SALT LAKE CITY — School districts can potentially free up funds for education programs by cutting costs in food services, transportation and energy use, according to a report released Tuesday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.
The report points out successful cost-saving measures in several Utah school districts, such as GPS bus tracking in Provo and Washington County; energy monitoring in Davis County and Canyons School District; and centralized school lunch preparation in the Granite School District.
"We’re focusing on operational areas in this report," audit supervisor James Behunin said. "We’re hopeful that school districts will take this report seriously and consider each of the best practices that we’re describing here and consider whether it will work in their district."
Behunin said the report is intended as a review of best practices as opposed to a traditional audit that identifies deficiencies and recommends policy changes. He said individual school districts have found innovative ways to cut costs through effective management that could potentially be used as a model for other areas of the state.
"We're taking a honey as opposed to a vinegar approach," Behunin said. "We offer honey to entice, to motivate, to change, rather than a traditional audit."
Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said the district began transitioning to a system of centralized food preparation more than a decade ago.
By preparing meals at a district facility, food services employees are better able to track compliance with federal school lunch guidelines, Horsley said. In addition, the need for local schools to maintain cooking and refrigeration equipment, as well as storage, is eliminated, he said.
"Essentially we just cook all the meals there, and then they’re shipped out in heating racks to the individual schools where they’re maintained and served," Horsley said.
The system also allows for food to be prepared and served in the event of a school power outage, he said, which in the past was a key factor in whether classes were canceled.
"In literally a 15- to 20-minute window, we can create and send out sack lunches to a school with 600 students," Horsley said. "There are multiple benefits to this type of system besides just the initial cost savings."
Horsley did not have exact figures on how much the program has saved the district, but he said administrators are pleased with the progress of the program. But the process of moving toward centralized preparation required a period of adaptation and an initial investment in a special facility, he said.
"It’s taken us probably two decades worth of vision to get us to this place where we are optimizing service," Horsley said.
In addition to food services, the audit also examined best practices in the busing of students. Behunin praised Provo School District for its use of routing software to optimize bus routes and GPS technology to monitor idle times and plan for preventive maintenance.
"They manage their fleet so effectively," Behunin said of Provo School District. "When it comes to major decisions about boundaries and where to locate schools, they’re thinking about their transportation costs as part of that. That’s not always done."
The report also addresses school security and recommends that schools take steps to reduce the risk of violence by controlling access to school property and creating a so-called "crime watch" culture among the student body.
According to the audit, in roughly 80 percent of school shootings, at least one person was aware the perpetrator was planning an attack, and in roughly two-thirds of shootings, more than one person was aware of a potential attack before it occurred.
Behunin said establishing an atmosphere where students are encouraged and feel comfortable reporting criminal activity is one of the best responses to the threat of on-campus violence.
The audit recommends that schools establish crime hotlines and ensure that students' names will be kept confidential, as well as undergo regular emergency response drills.
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