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Schools can do better with less money

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The result of the leaner and meaner approach: a healthier budget – with reserves to offset future revenue drops – and impressive academic gains.

"The traumatic impacts of budget reductions and the economy have pushed us to do more with less, but also to do better with less," Carvalho says.

The district starts its new year Aug. 24 with state grades dramatically improved for many of its schools – including one "F" school earning an "A."

This kind of self-examination and reinvention is what US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is urging districts to do as they receive infusions of federal economic stimulus. The more they spend wisely and innovate, the more money he's likely to send their way. But traditional approaches – laying off teachers with least seniority, closing schools, and cutting back nonacademic classes – may prevail, observe scholars and advocates who follow education trends.

"There are [several] states, like California, where there's a supercrisis and a broad awareness that ... practices are going to have to be dramatically altered in order to cope," says Edward Kealy, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition in Washington.

Still, while basic savings on everything from cafeteria food to transportation are widespread, many districts anticipating the federal stimulus aren't going beyond stopgap measures, perhaps in hope of maintaining the status quo until the good times roll again, Mr. Kealy observes.

"They're in a strange period of [wondering], 'How bad is it really, [and] is it going to turn around over the next year?' " he says.

In the meantime, school districts share a common quest to accomplish more with less. How successful will they be?

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