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Posted on Sep 1, 2010

Student to Staff Ratios: What’s Best for Your School

by John Vegt, SCSBC Director of Finance  ◊  

Inevitably, September brings a reality check in terms of the recently approved school budget. Once final enrollment figures for the school year are confirmed, other key questions can be answered. Were budgeted enrollment projections met? Exceeded? Did our school stay within its designated amount for tuition assistance? Is our school understaffed or overstaffed based on the realities of the current September enrollment? Are support staff levels adequate to deliver the requirements of our international, ESL and special needs students?

Increasingly, school boards and administrators are spending significant time trying to understand what measurable financial and operational benchmarks are important for our schools to use in managing their financial affairs.

It is easy and one-dimensional to simply take all the schools numbers and produce some sort of best practice summary. Although benchmarks may serve as good guidelines in comparing your school with other schools and may even be helpful in determining whether improvements need to be considered, other important factors must also be examined.

To illustrate, let’s consider one of the more important benchmarks: student to staff ratios.

Understandably, there is more to improving student achievement then having a better than average staff to student ratio. However, since staff costs represent about 75% of all operational expenses, a hard look at this ratio is important. Nonetheless, we need to ask ourselves why this ratio in itself should not be the only factor in determining appropriate staffing levels. Extra staff may be required to help those students who do not qualify for special education funding but need help to progress. A good investment for future student success may be counsellors and other specialists who assess the need for early intervention on behalf of students who are challenged one way or another. For example, a well designed Structure of Intellect program may benefit exceptional students. Any of these extra staffing costs may skew benchmarks but they may result in a better student learning program.

Overstaffing may be caused by:

  • an overly generous allocation of staff prep periods;
  • not combining small grades into a single classroom;
  • not allowing for job sharing;
  • failing to provide for or encourage early retirement;
  • not hiring new teachers to maintain a balance between experienced and new teachers;
  • not reviewing the continued viability of certain programs;
  • not considering creative ways to share or enroll students from neighboring schools for low enrolled specialty courses;
  • not building an overall staffing plan that fits the school’s objectives.

So what are we to make of all this?

The average 2008-09 student to staff ratio for all SCSBC schools was 12 to 1. It should be noted that this includes principals, teachers, special needs staff, aides, librarians, counsellors, ESL instructors and all other professional teaching staff.

Calculating whether your school is above or below this benchmark should not be done in isolation. A school must also consider optimum student learning at the individual, classroom, and grade level. These factors are much more difficult to measure. Some, but not all, of the objective measurements which supplement student to staff ratio benchmarks are:

Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) scores;

Grade 12 Government Exam results;

percentage of graduates accepted into college, university, or career training programs;

excellent student and parent satisfaction exit interviews;

student waiting lists;

recognition for excellent teaching.

Nonetheless, if there is a high student to staff ratio combined with poor learning outcomes, perhaps staffing levels need to be re-examined.

Generally, the school’s annual operational budget should be balanced and financed from tuition fees and government grants. Objectives should be set for learning outcomes, and each of the spending categories targeted to achieve those objectives within the balanced budget parameters. For example, if an objective is to provide special education for struggling learners or an enrichment program for high achievers, then additional staffing beyond what is covered by special needs funding may be required. However, implementing this priority may conflict with other priorities such as infrastructure improvements, salary increases or keeping tuition fees affordable. Technological tools that enhance teaching and learning, such as SMARTTM Boards, may be a good investment. Redcat® amplification systems, which allow each student in a class to have the benefit of hearing the teacher as if the teacher were talking directly to them, could improve learning. These investments may also serve as recruitment tools for new students.

Financing school operations and infrastructure is as much about balancing competing interests as it is about money. In this process, we must never lose our focus on what our preferred outcomes for students should be. Schools should set objectives for excellence in education for each grade and program and then work on how their school can implement those objectives with balancing and prioritizing available funds.

Certainly, if we are to be a Christian school that maintains a distinct biblical worldview, it is paramount that our teachers and support staff engage in lifelong learning on Christian perspectives and pedagogy in education. Funds for ongoing professional development ought to be another hallmark of every school’s operational budget.

Benchmarks should be used as a guide to manage our schools and not as the only tool to measure success. The involvement of the superintendent, principal, treasurer, business manager, education committee and finance committee are fundamental in using benchmarks judiciously.

Answering the question “Student to Staff Ratios: What’s best for your school?” requires a careful and continual review of an efficient and effective staffing complement. At least 75% of the time spent in preparing the annual operational budget should be invested in making your school’s staffing levels optimal. After all, it represents 75% of the total school expenses as well.

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