Even as district officials work on ways to cut $23 million from the Westerville City Schools budget, administrators said they have taken steps to keep the largest segment of that budget - salaries and benefits - in line.

Even as district officials work on ways to cut $23 million from the Westerville City Schools budget, administrators said they have taken steps to keep the largest segment of that budget - salaries and benefits - in line.

"We do work to provide a quality education at a cost that is lower," board of education president Kristi Robbins said. "We have a highly experienced staff, and it is hard to control those costs, but we do try without trying to compromise the quality of education. Our goal has been to attract and retain the best."

The district spends 82.5 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits, ranking ninth of the 16 districts in Franklin County for the percentage of the budget dedicated to those costs, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education for 2010, the most recent year available.

Of the 16 school districts in Franklin County, Westerville ranks 10th for average teachers' salaries, at $61,802 a year; 14th in student-teacher ratio, with 17.3 students per teacher; and 13th in student-administrator-ratio, with 216.7 students per administrator.

"Of those 16 districts, we're always falling in the bottom half," Westerville City Schools spokesman Greg Viebranz said.

Superintendent Dan Good said he's proud the district is able to stay within the 80- to 85-percent range for salaries and benefits, given that it is seeing ever increasing populations of students with special needs that require more intervention and lower student-to-teacher ratios.

"We have many specialized needs," Good said. "In a day, we may enroll 20 students who may or may not speak English, may or may not be disabled, may or may not be economically disadvantaged."

To keep costs low, Good said, the district has asked employees to take on more responsibilities and changed its hiring practices. Where possible, it now hires entry-level teachers rather than teachers with advanced degrees or with more years of teaching experience, he said.

The practice of hiring first-year teachers saved Westerville schools about $2 million this year, according to treasurer Bart Griffith.

The district also has frozen hiring. Its last budget called for hiring 10 new full-time employees and two administrators this year, Good said, but the administration chose not to do so.

Class sizes also have been increased and some electives at the high-school level have been eliminated to cut costs, he said.

The district's new facilities also have helped with costs, Good said. The Early Learning Center, which opened this school year, reduced the need for full-time employees because it consolidated the preschool staff in one place, rather than requiring teachers to travel from one elementary school to another to serve students.

"They're on site. They can move from one classroom to the next or one student to the next," Good said.

The Academic Enrichment Center, which also is new this year, provides services for high-school students who are at risk of not graduating and has helped pull students from charter schools back to the district, along with the state allocation that follows them out of the district when they attend other schools, Good said.

This year, Westerville brought some services for special-needs students back to the district rather than contracting for those services because it was more cost-effective, Good said. Two such programs that were brought back into the district for the current school year saved an estimated $346,000.

The district also is looking at its health care costs. A few years ago, the district went to a high-deductable plan for employees, moving away from being self-insured. Now, the district is looking at being self-insured once more as a way to cut health-insurance costs. Griffith still is evaluating the district's insurance options to see what would be the most cost-effective.

Because insurance rates are affected by the number of claims, the district also has enacted a number of wellness initiatives aimed at helping employees to be healthier, Good said. A "wellness committee" provides employees with health tips, pedometers and healthy snacks. With that, the district has seen insurance-premium increases that are below the national average, Viebranz said.

Though it's difficult balancing keeping salary and benefit costs low while retaining a quality staff, Robbins said, the struggle is worth the effort because the employees make the school district what it is.