Friday, November 29, 2013

Too Many Administrators?

It takes a lot of money to run a school district like ours - $202 million for the current school year, as detailed in the Annual Budget*. That's not a magic number. Rather it's the result of a collection of decisions made over the years, some big and some small. The big ones are these:
  • What we're going to offer our students in terms of programming and services
  • How we're going to provide those programs and services, which has both staffing and facilities considerations
  • How much we're going to invest in the purchase, construction and maintenance of our facilities and capital equipment
  • How well we're going to compensate the teachers, staff, and administrators
Many times on this blog I have stated that 86% of our budget is spent on compensation and benefits. To clarify, we spend 86% of our General Fund budget on compensation and benefits. This is the part of our financial structure into which the property taxes generated by operating levies are collected, as well as the funding from the State of Ohio. It is from the General Fund that we pay almost all of the compensation and benefits, buy books, pay the utility bills, and fund the cost of the everyday operations of the district. It is the General Fund we're dealing with when Treasurer Brian Wilson presents the Five Year Forecast to the School Board. The General Fund Budget is $167 million for FY14, or 82% of the total budget*.

That means compensation and benefits are 71% of our overall annual spending, used to employ 1,683 people, all who directly or indirectly support the education of 15,838 students.

A comment often heard is that we're "top-heavy with administrators."  A parent said that to me last week. As a candidate for the School Board, Brian Perry said this was something he wanted addressed, and a lot of voters agreed with him.

Maybe it's because I spent a lot of years in management, but I think the opposite might be true. I'm not sure we have enough administrators given the amount of work they have to do. In particular, I'm concerned about the principals and assistant principals because of the new workload placed on them by the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES).

Many of us - me included - would like there to be an accurate, fair and trusted methodology created for evaluating teacher effectiveness so that we can reward teachers accordingly. As my friend Marc Schare says (who was just re-elected to his third term on the Worthington School Board), under the current step-and-lane compensation system, some teachers are overpaid, and some are underpaid, and we can't fix either problem. OTES might be step towards getting there, but part of the cost is the time burden it puts on both our teachers and administrators.

So what is the makeup of our administrative team?
  • Each of our 17 elementary buildings has one principal.  Assistant principals at the elementary level were eliminated several years ago. These 17 principals supervise about 340 classroom teachers, plus many other professional staff, and are collectively responsible for 8,300 kids. That's a ratio of 20 regular classroom teachers and 488 students per administrator.
  • Our 3 middle schools each have a principal and an assistant principal. I don't have the count of teachers at the middle school level, but there are 2,415 students, making the ratio 402 students per administrator.
  • The three high schools each have one principal. Bradley and Darby each have 3 assistant principals, and Davidson has four. Together they are responsible for 4,803 students, for a ratio of 300 students per administrator.
  • Each high school also has an athletic director.
  • The district-wide School Age Child Care program has one director and four building level coordinators
  • At the central office, we have 11 department directors, 20 supervisors (e.g. building maintenance, custodial, transportation), and five administrative assistants
  • The superintendent, treasurer, and two assistant superintendents.
Another point of comparison is the administrative cost per student. The Ohio Dept of Education requires school districts to reports expenses according to standardized categories. Here's how we stack up compared to the other districts in Franklin County (data from the ODE's Cupp Report):

Click to enlarge; source spreadsheet here
Notice that we have the lowest Administrative cost per pupil of any district in the county - by far.

So I don't agree that we have too many administrators, or that our management structure is too top-heavy. Compared to corporate environments, I think we run pretty thin.

That's not to say that I think our cost per student is exactly where it should be. That too is a matter of opinion, and can be answered only in the context of the strategic questions I pose at the top of this article. Some districts in our county spend a good deal more per student, such as Bexley, Grandview Heights, and Upper Arlington. This is in part due to the richness of their programming, and in part because of their compensation structure.

Columbus City Schools also spends a lot per student, I suspect in part because of the large amount of intervention services they must provide to their vast numbers of students from poverty. However, they also have an extremely high administrative cost.

We need to have an ongoing dialog about how much money we spend for what, and we also have to recognize that we are not of one mind in regard to the answers. But I hope we do agree that the relationship between the perceived quality of the school district and the taxes we must pay to create that quality influences the desirability of our community, and hence our property values.

