Imagine a company with a central office and 65 "plants," each with unique characteristics, all located in a relatively compact geographical area. Add support services such as data processing, transportation, maintenance, purchasing/warehousing of supplies and food preparation.

Set them all in motion to produce one product - education - and you have the business of running a school district - Davis School District, in this instance."Our statistics qualify us as a large organization," said Dean Penrod, assistant superintendent for support services. He would compare Davis District's "bottom line" with any big business, he said.

"There is probably not a more effective or efficient education support service operation in the state or country," Penrod says.

According to 1988 Utah Department of Employment Security figures, 63 percent of all local government employees had education-related jobs - more than 41,100 of them. They earned more than $696 million, much of which went back into Utah's economy.

"People don't think of education as big business," said Superintendent Richard Kendell. "They only see their own school, but I spend about a fourth to a third of my time involved in the business of running the district."

There are some similarities between a school district and a private business, and at the same time some obvious differences that create boundaries within which the district must operate, Kendell said.

"We can't raise capital, for instance. Our financing is a political issue that the public decides. Private business can shop; we're at the mercy of the public. We can't cut back in a bad year. The kids are here whether we get enough money or not." This year, the district is stretching a $177 million budget to provide for 55,000 students. The academic mission is primary and the district's objective is to spend as little of its budget as possible to support that prime function.

Like many businesses, the district deals with employee unions, negotiating within the limits of the budgets set by the State Legislature.

And, of course, there is no visible "product" or any really effective way to assess the return on that product. Only when students turn into adults and start contributing positively to society can education say it has succeeded in its "business." The successes of the business, in effect, assure the continued success of the business.

With more of its assessed valuation in residential property than commercial, Davis is "not a rich district," said Business Manager Roger Glines. The district raises less money from a tax mill than any other district in the state and has the lowest assessed valuation per student.

Growth in Davis County has poured 3 percent to 5 percent more children into schools over the past decade.

The district also faces declining financial support from the federal government related to the large military presence in the county, said Kendell. From a business perspective, cutbacks in the amount the government pays for its impact on the district mean trimming costs while meeting the same demand.

Like any good business faced with increased costs and declining income, Davis has retrenched. Though building square footage has increased by 65 percent, the same number of maintenance personnel are on staff. Full-time custodians have been cut by more than 100 over 10 years, Penrod said.

In the same decade, more than $100 million in building projects have been completed with savings of 5 percent to 10 percent because of value engineering, life-cycle costing and careful planning, he said.

The district operates several businesses within its business, sometimes joining forces with other districts to make operational costs more manageable. Among them are:

- Group purchasing. Davis has joined forces with about a dozen other districts and some municipalities to create economies of scale in the purchase of supplies, furniture, equipment and foods. A huge warehouse in the Freeport Center stocks about 5,000 items, from dishwashing detergent to baseball bats, light bulbs to audio/

visual equipment and frozen strawberries for the district. Many of the participating districts are linked to the purchasing program by computer, said Peter Wheadon, who manages the warehouse.

The district charges 7 percent over cost for all of the purchasers to buy in quantity and still saves the participants a considerable amount of money, he said. Many of the school districts that have bought into the Davis program are small rural districts that have little buying clout on their own. The program makes up to $7 million in purchases per year and "probably saves the buyers a half million to a million - I'd estimate 20 percent savings," Wheadon said. The district has made good use of Freeport Center space turned over to the schools by the military after World War II for an annual cost of only $1. The warehouse occupies about 150,000 square feet, and transportation, maintenance and other central services also are housed in the cluster of Freeport buildings.

- Maintenance, energy control and security. Custodians and maintenance crews keep approximately 5,253,430 square feet of building space and 788 acres of grounds in trim. The district operates a centralized training system and centralizes purchases to assure uniformity.

The district does its own cabinetmaking, building of portable units, painting, carpentry, roofing and asphalt as much as possible, contracting jobs out only when they surpass the district's resources. Davis has the only complete energy/security/fire central monitoring system in the state. The district gained grants to cover part of the $1.5 million cost, which "has been saved several times over," according to R.J. Parrish.

Since the system was installed in 1981, the district has saved approximately $19 million. Davis energy costs average $62 per year per student, compared with $120 nationally. A central computer monitors energy at each school, turning down heat during "peak" periods to save money. Insurance premiums have nose-dived and the "energy savings are astronomical," Parrish said. Vandalism has dropped by half. Youngsters who recently invaded a junior high school with arson on their minds were quickly caught when a monitor indicated a door in the school had been opened. The school surveillance system has direct ties to local law enforcement agencies.

- Transportation. Getting children to school is big business for Davis. More than 148 buses are maintained to pick up 17,000-18,000 students, toting up more than 10,264 miles per day. Each bus services a high school, junior high school and two elementary schools each school day. A whole wall of the bus maintenance facility sports maps with colored pins indicating homes where handicapped children must be picked up at the doorstep.

The cost of gas could become a real problem as the Persian Gulf crisis lingers, said Jack Graviet, who is boss to the 218 transportation employees. The district bought 396,393 gallons in 1990 at a cost of $249,311 - plus 80 new tires at $300 each and another 100 recaps at $70. A computerized system allows for maximum efficiency. Such efforts are frustrating, however, Graviet said, when state formulas dictate that the most efficient districts get the same financial support as the least efficient.

"I'd gladly compare our costs with any automotive shop in the state," said Glines. Even seat reconstruction is a job handled in the district facility. The Davis District garage also serves as a training center for school bus mechanics from other districts. The Davis mechanics wrote the manual.

- Data processing: Davis boasts the most comprehensive data processing of any district statewide. The department is able to write any program requested by any unit in the district and keeps track of everything from complex student data to teacher numbers to the number of languages spoken (59 total). In early October, an interface with the State Capitol was initiated.

The department is connected to 69 schools or school programs and 17 additional school-related facilities throughout the district and tracks such items as purchases and transportation mileage, scheduling, etc. The Davis computer employees designed the only computerized elementary report card and also developed a resource file for teachers, students and parents.

- Food service: A totally self-supporting system, the service employs 470 people and last year served 6,166,747 lunches and 181,386 breakfasts, staying within a $9 million budget.

In the process, participants disposed of 80,500 pounds of chicken nuggets, 389,600 pounds of ground beef, eight semitrailer trucks of shoestring potato fries and three of tater tots, 40,000 pounds of broccoli, 24,000 pounds of diced carrots, 265,000 pounds of all-purpose flour, 2,700 cases of applesauce, 4,000 cases of catsup and 6.5 million cartons of milk.