Sam Kirk is the Director of Finance and Operations at Armstrong School District in western Pennsylvania. As industry has dwindled, student enrollment in the district has taken a hit as well.
In this episode of Field Trip, Sam shares his experience grappling with the financial realities these things bring to the district, and how they’ve started a new cyber school to compete for students that may otherwise have left. Plus, he explains how he’s creating transparency around district finances to keep the community informed and in agreement — even when it means consolidating schools.
Listen now to hear:
How Sam uses data to educate community members, gain buy-in, and have productive conversations about emotional issues like school closures
Why starting a cyber school was key for supporting the district’s bottom line
How the Finance Department approaches staffing decisions when enrollment drops
SAM KIRK: We’ve seen with the industry declining, the jobs not here, whether or not people are having as many children as they did at one time, but our enrollment continues to decline and we have looked at that enrollment closely and have strategically tried to make the right decisions.
We’re not really competing with the brick and mortar charters, but we are competing with the cyber schools.
There are so many different factors that go into a school budget that really the common person doesn’t know. I believe by educating them and telling them the story as to what’s going on in the district, you get them on your side. We might agree to disagree then, but at least they know the facts.
RYAN ESTES: Today, we’re looking at enrollment — specifically, enrollment that’s declining in a district in rural Pennsylvania, and how one Director of Finance is using data to make difficult decisions, and create the kind of transparency that gets the community on board.
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
RYAN ESTES: Welcome to the Field Trip Podcast. My guest today is Sam Kirk, who is the Director of Finance and Operations at Armstrong School District outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sam, thanks for coming on today.
SAM: No problem Ryan. Thanks for having me.
RYAN: Most people who listen to this podcast have some understanding of how enrollment impacts a district’s finances, but I would love it if you could walk us through the trends that you’ve seen in Armstrong over the last few years about your enrollment. What has that looked like for you?
SAM: Sure. I’ve been with the district about eight or nine years now, and as a typical western Pennsylvania school, our enrollment continues to decline. We’ve seen, with the industry declining, the job’s not here, whether or not people are having as many children as they did one time, but our enrollment continues to decline and we have looked at that enrollment closely and have strategically tried to make the right decisions.
It’s like supply and demand, just like in any type of organization or industry. When the supply’s not there, you have to make some difficult decisions. So we’ve done some things with consolidating schools, closing schools, building new ones to put those children into one setting instead of three buildings. And then that means we had to have less staff to run that. So basically it was a nice budget win for us when we did that.
RYAN: How have you been monitoring enrollment and the financial impact that it would have?
SAM: We track enrollment monthly. We have an enrollment department, a child accounting department, that tracks that. But now with the Frontline software—
RYAN: Here, Sam is talking about Frontline’s Business Analytics software, which the district uses to look at financial trends and make financial forecasts.
SAM: —we’ve been able to plug that in and do some trends and do some nice graphs which I share with my board and communicate with our stakeholders using some colorful, nice graphs and showing the trend. And unfortunately it’s not a great trend, it continues to decrease, but at least they see it monthly as well as during our annual budget presentation. They see how that enrollment’s having an effect on our bottom line.
RYAN: I know that you’ve been working to create a culture in which data is used as a mechanism for transparency, both with the board and with the community. Could you give an example of what that looks like?
SAM: I’ve been doing this a long time and numbers don’t lie. I think the best thing you could be in, when you’re in a position like mine or any administrative position in school district, is to be transparent. Everybody sees, you know, we’re $110 million organization. How in the heck can the school district spend $110 million in Armstrong County? We have 4,700 kids, we have eight buildings. We have 480 square miles. So, there’s so many different factors that go into a school budget that really the common person doesn’t know, and people will like to complain about that.
My thing is, I like to educate them. I have no problem. I will sit down with anybody, whether it’s the media, whether it’s a principal, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s a retired grandparent or somebody who maybe never had kids, but they don’t understand why they have to pay school taxes. I have no problem sitting down with them, because I believe by educating them and telling them the story as to what’s going on in the district, you get them on your side. We might agree to disagree then, but at least they know the facts. And once they know the facts, I think for the most part, they understand why we’ve got to do what we do.
What I found out with the software that we use now, it’s more visual and a lot of people, instead of just seeing numbers all the time, they like to see visually. They like to see graphs, they like to see pie charts. And it has become more understandable to them than just reading numbers. They see the picture, the story behind with the pictures, the future. They see it all that way. Because I could see the trends, I could plan that for them and present that to them. So I think the community’s embraced it. The media’s embraced it and it just tells a clear picture and there’s less questions at the end of the day.
RYAN: Going back to enrollment, as you saw a trend of declining enrollment, you saw the necessity of actually competing for kids. What did that look like as you thought about that? What were some of the steps that you’ve taken as a district to compete for kids and address that declining enrollment?
SAM: When Covid hit, you know, there was a little bit of scared people and a lot of people started to go to outside cyber schools. We have no brick and mortar charter schools in Armstrong County, so we’re not really competing with the brick and mortar charters, but we are competing with the cyber schools. Cyber school is a huge cost to our school district. Pre-Covid, we were at about $1.8 million. At the height of Covid, it was about $3.7 million. So what we decided to do is to create our own online school. We went out, we hired a principal. He was actually a graduate of the Armstrong School District, but he was working as a principal in the cyber school. We stole him away, brought him back, helped him create our cyber school. We actually paid him an incentive of $3,500 for every student he brought back that enrolled there after Covid started and brought them back. We gave him a bonus to bring those kids back because we’re paying the cyber school about $14,000 and we paid him $3,500 to bring them back. So it was a net to us to get those kids back because we’re educating in-house for around $4,000-4,500 in our own cyber school. So it was important for us to get those kids back. We are back down to almost pre-Covid levels now of students enrolled in cyber. That was the initiative that we took create around cyber, bring a principle that knows that side of the business better than we know, and it convinces those kids to come back and get an Armstrong School district degree when they graduate.
