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Urban School Districts Can Adapt to Enrollment Declines and Improve Educational Quality by Taking New Approaches to Cost Management

A New BCG Report Identifies Eight Ways Urban Districts Can Find Fiscally Sustainable Budget Strategies That Have Minimal Impact on the Classroom

BOSTON, MA -- (Marketwire) -- 01/16/13 -- Many of the largest urban school districts in the U.S. have experienced substantial enrollment declines over the past decade and are struggling to reduce costs in proportion to the amount of lost revenue, according to a new report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The report, titled "Adapting to Enrollment Declines in Urban School Systems: Managing Costs While Improving Educational Quality," is being released today.

The report outlines five fundamental challenges that drive districts to employ budget-balancing measures that are unsustainable or that may adversely impact students. The challenges are unrecovered classroom costs, higher fixed school-level costs, sticky central-office costs, a more expensive student mix, and the lack of an advance-planning ethic.

"Across the nation, many urban school districts are facing a new reality," said J. Puckett, a senior partner and coauthor of the report. "They are confronting a declining student population and the resulting budget pressures, except these declines do not automatically trigger a reduction in fixed costs or central-office costs."

The report notes that half of the 100 largest school districts have seen enrollment decrease from 2005 through 2010, with some districts experiencing declines of nearly 33 percent. To balance their budgets, many districts are increasing class sizes without necessarily improving the effectiveness of teachers, laying off teachers, and cutting programs. Other districts are adopting unsustainable stopgap measures, such as drawing down reserves, increasing deferred maintenance, and cutting nonunion positions.

"Overcoming the challenges created by declining enrollment can be enormously difficult, but they can be addressed through a combination of collaborative leadership and new approaches to budget management," said Puckett, who leads BCG's global Education practice.

The report identifies eight actions districts can take to find a fiscally sustainable and educationally sound path:

  • Understand and manage classroom costs; know how classroom resources are allocated by school, grade, and course.
  • Plan in advance and take action early; create and act on a multiyear plan for the district's finances.
  • Retain the best talent; ensure the best teachers remain in the classroom.
  • Close severely underutilized schools, no matter how difficult it may be, to help schools and students gain access to more resources.
  • Enable creative staffing and teaching with technology; employ computer-based scheduling tools and provide online and blended learning opportunities.
  • Shrink fixed costs and convert to variable costs; focus on factors directly related to student achievement.
  • Build a shared-service capability by collaborating with charter and other school operators.
  • Manage charter schools as an investment and share costs fairly.

The responsibility for managing the challenges arising from declining student enrollment is not limited to school administrators. Policymakers can and should play a role. "State legislatures and education departments, employee unions, and local funding bodies also have important roles. These entities often are responsible for, or exert a strong influence over, funding amounts and formulas, class-size regulations and staffing rules, charter school authorization, and pension liabilities," the report states.

The challenges of managing in the current environment are many and sizable. Instead of turning to unsustainable measures or those that adversely impact students, districts can plan for change and look for ways to both manage costs and preserve a higher-quality learning experience for students.

This report is the latest in a series of reports and interviews that BCG has published on education. Earlier this year, BCG released "Achieving More For Less in U.S. Education with a Value-Based Approach"; "Reimagining K-12 Education in the U.S.," a series of interviews with education reformers; "Margaret Spellings on the Challenges and Imperatives of Education," a video interview with a former U.S. Secretary of Education; and "Wendy Kopp on Improving Education Around the World," a video interview with CEO and cofounder of Teach For All.

A copy of the report can be downloaded at

To arrange an interview with one of the authors, please contact Eric Gregoire at +1 617 850 3783 or [email protected].

About The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is a global management consulting firm and the world's leading advisor on business strategy. We partner with clients from the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges, and transform their enterprises. Our customized approach combines deep insight into the dynamics of companies and markets with close collaboration at all levels of the client organization. This ensures that our clients achieve sustainable competitive advantage, build more capable organizations, and secure lasting results. Founded in 1963, BCG is a private company with 78 offices in 43 countries. For more information, please visit

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