish sends the resources to the schools at no cost.

6. Converge networks.

“Digital content delivery over our IP network has allowed us to reduce significantly the cost of wiring our school,” said Mel Pace, director of media, instruction, and technology services for Florida’s Osceola County Schools. “We no longer have to run coaxial cabling in our new schools, thus saving $75,000-plus per new school building.”

Pace’s district also is moving to IP-based surveillance systems to make further use of its IP network and eliminate redundant coaxial cabling in schools.

For the Wallowa and Enterprise school districts in Oregon, using voice-over-IP service has saved thousands of dollars, thanks to the advice of Josh Kesecker, the districts’ technology coordinator.

“By replacing old digital PBX [Private-Branch Exchange] lines at each campus with a central, district-wide VoIP system, we have been able to reduce costs for telecommunication services,” Kesecker said. “Reductions were projected at $5 per student, per year—[and] actual savings might end up being double that by the end of the first year.”

7. Ask for a discount.

Sometimes, saving money can be as easy as asking a question.

“Any school personnel ordering supplies and equipment should always call the company to get quotes for item costs and shipping,” said John Baker, technology education instructor at Deer Lakes Middle School in Pennsylvania. “Too many of us use the printed catalog fees, when many companies will provide a discount for schools if you ask. I know it takes a little extra time to make the calls, but the savings can add up.”

Baker also recommends combining orders, because during requisition time several different teachers might order from the same company, yet each order is processed individually with separate purchase orders.

“The district ends up spending extra money for shipping costs for every order. They also frequently lose out on volume discounts, whether [these are] based on total money spent or [the] quantity of specific items,” said Baker.

According to Deats of Midland College, when you’re considering audio-visual purchases, some vendors will allow a format upgrade (such as videocassette to DVD) on a title your school already owns for a reduced cost. Some vendors also give better discounts based on the size of your order.

Designating a specific card for purchases can help, too.

“We use a purchasing card [credit card] that awards us back a percentage of the amount spent—much like the Discover card does for an individual,” said John French, the principal, safety coordinator, and transportation director for Stockton High School in Missouri. “We use it to pay for everything we can, such as travel, book orders, utilities, et cetera. Besides that, we bargain hunt like crazy.”

Meris Stansbury is an associate editor for eSchool News.



Cute PDF Writer

AP Alliance Project


ClassLink Technologies


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