RYAN: I want to go back to the data for a second. So you’re looking at trends, you’re trying to monitor where we’ve been, are are we seeing it level off or anything like that. How does it work for you as someone who works in school district finance? What are the kinds of questions that you are asking when you’re looking at that data? And what are the kinds of decisions you’re able to make related to your district finances because you have access to that data?
SAM: I am not an educator. I provide funding for the educators. So I try to work complementary with our administrators that have the education background and I have the finance background. So as enrollment continues to go down, class sizes continue to decrease, I always question whether or not we still need the same amount of staff to educate those students.
Alright? So every year we do staffing during budget time, based on the enrollment in those buildings and what we think they’re going to be, as to whether or not we need to have the same amount of staffing or not. None of us want to furlough teachers or lay them off. Typically through attrition, people retiring, we look to see whether or not we have to replace them. Anytime we don’t replace a teacher, between the salary, benefits and everything else we had to pay for those folks, it’s probably about $150,000 savings. So we evaluate that annually during our budget process. We look at enrollment, look at staffing, look at class sizes, and collectively decide whether or not we need to hire people back when they retire, whether we’ve got to furlough or you know, if we do see a bump sometimes, which we haven’t seen a bump in enrollment at all, do we need to add staff above what we had the previous year. Typically that does not happen, but we’re always usually looking to reduce staff or least maintain based on the enrollment projections we see.
RYAN: When it comes to declining enrollment, you’re in good company with a lot of other districts. What principles have you learned that might be helpful to other school districts who are also looking for ways to address that decline?
SAM: I’ve been in four different school districts in my career, and in every one of those school districts, we’ve actually consolidated and closed schools down. Most have been rural school districts where a lot of the small communities really want to keep their little school. Okay? They want that, but they also don’t want their taxes raised. So basically, kids are adaptive. Kids have friends on social media, it’s not the kids that have the problems with it. It’s the parents that really do. But educating those parents that what we’re going to do, whether it’s opening up a new school to bring a couple into one, or the resources we’re able to offer them in a different place by consolidating and be able to maintain the staffing that we do and not raise taxes, just keeping them educated that just because their little school, maybe their hometown school is closed and they’ve got to be bussed maybe another 10 minutes, but the reason why we’re doing it is to protect the bottom line and continue to offer what we’re offering, without having to make cuts or to raise taxes. It’s just being transparent and explaining to people that, yes, nobody likes consolidation. Nobody likes to see their school close, but at the end of the day it’s best for the district to remain financially stable.
RYAN: Can you give me just one example of maybe interacting with a community member where you were able to say, “Hey, here’s what the data shows. We’re trying to be transparent here,” that maybe hearts and minds were changed?
SAM: Anytime we close a building, we do educate the people. We have town hall meetings, we go there and when we consolidated three buildings here back eight years ago, it was tough because there were two different high schools, even though it was our school district, they were rivals within the school district and there’s a river that separates them. They’re only four miles away from each other but they’ve been around since 1900. So just educating them and what the new building was going to offer, the resource that we could have, the opportunities that the students were going to have in that new building that they weren’t able to have in the 1900 buildings that had no air conditioning, had old gyms, had no turf football fields, those sort of things. Just the opportunities that they were going to have by coming together, the students were not the issue. It was the parents who graduated from those places, and they just couldn’t see the big picture.
But now, I mean, people embrace what we have. We have a beautiful building, whether it’s the band and the different student groups, they’ve rallied together under new colors. We didn’t use the colors from either school. All brand new colors, brand new mascots, all those things. And it’s been a good thing, not only for the community, because the two communities now, they’ve come together, they rally together for different things, but also financially. We really bore the fruits over the last eight years of that consolidation, and we can continue to.
RYAN: I’m curious if you didn’t have the information that’s in front of you, if you didn’t have the data or the ability to present that well, what kind of impact would that have on you as a district finance director in your ability to not only make decisions, but also get community buy-in?
SAM: It helps with making decisions. I mean, I did not have the data as much before I used Frontline and all that, and I still was able to make decisions. It makes it easier for me to make decisions, but it also makes it easier for me to make people understand why I’m making recommendations based on the data. So having that information, that data, and educating the people with that data, it just makes that whole process a lot easier. Instead of Sam Kirk being up there just speaking about something, having it all in front and being visual, showing it to them, people grasp it a lot easier.
RYAN: That’s fantastic. Sam Kirk from Armstrong School District in Pennsylvania. It has been great talking with you. Thank you today.
SAM: Thanks, Ryan.
RYAN: Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administration software. That includes the Frontline Analytics suite with tools for financial planning and budget management analytics, comparative analytics, location analytics, and student analytics. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening and have a great day.
Ryan is a Customer Marketing Manager for the global award-winning Content Team at Frontline Education. He spends his time writing, podcasting, and talking to leaders in K-12 education.