The best situation would be to have low taxes and high perceived value. There are probably some districts which fall into this category, but I can't think of any. Indian Hill down near Cincinnati has a very low tax rate, but it also has the second highest property valuation per pupil in the state - virtually all of it residential. In spite of a very low tax rate, they still have enough money to spend $15,740 per student, with 84% of generated by local taxes.

The worst is to have high taxes and low perceived value. The districts who initiated the DeRolph case many years ago probably felt they were in this category, as they had fairly high property tax rates, but it generated little revenue because property values are so low. This is the situation which led the Ohio Supreme Court to declare that funding system as unconstitutional.

We are in neither extreme. Our taxes feel too high to many folks, but they're that way primarily because we're a relatively affluent bedroom community (meaning we get less state funding support than rural and urban districts) where residential development has been allowed to significantly outpace commercial development.

But we also have one of the most desirable school districts in the region. Yes, we can probably get by with less. The challenge is getting a majority of people to agree what we can do with less of so we can invest more for the future, and keep the desirability of our schools - and hence our community - high.

I hope you participate in the discussion.

* The budget actually says $227 million. The difference is due to the way our medical benefits are accounted for, with there being a $25 million expense recorded to the General Fund which is then recorded as revenue to the Proprietary Funds, which is where we pay out actual medical expenses for our employees. Nothing sneaky, just the way the accounting works for government entities. For those of us used to corporate accounting, it makes sense to wash this out, just as would be done when rolling up a subsidiary's books to the parent.


  1. Paul,

    We vote for the school board who hires a super who runs the district. The exact number of adm has always been shell game to me at best. I know in the past we changed a title in the schools but the head count was the same. ( was it asst class principle? I forget)

    The super has a budget to get the job done. Since he is accountable for results I put my faith in him to have the correct number of people at what ever title and pay he wants. That is ok since he is the one accountable.

    I do not have too much concern with workload for adm. Coming from the private sector where you had to balance employee ratings with a set amount of salary from the the CEO. Well having to rate teachers every year without any connection to salary. They will be OK. My concern is that they lack the tools and skills to convert observations and ratings into higher ratings and results.

    Since we continue (ohio schools) to allow the disconect between performance and pay (union step and grade) the workload will be just fine. Is Dr M the one to break this cycle?????


    1. Dave: Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, in 2009 two assistant principals in each high school were given the title "Student Services Coordinator" or "Program Services Coordinator," and it seemed to be in direct response to the criticism that there were five principals in each high school (one head plus an asst for each grade level). I asked at the time (before I was elected to the School Board) for job descriptions for these new positions, and found that they required a principal's license. So yes, it seemed like a shell game.

      But we should note that with the opening of Bradley, there is one less principal-level person in Darby and Bradley - only Davidson has 4 principal-level folks in addition to the head principal. Net is that we have two fewer administrators at the high school level overall than we would have under the prior staffing approach.

      The OTES workload issue is real. I've been a manager for 40 years, and never had the responsibility of doing performance assessments for 20 professional-level people, which is the case for our elementary principals. Add to that the reality that they have to get these assessments done in a 180-day school year, plus deal with all the other demands on a principal, and it's a real concern.

      One reason we have step/lane was that enough good teachers had to suffer under enough bad principals to allow unions to find a place, demanding step/lane pay grids to neutralize the favoritism that was perceived to exist. Not necessarily in our district, but the problem was widespread enough to get the teachers organized.

      So if we want to ask the teachers to try something different, they need to have confidence that the new methodology is accurate and fair, and they won't be returning to what they feel was the bad old days. It will be tough to have an accurate and fair system if the administrators don't have the appropriate time to make it so.

    2. Paul, my own experience is different to yours. I have seen multiple situations where one person is responsible for 20-30 (or more) professional people. Generally, the more professional, the more people. I guess that makes some sense -- the more professional you are, the less supervision you need.

      I've also never myself been in a situation where I didn't write my own performance review. Edited, of course, by management, based on their observations and feedback by peers. I've seen managers who spend too much time wordsmithing reviews, and managers who haven't changed a thing.

      Given that teachers are generally highly professional people, I don't see any issue with a principal being responsible for 20-30 teacher evaluations. The issue I believe is that none of these people have had to do this before so they are easily put off by organizations like OEA that are very vocally against performance-based pay and evaluations, and easily swayed to it being a "difficult" task.

      Sorry, but if you can teach a classroom of kids, writing a performance review is a walk in the park!

