The City Council is about to review planned education cuts, but even if the Bloomberg administration is forced to make revisions, principals should absolutely plan for tighter days ahead. That will be difficult for the obvious reasons (who likes to spend less?) but also for this one: Many of today’s principals have never led through a downturn.

Earlier this week, I talked to a man who has: Eric Nadelstern, the head of the Empowerment network of schools and a Bronx principal from 1985 to 2000, a period that included a sharp fiscal downturn of about two years. In the last several months, Nadelstern has been offering advice to Empowerment principals on how to cut their budgets without making a dent in educational programming.

He shared three pieces of advice with me:

  1. If a staff member leaves, think twice before hiring a replacement. “Rather than go outside the school and fill the vacancy, figure out whether you can get by without having to fill that vacancy,” Nadelstern said. “Particularly in the case of classroom teachers, perhaps look around to see if there’s an out-of-the-classroom teacher that you could put in that position, and that could save money.”
  2. Bring more bodies into the building. Schools are unique in that they can raise their revenues simply by bringing students through their doors. Because state, city, and federal education dollars come for the most part on a per-student basis, the more students who attend, the more dollars a principal has to work with. Nadelstern said that when he was a principal during a downturn, he managed to increase his enrollment by about 15% in just two years — simply by recruiting more students to his school. Not all principals can do this, clearly, a noteworthy exception being principals of zoned elementary schools that simply take the children in their neighborhood. But an increasing number of New York City schools are schools of choice, open to anyone who applies. Nadelstern encourages those middle and high school principals to get to work recruiting.
  3. Those supplies you need but have been putting off ordering? Buy them now, before the dollars disappear. “Don’t presume that you’re going to be in a better financial position next year,” Nadelstern said. “If you absolutely need them, understand that you shouldn’t postpone it if you can afford the purchase now.”