Field Trip: Flood Recovery: Livingston Parish Revisited


Today we’re revisiting the very first episode of Field Trip that ever aired. In August 2016, Livingston Parish, Louisiana was devastated by a flood. As Livingston Parish Public Schools grappled with the effects, the district looked for any possible way to save money to help rebuild its damaged schools. Supervisor of Human Resources Bruce Chaffin found a fascinating way to save tens of thousands of dollars each month – and positively impact instruction at the same time.

In our interview, we asked Bruce Chaffin about:

  • The 33″ of rain that Livingston Parish got in a 24-hour span, and the impact it had on the district
  • The financial impact the district faced, and steps Livingston Parish Public Schools is taking to rebuild
  • Using gamification with principals to reduce teacher absences
  • How the district saved $63,000 on substitute costs in the first 19 days of school in August 2017, compared with the same time frame 2 years earlier
  • The impact this reduction in teacher absences has had on student achievement
  • What they have learned about using data to make strategic decisions

In March, we caught up with Bruce at the Frontline Insights Summit in Orlando, and had a chance to find out what’s happening with the rebuilding effort now in 2019, and whether they have continued to see the same impact on teacher attendance and student achievement that they did initially. Stay tuned at the end of the episode for that conversation.


More Resources

Get more details on how Livingston Parish Public Schools used Frontline Absence & Time to unearth teacher absence data and save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Full Transcript  

Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning into Field Trip. Today we’re firing up the Wayback Machine, going back to the very first episode of Field Trip we ever produced – which, to be honest, is only about a year and a half ago, even if it feels longer than that!

We spoke with Bruce Chaffin, the Supervisor of Human Resources at Livingston Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, in the aftermath of a severe flood that did immense damage to their schools – 17 schools flooded, three of them were virtually destroyed. It wound up costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

In our original story which you’re about to hear, Bruce walks us through one simple way they managed to save hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with the rebuilding effort. And I’ll let him share that. But this past March, I was able to catch up with Bruce to find out what has happened since this story originally aired – stay tuned at the end to hear that conversation.

What if you could hear from leaders in school systems all around the country?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Well, we found that instead of spending $220,000, we’re spending less than $200,000 a month now on subs.

People who are finding innovative ways to solve problems and make strategic decisions as they work to hire, develop, retain and support teachers and staff.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: We’re seeing teachers at work every day. We’ve got 44 sites. There is not one site that we have that is below 94%, attendance rate, at school, every day. That’s huge.

From superintendents to principals, from Human Resources to Curriculum & Instruction to Special Education, we’re talking with people who have something to say in K12. And we’re sharing those conversations here.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

 Our story today takes place in Livingston, Louisiana. In August 2016, the town of Livingston was hit with severe flooding. You can Google it, the pictures are incredible. And Livingston Parish Public Schools found itself with damaged buildings and a huge financial hurdle to climb. Today we’re on the phone with Bruce Chaffin, Supervisor of Human Resources at the district. He came up with a fascinating way to save significant dollars and to positively impact instruction and student outcomes at the same time. Bruce, thanks for joining us today.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: I’m glad to be here.

Now to get at what we’re talking about, we need to go back to August of 2016, when your district was impacted by a flood. Can you tell me about what happened there?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Well, it was not a hurricane or a tropical event of any type. We just received, over a 24 hour period of time, our district received approximately 33 inches of rain, and it was just way too much for the drainage systems to handle. We had no idea this was going to happen. We woke up on a Friday morning, getting ready to go to work. The roads started to flood at that point, and from Friday morning at approximately 6:00 to Saturday afternoon at 2:00, we went from everything just being happy and normal to 17 schools flooding.

And the best estimates that we have are that, in our district — we have about 300,000 people — and the best estimates from FEMA are that 70% of every home in Livingston Parrish flooded.

And when we’re talking about flooding, we’re talking about everything from two inches to nine feet.

And so we had, like I said, 17 schools flooded. Three of them are total disasters. I went into a school two days after it flooded and it was like walking into a war zone. It was an elementary school, and when you have to tell elementary teachers that have been teaching for 30 years, “We couldn’t save a pencil out of your classroom.”


BRUCE CHAFFIN: It was devastating. And we had people that moved all over the country. We had employees that moved all over the country. We lost approximately 500 to 700 students that moved elsewhere. And here we are, a year and a half from that flood, and we are just now getting back to our pre-flood numbers.

