in Houston, Texas

Administrators avoid the budget scalpel at many Texas school districts

Tuesday, Mar 13, 2012, 09:16AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
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In a year when the Houston Independent School District lost 835 teaching positions, more than 400 by layoff, 21 administrative positions went away, less than half the teacher attrition rate.

The nearby Cypress-Fairbanks ISD shed 300 teaching positions by attrition and just two administrators. In El Paso, where the district was forced to get along without 241 teachers, those teachers were directed by seven fewer administrators.

Of the 10 largest school districts in Texas, five of them had teacher attrition rates at least 1.5 times higher than administrative losses. Fort Bend ISD’s rate was 4.7 times higher for teachers than administrators. This is based on documents from school districts following a request from Texas Watchdog, and for purposes of this analysis principals at school campuses and secretaries or other support staff working at schools or a central office are not included as administrators.

In a vacuum those numbers suggest districts making unpleasant decisions that exempt their top-ranking employees; that some districts are top-heavy or on their way; that in tough economic times teachers suffer disproportionately.

For free market public school reformers like the Texas Public Policy Foundation administrative bloat is taken as an established fact. In its study of public education spending trends, the Foundation’s Center for Education Policy notes that from 1949 to 2007 the percentage of teachers as a share of all school staff nationwide had steadily dropped from 70 to 51.

Many of the comparisons were made with California.

“Clearly, Texas is more top-heavy than California,” Bill Peacock, one of the authors of the study says. “California has more schools than Texas, but Texas has more principals.”

In a newly published blog titled “Wild Wild West Texas,” Connie Sadowski, with the Red Apple Project of the conservative watchdog Americans for Prosperity, rains down criticisms for the inefficiency of the El Paso district, including exorbitant salaries for the superintendent and 13 assistant superintendents.

Administrators in Texas schools

Whether El Paso employs too many or too few administrators for those big salaries, Sadowski says her research hasn’t hasn’t taken her that far.

What she is likely to find is the same thing Peacock discovered. For all of the reflexive talk of top heaviness, the research hasn’t taken anyone very far.  “It’s hard to come up with standards of comparison,” he says. “All districts are different, all states are different.”

It is tough to know what to make of the numbers at the top of this story without context. Some of the nation’s leading experts in public school design and productivity admit there isn’t a lot of context out there.

And without it, school boards, superintendents, legislators and the public lack the base from which to make some of the most important decisions in school finance.

Darvin Winick likes to call this lack of a base a peculiarity, a word he says he chooses with care. Winick is the director of the Institute For Public School Initiatives at the University of Texas. His involvement in public education goes back to his role as advisor to the 1984 Texas Select Committee on Public Education.

Winick was first a businessman and approaches problem solving in a business-like way. For many years Winick has advocated for a complete state auditing of all paid positions in the state’s public schools -- with a scope well beyond the annual staffing survey the Texas Education Agency conducts. Along with such an audit the state would create a uniform set of job descriptions that would allow for meaningful comparisons district to district.

“This state audits the districts as they should, but with the numbers that are sent to them by the districts,” Winick says. “The definition of administrator and teacher are not well-defined in this state.”

Legislation for state auditing has been introduced several times over the past several sessions and has gone nowhere. The peculiarity, as Winick calls it, persists because of a still ferocious demand for local control of school districts.

“It’s messy, and because it’s messy, there hasn’t been the political will to change it,” Winick says.

This despite the state’s increasing share of overall school spending in Texas. In the early 2000s with property values and taxes on the rise, the state’s share of public school spending stayed reliably below 40 percent, according to figures provided by the Legislative Budget Board.

(You can find a chart of those years on page 214 in the Board’s annual Fiscal Size Up for 2010-11 here.)

With the property tax relief bill of 2007 the state’s share shot up to 48.5 percent in 2008 and has hovered near 45 percent in the years since, the Budget Board figures show.

But at the same time the amount of federal funding for public schools has taken off. A search of the last five biennial fiscal reports published by the LBB shows federal funding at $5.7 billion in 2002-03, $8.3 billion by 2006-07 and with the added funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act at $13.3 billion in 2010-11.

Unlike the mostly discretionary local and state funding, federal funds, particularly the ARRA or stimulus funds, are tied to specific programs. Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, says this program-driven funding has helped Balkanize school administrations.

Paul HillPaul Hill

“What you end up with are lots of federally funded programs, each with its own coordinator, and a complexity of funding streams that no one quite understands,” Hill says. “The underlying problem in most schools districts is you have growth without design.”

A year before Hill’s Center issued its 2010 report on performance in the Seattle public school system a district parent and business analyst submitted her own study to the School Board showing that the number of central administration positions grew by 48 percent while district enrollment declined by 7.5 percent between 1998 and 2009. During those years the total number of teaching positions decreased by about 4 percent.

Hill says he found dozens of instances of disgruntled or burned-out teachers given jobs in central administration offices to get them out of the classroom. In his work he has also found the satellite offices staffed by administrators deeply entrenched in their communities, for better and worse. He refers to these administrators as “warlords,” not likely to cede their authority.