    3. Although these are two sides of the same coin, supervision and evaluation are two different things. I expect that few of us in the private sector have had to deal with a government mandated evaluation rubric like OTES.

      Lots of folks, including me, have cried out for a movement from step/lane compensation systems for the public sector (it's not just schools) to one where compensation is tied to individual effectiveness. The repeal of SB5 put that to an end that movement for now, but OTES survived by being buried in the state budget.

      OTES might be movement toward different kinds of compensation systems, but first we have to see if it works, and can be trusted. That's going to take a substantial investment of time for all parties - there is no free lunch.

    4. Paul,

      The interesting thing is that most teachers (particularly younger teachers) I know actually support the idea of merit pay. The problem is always in the details of implementation.

      We now have a state government (that has no clue when it comes to education) imposing a system mandating a certain percent of a teacher evaluation comes from test scores, when all research AND the testing companies themselves say there is no connection between scores and ability. Then they also throw in extensive requirements for observation from the principal. Low and behold, not long after, they back off on their demands after starting to see the light that things aren't workable as they demanded.

      I think you absolutely NAILED it when you talk about good teachers suffering under bad principals/administration. Unless there is solid trust there (and that is completely missing in most cases I see), combined with a proper evaluation system, merit pay is almost a non-starter and teachers, even those in favor of the concept, are given reason to dig in their heels and stick with their old system. It may not be good, but they know they won't be screwed over.... and I've seen a fair number of teachers with EXTREMELY strong performance reviews - including Master Teacher status (NOT an easy thing to get, and something that requires you voluntarily submit yourself to much more rigorous evaluations) - get screwed over by administration in favoritism games. That Master Teacher applied for a full time role (up from part time) and the very administration that granted him that designation passed him over for a new hire, claiming that he wasn't qualified for the role (despite all necessary certifications AND having a positive review in that exact role in a part time position). Instead, they hired a friend of the principal with -zero- experience in the role and no evaluations to go on.

      THAT sort of behavior breeds mistrust and prevents merit pay from taking hold.

      On the other hand, my private-sector employer has, like most large firms, a bit of a hybrid system. You get an evaluation, and based on your evaluation, experience, and position, you get paid $x. You get the equivalent of step increases every year, but the amount is dependent upon where you are in the pay scale and your evaluation. Because employees generally trust the system, it works.

      Interestingly, SB5 would have made such a system illegal in Ohio for teachers, as experience still was used as a factor.


  2. Paul,

    With just a skim of the Wall Street Journal today, education in the United States is in trouble. We spend so much, more than any other county, yet we drop in global rankings.

    While I feel the fact that we provide k-12 for all children, not just the ones that test to advance has something to do with the rankings.

    In the past we always wanted to provide an education for our youth for the global market. I wounder were our graduates would rank in the global world, just not Ohio.

    The country and state launches new program after program. We never wait to see the results prior to moving onto the next new dash for the money and new approach.

    When we as a school district move past the latest and greatest approach. End the protection of or labor contracts (teachers) and focus on results that mean something. Then will we become a world class district.

    While I understand your review of the step/lane pay plan, enough is enough. It was the past, and should go the way of the car companies. Failure to let the free market work will take us to the cliff where the will be no gov handouts and tax payers saying no more.

    My personal evaluation of Dr. M is that we have a leader who can take us to world class status. That does not mean more money, it means doing different things ranging from class size to approach. Constant evaluation and change, with a contract that allows him to do so. The real gamble is not going for the moon.

    If he takes a shot and wins we become a national focus, if he fails what did it really cost? Where do we rank now in a global setting. I do not care if we rate higher than little town or big city Ohio.

    Board- Be bold and take risk!
    Adm- Be leaders
    Teachers- Be Effective, become engaged
    Community-Support the dream.

    We as a community will pay for world class results, but are we paying for world class now and getting only Ohio proud. If education is so importand lets strive for world class. This means everyone is all in students. teachers and the community. If you build it they will come and when they come everybody wins, but it is results first.

    Teachers engage or leave, no more protection of their contract from past problems. The real lesson is if we win big all will win.


    1. Dave:

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      America is a complex nation, and our education dilemma reflects that. The countries many want to compare us to are different places, with different political systems, different cultures, and different values.