As you worked to reconstruct the schools that were damaged or even might have needed to be replaced, you were working with FEMA to help cover these costs, but I know there was still a big bill falling to the school district.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Well, we’ve conservatively estimated that the costs to repair all of our schools, once that it’s all said and done, we’re looking at probably $250 to $300 million. FEMA will cover 90% of that, so that leaves 10% to a school district that doesn’t have a lot of funds to begin with and if you do 10% of $200 million, that’s a lot of money that we were not anticipating, nor should you ever have to anticipate something like that. So we were charged with coming up with ways of saving money and, in our district, our budget is about $250 million. Of that $250 million, 90% of it is salaries and benefits.

A quick note to our listeners: Bruce told me that because 90% of their budget is salaries and benefits, and because they had lost so many students who moved elsewhere in the wake of the flood, they unfortunately had to reduce the number of teachers on staff. In the months after this happen, they lowered their payroll by 47 teachers. Some of that was through attrition, some through necessary staffing cuts. And that saved some money, but it still didn’t lead to the cost savings they needed. The superintendent asked Bruce to find additional room in the budget, but without losing more teachers, and without negatively impacting instruction.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: And so through a class that I took that was sponsored by Battelle for Kids and the National Association of Personnel Directors, they started a new certification program for personnel directors called HCLE, Human Capital Leaders in Education. And in that class, so much of the class was strategic thinking. Basically, thinking outside the box. Thinking outside the norm. So I started doing that based on some of the things that I heard in this class that I took. I came up with the idea and I honestly, when I started my research, had no true understanding of what we were paying for day to day substitutes in our district. I always knew it was a lot, but I never knew how much until I started doing the research.

Now, prior to four or five years ago, finding that research would have been very difficult. About four years ago, we signed on with Frontline, we were able to take the absence finder system and run reports that we’ve never been able to run before, and I was able to narrow down that we were paying approximately $220,000 a month on day-to-day subs. I was blown away by that figure. And I knew, as a former principal, that our principals did not know this. 

So I came up with an idea and I went to our IT director, whose name is Carlos Williams, I went to Carlos and I said, “Okay, Carlos. I’m fixing to do this. I’m fixing to do something to try to reduce absenteeism in our schools, but I want to reward the schools that do this. Can you pitch in a computer lab, a mobile computer lab, with 30 devices on it?” And he did not hesitate. And he said, “Absolutely.”

So then I had something to dangle in front of our principals. I knew that to really make this work I had to put something out there kind of dangling a carrot in front of them. I had to make this a competitive thing. At the end of the year, when the schools, and we look at their attendance rates, the school that has the highest attendance rate is going to receive this lab. 

And our principals, they were funny about it. Nothing mean-spirited. They’re like, “Oh, I got you on this.” And still, I see emails going back and forth between our principals when I release the numbers at the end of each month, “Oh I got you by two-tenths.” Or, “You got me by two-tenths, but I’m sneaking up on you.” It has just become that type of a conversation. I even hear our teachers and our employees talk about it when I go into the schools. They’ll ask me, “Oh, Mr. Chaffin, what was our attendance rate this month? We’re going to win that computer lab.” And so it’s just become kind of a talking point, and I can’t tell you how many employees have said, “Mr. Chaffin, I had no idea how much we were spending on substitutes each month.”

So let’s look at the results. How did this go? What were the results? As you looked at the data from the first month of school, the first several months of school, what did you find?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: I really did not have an idea as to was this going to save us any money. Now our principals were as astonished as I was at the amount of cost that we were paying every month on day-to-day subs. Like I said, it was over $220,000.

So the first 19 days of school, we have 19 work days in August, in school. I compared this year to 2015. In those first 19 days, we saved $63,000 in sub costs. I thought my calculator was broke when I started doing these figures. I even went to someone else in our department and said, “What am I doing wrong?” It can’t be this much savings in 19 days.” Well, it was.

The end of the next month, which was September, now I’m looking at 39 days. The savings went from $63,000 to approximately $80,000 in that period of time. From August 7 of this year to October 31 of this year, we have 60 work days. Compared to 2015 data, for the first 60 days of school, we have saved just a little north of $100,000 

Now, I even went back and compared another year to 2014 data. For the first 60 days of this year compared to 2014, we’ve saved $135,751. Which has just blown me away.

