Waco Independent School District has cut about half a million dollars in administrative costs since Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson started in June.

The effort is part of the superintendent’s strategy to make the district run more “lean and mean” to tackle an estimated $3 million deficit in this year’s budget and get ahead for planning next year’s budget cycle, Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Davis said.

The district will start its budgeting process for the next cycle in January, months ahead of the typical start, Nelson said. The early start allows the district to take a closer look at where cuts need to be made and show off the extra commitment to spending taxpayer money wisely, he said.

“I’ve boldly proclaimed we’ve made cuts. They’ve been several hundred thousand dollars in cuts,” Nelson said. “The bottom line is we’ve reduced positions. That’s how we got to several hundred thousand dollars. One of them was as assistant superintendent of curriculum. Not trying to make that a big deal, but that’s one. We’ve had some positions in special ed, which is a different funding source, but to me it doesn’t matter. I’m in a scalpel mode.”

As of Thursday, the equivalent of 8.5 full-time administrative and support services positions have been eliminated, spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

Waco ISD also earned nearly a perfect score under the state’s Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas, or FIRST, this month and has maintained the nearly perfect score for 13 out of the last 14 years Davis has been with the district, she said.

Though the recent central administration cuts could help increase the district’s rating even more, they’re meant to bring more stability to district finances, Nelson said. He is taking similar actions in Waco ISD that he took to cut personnel costs at his last district, Laredo ISD, by more than $2 million, he said.

Some of the other savings come from repurposing positions, dissolving positions, reducing redundant responsibilities, reviewing departmental structures, expanding some areas and reducing others, he said.

“In different years, with different superintendents, we’ve probably gone through a lot of the same processes,” Davis said. “But we got a little crazy for a couple years there, prior to Dr. Nelson coming. We were anxious in turning things around, so a lot of positions got added. We were doing a lot of projects out of the general fund because we were kind of out of bond money.”

The cuts won’t impact campuses, but each department head who wants to fill a position or add a position must now go through a thorough discussion with Nelson and the finance department, Nelson said.

“Dr. Nelson’s going to have some (other) initiatives. With schools maybe closing, there’s maybe some dollars that have to be spent there,” Davis said, referring to five campuses facing state intervention if they don’t pass academic accountability standards this year. “It’s just prudent for us to go through this right now and try to run lean and mean.”

The extra focus since June is also giving the district’s financial department a higher level of support and priority, Nelson said. Davis and her team have no issues calling Nelson or department heads to question spending habits and the financial impact of administrators’ decisions on any given day or in cabinet meetings, and Nelson’s supporting the proactive approach, he said.

“When it’s all said and done, I’m really talking about 24 to 36 months. The sky’s not falling. I don’t need to reduce positions to make the budget in August,” Nelson said. “But every time a person says they have a vacancy in their department, we have to have a discussion about whether or not we post and fill that job. That’s already tightening up.”

On paper, the district has about a $3 million deficit, but it could be a little more because of an unexpected decline in student population this year, Davis said. It had 15,079 students in 2016-2017, which is down to 14,878. Declines of this scale are not uncommon every few years, Davis said.

But the district also underspent its budget last year. Its fund balance came out $3 million better than projected, she said.

“By the time people underspend, by the time you have salary savings and you drag your feet a little on filling positions to save money there, we’re going to be fine,” Davis said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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