      There are plenty of countries in this world where only the rich kids have access to education - the rest grow up without. Other countries often touted as "better" are small monocultures with national education systems, e.g. Finland. There are some countries which sort their kids out into career tracks prior to high school. Think the 3rd grade reading guarantee is a high stakes situation? Imagine being tested in middle school to determine whether one gets to go to college or not.

      We've let our social welfare systems promote multi-generational poverty. Poorly educated adults conceive children into single-parent homes then fail to provide the kind of nurturing that gives those children a shot to escape poverty. We try to fix that with more social programs and ultimately through our public education system, which is an enormously expensive and inefficient approach.

      Our own school district is a microcosm of the country, with a mixture of kids from affluent homes with highly educated professional parents, kids from middle-class families with decent education and decent incomes, kids from single-parent homes living below the poverty level, and immigrant kids from families struggling to make a life in a new country.

      In spite of that, we have a very desirable school system, and hence a very desirable community.

      What we pay to run our schools is a complex question. Remember that we pay via two channels - our income taxes and our property taxes. Because our property values are relatively high, most of our income taxes are redistributed to support other districts. But because our property base is primarily residential, the homeowners are bearing most of the cost.

      Maybe we should have a statewide education system, where every district gets exactly the same amount per student. Maybe it should be a federal system.

      I suspect given the reasonable choices, most folks would leave things the way they are, with significant local control. But it also means we all have to engage in some tough decision making.

      I appreciate you making that investment. I hope you will motivate your network of friends, neighbors and contacts to engage as well.

    2. I think the primary reason we fall behind on global rankings is because most of the countries above us start their kids in school 1-2 years before us, and in many cases mandatory school-age ends at 16, not 18. So in many instances it's not really a fair comparison.

      Of course lowering the school age would increase costs, so it's not a simple solution either -- we might increase in rankings, but the cost per pupil would potentially skyrocket.

      What we can address though is the one-size-fits-all mentality of educators. This is visible to everyone right now in the form of common core where we are teaching to the lowest common denominator, failing to address the advanced abilities of kids further along the education chain, and forcing kids who may never be academically brilliant (but who'll be able to replace a car engine in a blink of an eye) through as system that really doesn't have their best interests at heart. HCSD should be commended for its partnership with Tolles, but there is still a long way to go.

    3. The Common Core criticism is really tiring. Few folks have read the existing curriculum. How can they complain about Common Core until they compare it to what the existing curriculum says?

      Even if it is a least common denominator as you say, the final say with curriculum and teaching methods lies with the local school board. We may and do offer courses of study which well exceed any established standards. And far from being a one-size-fits-all school district, we offer a wide variety of curricular choices - perhaps more than we can afford in the long haul.

      There is no one answer, but we can't ignore the role of the parents. It may not be politically correct to say so, but the parents' genes make a difference. So does the time investment parents make in nurturing their children. Reading to your toddler every day is really really important. This is where poverty enters into the equation. It's not poverty itself that diminishes a child's ability to thrive, it's that parents in poverty - especially multigenerational poverty - are there because they lack the skills to get a decent job, and therefore have little to pass on to their kids.

      As you say, it also has to be okay so tell kids they're not college material, but they may have a ton of aptitude for other valuable vocations. I know little of the British system, but the Germans in particular handle this very well. There are academic high schools (gymnasium) and vocation schools. Both paths are respected.

      I think countries with fewer resources are much more pragmatic in these matters. Some of those countries might outperform us because they don't even let anyone but their smartest kids into school. India may produce more engineers than the US, but they also produce many more child laborers.

    4. Here is what the Fordham Institute has to say about Common Core. Note that they are conservative think tank. I thought this was a particularly informative passage:

      While critics might tinker around the edges, supporters and opponents alike acknowledged that Ohio's previous standards were inadequate. This is consistent with Fordham's past work, in which we rated Ohio's old standards a C in both math and English language arts but gave the Common Core standards an A- and B+, respectively. One growing concern is that there is an increasing tendency to pick out an example of a textbook that is labeled “Common Core aligned” and to attack its quality or content. This creates a compelling story, but it usually says little about the underlying standards. Bad textbooks are bad textbooks, and the Common Core will do nothing to change that. This is where local control will be most critical, as Ohio districts will have the opportunity—no, the responsibility—to choose high-quality learning materials for their students.

    5. One of the highlights of every school year for me is the chance to sit in on some of the Career Mentorship presentation. Here is a list of the career experiences some of our kids have taken advantage of so far this year.