I never anticipated that kind of savings. But, no one has ever shared that specific data with our school people, and as a testament to our schools, they’re like, “Wait a minute. If we can save this kind of money, maybe it can help us rebuild our schools and get our kids back to their campuses faster. Or maybe we can do things for our employees down the road because we’re 16 months into this flood and we still have people that are not in their houses.”

Can you tell me what action the principals took? As they are in this competition trying to win this computer lab, did they address school–

BRUCE CHAFFIN: They went back to their schools and had conversations with their employees.

Wow, that’s all?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: We’re just asking you to try to be here on a regular basis. We don’t want you to take off a day to go get your hair done. We don’t want you to take off a day, a full day, to go see your son’s program at another school. We’ll work with you on that. If you need an hour, we’ll cover your class for an hour. No need for you to take a whole day and have us pay a sub for that. So our schools have done some things creatively to not actually have to hire a sub that day. So they’re doing some things on their staff.

As a matter of fact, one particular school, every full time employee gets 10 sick days to start the year. If a teacher starts the year, their name goes in the hat 10 times. Every day they miss, their name comes out of the hat. So at the end of the year, we’ve got one school that’s going to draw out of that bucket, and if you haven’t missed any days, your name is in that bucket 10 times. If you’ve missed 10 times, your name is not in that bucket. If your name is drawn out of that bucket at the end of the year, that particular school is going to award that teacher with no duty for the next year.

That means their not going to have to show up at work two days a week to cover the parking lot. Or they’re not going to have to cover lunch room duty two days a week. They’re free from duty for the remaining year. So that just encourages— that teacher may wake up and maybe have a headache. And in the past they would have taken a full day for that. Now they’re fighting through that, coming to school, and teaching our kids when we all know that our kids are not fully learning to the best of their ability when a substitute is in that classroom. That’s a given.

Okay, let’s look at that data one more time. You say you’re seeing an ongoing reduction in what you’re spending each month for substitutes. What’s been the impact on teacher attendance?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Well, we found that instead of spending $220,000, we’re spending less than $200,000 a month now on subs. We’re seeing teachers at work every day. We’ve got 44 sites. There is not one site that we have that is below 94%.

Of teacher attendance?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Attendance rate, at school every day. That’s huge. That’s big.

Now I’m also seeing, and this data is really starting to come in as of late, what I’m starting to see now is… we have an accountability system in Louisiana where our schools are graded by the state based on school performance, based on testing, based on those types of things. And so, we’ve got one particular high school that is the number four ranked school in the state of Louisiana of public schools. Their attendance rate for their staff for the first 60 days of school was almost 96%. That’s the highest of our high schools. Don’t you find that interesting that they’re the highest scoring high school in our Parish and they also have the highest attendance rate among their staff?

That tells me something right there.

So it’s easy to draw a line between teacher attendance and student performance?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Absolutely. There’s research that will back that up. You Google that, there’s research article after research article after research article that will show the correlation between student performance and teacher attendance.

As you’ve been working on reducing absences and have seen the financial savings that came as a result, you’ve seen it positively impact student outcomes, what are your biggest takeaways from this exercise?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Inform the employees. Give them the data. If I were to go into a school and stand in front of the faculty and say, “Guys, we’re spending too much money on substitutes.” What’s the question that’s going to be asked of me? “Well, how much? How much are we spending?” “Well, I really don’t know that, but I just know we’ve got a lot of subs here in this school.”

I’ve got to be able to provide them hard data. So many times in budgeting, “We’re saving 20%.” “Well, you’re saving 20% of what?” I’ve got hard data. I’ve got data in front of me based on how I can drill down using the program that we use, I can absolutely show every school exactly how many days were missed and how much it cost us at every school, every site, each month.

That is data that we have never shared with our employees and our schools before. When I say compared to 2015 that we’ve saved over $100,000, that’s not a guesstimate. That is hard money. That is actual, physical money that is in our general fund that if we hadn’t had done this, would not be in our general fund today. This is hard savings that is going to go back into our schools in the form of computers, in the form of books, in the form of initiatives that our principals are wanting to start. So this is money that is now being able to be returned to our schools because why are we in this? We’re in the business to affect kids and their education. We’ve got in the first 60 days of school, we’ve got an extra $100,000 to spend on our kids. That’s huge. That’s phenomenal.

Bruce Chaffin is the Supervisor of Human Resources at Livingston Parish Public Schools in Louisiana. Bruce, thank you for your time today. 

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Absolutely, I enjoyed it.

