The Hidden Costs of Running a School

Most people know that handling the operations of a school is not for the faint of heart, but even experienced operators will admit that they have been caught off guard now and then.  During one harrowing experience, our school bus brakes caught fire, a vendor’s equipment scorched the side of the building, and the teacher’s lounge breaker would get tripped every time the copier and microwave were used at the same time. Those were some good times! 

Rather than letting you stumble into a similar situation, here is my advice to newish operators who want to provide the best environment they can for their students and teachers.


  1. Read the fine print

You will have to juggle dozens of contracts each year.  Before you sign on the dotted line, scrutinize the “out” clause.  If you want to end the working relationship, what will it cost you?  In my experience, the ease of getting out of the contact was directly related to the vendor’s quality of work and level of customer service.  If you enter into a contract that requires 90-days and a financial payment to compensate for “lost” work, run, don’t walk to the nearest exit.  


  1. Never buy a copy machine

This is a two-fer: One: don’t buy your own copy machine; Two: Make sure you rent multiple machines. 

While you might be tempted to purchase a machine so you don’t have an ongoing monthly bill for copies, copy machines get used (and used, and used, and used), and they break down at an alarming rate. It may sound great not to have a monthly bill for copies, but copy machines in schools are used and abused at an alarming rate. Whether in the chaos of a school, something gets dropped on the machine, or there are related jams or down time that make copying difficult, don’t spend all of your money on one machine that probably won’t be reliable. There’s nothing worse than a queue of 3-4 teachers for a slow machine that quickly impacts morale and wastes the time of the entire group. To make matters worse, a state-of-the-art copy machine will actually seem old and clunky in just a few years with advancing technology. Think about it this way, would you like to own an iPhone 3 right now?  

The best situation that I’ve seen with a copier was at one of my schools where we had a copier for each grade level in a three-story building. This eliminated wasted time walking all over the building to one copy machine and ensured teachers could focus on the important stuff, teaching and learning, rather than waiting in a copier line.  


  1. Check if you are an energy hog.

When helping new school leaders review their budget model, they rarely think about the cost of heating and cooling a building.  Utilities fall into the fixed cost category. There is little change in usage and billing whether there are 12 students in a class or 25. What should you do? Start with analyzing past bills, if available to you, check with schools in similar sized and geographically located areas, ask the building engineer or consult the manufacturers guide.  Click here for more information about measuring energy usage (and check out pages 10, 11, and 12 of the link). The more efficiently you can run your school building, the more money you’ll have available for interesting and exciting programs! 


  1. Get in-kind donations, and record them right!

This one is a little bit more technical, requires good communication between operations and accounting, but is extremely important.  MissionBox  explains how in-kind contributions can impact expenses and revenue.  Here is an example that has happened at many schools. Let’s pretend that you are a school leader. You want to create three student computer labs.  You know that if you get the first one funded, your board members have pledged a match to fund the 2nd and 3rd labs.  Because you are such a great principal, you get two local tech companies to donate laptops, valued at $1,500 and $2,000.  

At the end of the project, you are ready to present the “match” number to your board.  If you and your operations/finance team have not worked together to record those in-kind donations, your total expenses won’t reflect the true costs to replicate that lab.  I used an exaggerated example to make a point. While your team is diligent in acknowledging donations, the value of the donations aren’t making it onto “the books.” Smaller donations from multiple sources, like $700 in sports equipment or $500 in musical instruments may seem inconsequential at the time, but these things have  a cumulative effect over time and mask the true costs of a project or activity.  

This concept also applies to products or services that have been heavily discounted.  Check out page 6 of BPM’s “Accounting for Nonprofit-In-Kind Donations.” 


Even if you have missed hidden costs like these, ask your team for help to capture them from this point on.  If you feel compelled to capture cost retroactively, please consult the appropriate professional (board treasurer, CPA, auditor) first.

Here’s a little lagniappe for you.  Before launching into a hunt for $300 spent 2 years ago or  diving into any major cost cutting projects, make sure the time (across the team) it will consume is worth the savings.  Time spent on this is time taken from something else, and you always want to ensure it’s well spent!

Here at Ensemble Learning, we are dedicated to supporting schools! Continue the conversation about school operations with me at If you’re curious about working with us, reach out to our CEO, Elise Darwish, at

Related post

SHARE this