      One of the cool things about this program is that it's not rare to hear a kid say "I thought this is what I wanted to do with my life, but after actually getting into it, I don't like it any more." That probably saved at least one major change in college...

    6. I only drop in every few months, and every single time I find something you say with which I disagree wholeheartedly, but also find myself saying "Amen!" a lot, too, Paul.

      Here, when it comes to common core, I completely agree. It isn't the standard that is the problem, IMO, but the implementation. I see too many people complaining about how things are being taught to meet the common core requirements and blaming the common core and not just the poor choice in curriculum by the district and/or state. In many cases, the new standards really are much stronger. For instance, to meet them, our local district revamped its math curriculum in a way that is very different than old methods and learning progression - but you can see the madness at work if you look carefully at exactly how they're teaching. They actually have 1st graders doing the fundamentals for linear algebra now - the students don't know it, and they don't call it that, but I'll be danged if the kids aren't actually solving for x.

      But throw in new standards with poor choice of curriculum and this absurd over-testing, and you've got a potential disaster and people blame the wrong thing.

      As for complaints about spending/performance relative to other countries, I think you've also hit on some important points. It is easier and cheaper to teach to a more homogenous student body. I don't mean that based on race, but simply based on whether you can teach to students in one language or have to have help for students speaking 2 dozen or more languages, like our local school. It helps control costs when you filter and screen students, tracking some at an early age for college and some for other careers - but then maybe it is a good thing we don't give up so early. We provide more special needs help than most countries do, and that costs a fortune. Again, I'm not complaining about that, but it does make your school look more expensive when you try to teach someone with severe autism or down's syndrome rather than just giving up on them like so many countries do.

      Not only do all those things cost money, but they often impact test scores at the exact same time.

      And of course, there is also Baumol's Cost Disease at work here. Someone with the skill set to become a teacher could easily pick an alternative career such as nursing, or engineering, or accounting.... and so when the wages for these other careers increase, it brings teacher wages along for the ride. While individual districts have varied, statewide teacher salaries have risen in line with state professional averages over the past few decades, providing some evidence of this phenomenon.

      Why is that important? Because Baumol's Cost Disease will let you know simply that in a country with higher wages in general, you should expect higher wages for teachers. And because costs are predominately determined by staff wages everywhere in the world, you should expect spending per student to be significantly higher in the US, too.

      And it turns out that if you correct education spending by dividing by GDP per capita, you find out that the US all of a sudden doesn't look like the profligate spender it appears to be without that correction.

      More simply put, you can't expect people to teach in the US for the same annual wage that teachers get in Estonia.


  3. Paul,

    I would like to return to one of my favorite topics, teacher compensation. I really do not wish to address managements past actions which allowed the union to have such a strong hold. Nor pro sports or many of those items.

    My problem with the system is step and grade. What do you call the weakest teacher with a master + 30 with 23 years in the system. The same as the best teacher with the same education and tenure. They make the same.

    I still find myself searching to find the connection between advanced degrees and learning. Only in education can a person get an advanced degree and obtain a salary increase without any control by management.

    To a more focused point we need every teacher be engaged, invested and innovative. If they are not, they are part of the problem. The path to the top of the pay scale is based on education and time. Not on results, not on making the link between teaching and learning.

    We should have a base pay for teachers. When you move towards innovation you are rewarded. When you make a link between teaching and learning you are rewarded.

    I think our teachers are underpaid, that is if you want innovative teachers who are looking to make that link between teaching and learning.

    I do not think or feel I'am asking too much. My challenge to the board is to provide leadership by asking the teachers to go forth and bring the innovative ideas to the adm. Then allocate resources on the best of the best ideas. Reward failure and success, for they have done what they were asked to do. Reward the effort and reward the success even more.

    Our current systems rewards another year of the same. You should note the different tone of late. No comment about the failure of past leadership. In return I do not want ot hear we will not do that as past management did not pay in a fair way.( a reason provided for step and lane)

    The old teaching methods and union approach is past and dead. Failure on both side to walk out onto the ice is not acceptable. If you want the old style command and control then live with making $50,000 a year.

    We pay for innovation and growth not another year of the same old deal and another step. Please note a issue in the state of PA, allowing schools to put aside seniority when lay offs are needed.

    Remember it is about the students not the teachers. As long as we are teacher focused the link between teaching and learning will never be found!