That conversation took place in November, 2017 – just a few months after they began trying to reduce teacher absences and save on substitute costs. In March of this year, I caught up with Bruce at the Frontline Insights Summit in Orlando. He had just finished presenting their story at the event, and I was able to grab a few minutes to sit down with him and hear how Livingston Parish has been doing since we first aired this episode.

RYAN ESTES: Well, we spoke, actually a little over a year ago, maybe a 15 months ago, and you were telling me at that point in time about the contest that you had done with the principals and trying to communicate more clearly to your people about what absences and substitutes were actually costing your district. But before I get into that, I’d just love to hear how your area is doing now with the flood recovery. Where are things at as your community rebuilds?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Well, we are two and a half years into it and it’s been a long and arduous struggle. As I said during my presentation, we still have — some of our communities are still not in their homes. They’re still waiting for monies from federal government to be able to rebuild their homes. But they’re living there, they may be living in their home that has no sheet rock on the wall, but they’re living there anyway because that’s the only place. But as far as a district is concerned, before the flood, we averaged about 500 students a year in growth. And so it’s taken us a little while where we’re now back to where we were pre-flood as far as our student population is concerned. We’re back to where we were pre-flood with our employee population. So we’re feeling very excited about that. We’re finally getting approval to start the reconstruction of the three schools that were completely damaged. We just unveiled the plans for one of our elementary schools and our middle school and elementary school combination will be soon released, so we’re just so excited, and hopefully, with our fingers crossed, in two years, those campuses will be able to leave their temporary campuses and move home again, and we’re looking forward to that day.

RYAN ESTES: That is great. Tell me a little bit more about, over the past year since we last spoke, as you have worked to communicate with your people to reduce absences and reduce the need for day to day substitutes, how have those numbers continued over the rest of 2018 and early 2019?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: In 17-18 is when we did our competition among our schools to see, and we had no idea going into that would it really make a difference. And then we really did see that it made a difference. And so that savings over an eight month period was huge. And so we’ve started comparing that data from this year to last year, and we’re seeing pretty much the same numbers that we saw last year as missing. So even though we’re not pushing it, the employees have continued to show up at school every day. And it is absolutely showing in our student performance scores. We’re seeing the schools that have the highest attendance rate, their kids are performing at the highest level, because they’ve got that regular certified full-time teacher in there on a 96% basis.

RYAN ESTES: And you say that you see teachers actually continuing to, even though you’re not pushing this, even though you’re not banging the drum every day, you’re seeing teachers continue to self-police in terms of absences?

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Oh absolutely. I hear conversations. I’ll go to faculty meetings and I will hear conversations in the back of the room, “Look, I don’t want to take my cruise this week because we’re in school. Let’s take it during Christmas. It may be busier, but I don’t want to miss school.” And you hear other teachers, “Why did you miss those two days? Couldn’t you come to school?” And so we’re hearing that self-policing going on with us out having to beat that drum as you said.

RYAN ESTES: But that was because initially you started making known the costs that really came about when teachers were absent, it was making that information known to people.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Absolutely, it was very intentional and purposeful conversations that we were having all over our district. We have 44 schools, and I went to just about every school and attended faculty meetings and just talked: “This is what we’re spending, this is what we’re saving, what we’re seeing in savings.” You know, the first month we saved over $30,000. That was huge. And so now we’re hoping to give that back to our teachers, possibly with an extra check at the end of the year. And our board is looking at that. So we’re excited about that as well.

RYAN ESTES: And now you’re starting to rebuild.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: That’s exactly right, and we are so excited. We’ve demolished two of the three schools, which was very emotional. One of the schools had been there 75 years and we had a lot of the old community members, some of the graduates from that school came and so that was emotional, but then to see the unveiling of the plans that are going to go back on that site, there’s going to be an elementary school that’s going to be designed after the first high school in that community that was lost to a fire a hundred years ago.

So there are going to be some similarities in the architecture. So now, it’s kind of like that phoenix rising up out of the ashes. What was such a horrible time, there’s going to be good come out of it as well.

RYAN ESTES: That’s great. Bruce Chaffin of Livingston Parish Public Schools. Thanks again for talking to us.

BRUCE CHAFFIN: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity.

If you found this story helpful, inspiring or interesting, or hopefully all three, don’t forget to subscribe. Episodes are released every 2 weeks covering leaders in K12 who are creatively solving problems, using data to make better decisions, and tackling challenges in innovative ways. You can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.