In Seattle no more so than in Texas, this Balkanization often outstrips the ability and will of school boards and superintendents to be systematic and rational with their administrations, Hill says.

More difficult still if those intimidated boards and superintendents call for across-the-board cuts and settle for accepting the recommendations of the very administrative leaders whose vested interest is in perpetuating their departments, says Marguerite Roza, who has canvassed districts across the country for the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

None of this entrenchment protected administrators when the recession began enveloping the country late in the fiscal year for school districts in 2008, Roza says. Faced with last-minute decisions, many districts chose to lay off or thin by attrition their administrators.

The reasons, Roza says, were practical. Keeping teachers in classrooms is a priority to parents and taxpayers. Teachers are protected by unions and associations. Administrators are hired and fired at the will of the superintendent, she says.

Teachers in Texas school districts


Houston ISD made its first personnel cuts in central administration, district spokesman Jason Spencer says.

“We've been chipping away at central office for a decade, and many of those cuts already happened,” he says.

“This being said, it is difficult to cut many central office positions, many of which are necessary to ensure we are in compliance with state and federal mandates that have grown significantly in recent years.”

Which is why, facing $77.4 million less in state funding, Houston resorted to teacher layoffs and attrition in the last budget year. The district expects teachers to bear the brunt of an anticipated cut of $44 million in the coming budget year, he says.

In the last budget year the Dallas Independent School District reduced its overall teaching staff by more than 6 percent, from 10,639 to 9,994 teaching positions. The district, however, was forced to slash its district-wide administrative positions by 21.2 percent, from 888 to 700 administrator positions.

Among the 10 largest districts, Arlington, Fort Worth and North East (San Antonio) lost a higher percentage of administrators than teachers in the past budget year.

“It was one of the worst days I can ever remember in the district,” Dallas ISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said. “I can’t tell you where we were hurt the most. It was so across the board that everyone has had to pitch in to do more work.”

Jenny LaCoste-CaputoJenny LaCoste-Caputo

Among the administrative ranks across Texas there isn’t a lot left to cut, Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of School Administrators, says. LaCoste-Caputo’s observations are anecdotal. Even the association with this specific dedication has not undertaken any kind of systematic analysis of administrative staffing statewide.

She has used data from education consultant Moak, Casey & Associates to fend off charges that districts are top-heavy. The ratio of teachers and non-teachers has declined only slightly and has mostly been in balance since the 1989-90 school year.

Contrary to some criticisms, central and campus administrators make up about 4 percent of all school employees, Moak, Casey found.

The idea that school boards and superintendents have been dithering over the complexity of administrative cuts, LaCoste-Caputo says, is ludicrous.

“We haven’t had the luxury to suffer from that kind of paralysis,” she says. “I don’t think Texas has been that way for several years. And for at least the next budget year I think we are going to be in a cutting mode.”

That suits Sadowski and the Red Apple Project just fine. Reformers who have asked for reduced or more efficient school spending have for years been rebuffed, she says.

“School districts don’t want us to know how they are spending their money and how they make staffing decisions,” Sadowski says. “All you have to look at is El Paso to see all the inefficiencies.”

Peacock, however, is skeptical of any plan handed down from the state that would purport to know the administrative needs in each district.

“When you’re looking at a way to reduce those costs you hope the districts make the right choices,” Peacock says. “A top-down approach isn’t good when your goal is to decrease rather than increase bureaucracy.”

Peacock needn’t worry too much, Winick says. In the 1980s Winick took part in a years-long struggle to bring standardized testing to Texas public schools.

The arguments for local control were as loud and persistent against those tests as they are for administrative accountability today, he says. Political will often flagged.

“It dawned on me that I’ve been through this before,” he said. “I suspect we’ll have financial accountability someday in this state. Maybe just not for a while.”

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of supplies by flickr user BarbaraLN, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
Voice_of_Experience
Tuesday, 03/13/2012 - 10:47AM

There are no surprises here. Teachers have always understood that adminnistrators (including counselors, assistant principals, "academic achievement" specialists, "helping" teachers, district level administration, and loads of secretaries at the district offices) were always going to be exempt from real cuts, along with their bloated salaries. Teachers pay all of the price of cuts and are getting out because they are no longer allowed to teach. They have many, many more students and prescriptive curriculum designed for no purpose other than to pass a standardized test. It is useless and a waste of everyone's time. What all of these conservatative groups need to advocate for is an end to the testing and a cap on the amount of administrative salaries as a function of the teaching salary, plus a ratio of administrators to teachers. And, every school campus should have a librarian, who is a certified teacher, not an administrator or paraprofessonal pretending to be a teacher-librarian.

Lee Ann O'Neal
Tuesday, 03/13/2012 - 04:14PM

Dear Voice_of_Experience: Thank you for weighing in on the issue. It's clear you've had significant experience, as your pseudonym suggests, in education. What do you think is an adequate and useful ratio of administrators to teachers in, say, a large district like Dallas or Houston? Or do you think the "right" ratio would stand no matter the size of the district? I am curious to know what you think.

-- Lee Ann, Texas Watchdog

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