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District-level Downsizing

Exploding state budget deficits are forcing administrators to cut their own jobs.

Draconian cuts have become the order of business for many school districts since the economic recession hit in 2008. But for the coming school year, "draconian" has taken on an even harsher meaning, as states from California and Texas to Illinois and New York wrestle with deficits in the tens of billions of dollars and make multi-billion-dollar reductions in funding for education.

This time around, the name of the much-maligned ancient Greek legislator Draco easily could be replaced with any number of Republican and Democratic governors or state legislators trying to balance their budgets by exacting huge cuts in public services. "States are cutting the heck out of education," warns Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "You add those cuts to the end of stimulus spending this year, and districts are coming to a cliff."

What district leaders are facing as they stare over that cliff are budget cuts on a scale they have never seen before—and an almost unprecedented reduction in the number of central office and school-based administrators. Domenech points to an AASA survey this past December of school superintendents, who indicated that 5 percent of their budget cuts are targeting fellow administrators. "We expect that percentage to accelerate," adds Domenech.

What's more, he says, whereas past job cuts were covered by attrition, half of the coming cuts will likely affect administrators who want to keep their jobs. The entire administrative spectrum has become vulnerable, say Domenech and other educational leaders, from gutting such departments as assessment and operations at the district level to turning assistant principals into an endangered species on the school level, even as student numbers continue to increase in many districts. "I've talked to old-timers who have been in education for 42 years, and they've never seen anything like this," reports Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. "We're a microcosm of what's going on around the United States, and it's tough."

In California, layoffs have narrowed the administrative corridor considerably. Over the past three years, almost 3,000 administrative positions have vanished—an almost 17 percent reduction, notes Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators. In comparison, he adds, California has lost 20,000—or 6 percent—of its teachers over the same time. With more than a $4 billion cut in state education aid looming, Wells foresees as many as 2,000 pink slips going out to administrators for the coming year, although those numbers could decrease if Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to temporarily raise some state taxes is approved by voters in November.

California isn't alone in its inclination to cut administrative positions at a more rapid rate than teachers. "Your first effort is to try to make the cuts as far away from the classroom," says John Allison, superintendent of the Wichita (Kan.) School District. Although administrator salaries account for just 2 percent of the district's $632 million budget this year, Allison continues, the district cut its central administration by 22 percent. "That's morally where we had to look first," he says. "Our bottom line is core instruction for our students."

Losing Administrators

"We always believe that leadership has to illustrate and model what we expect others to do," adds Michael Bobby, chief financial and operations officer for the Charleston (S.C.) County School District. In attempting to preserve jobs for the 2010-2011 school year in the face of a $25 million budget deficit, Bobby imposed an aggressive furlough plan of nine days for nonteachers, including all administrators, and four for teachers. "Fast forward to 2011-2012," Bobby says, referring to the $28 million projected shortfall to the district's $339 million budget for 2011-2012. "The first thing we've done is take the 41 highest-paid administrators in the district and imposed a 10-day furlough and five days of forced leave—a 6 percent savings in salary," he says.

But while Charleston has frozen the salaries of its 3,400 teachers and laid off what Bobby terms "a handful of teachers who wanted to stay," the Charleston County School Board is cutting between 60 or 70 nonclassroom positions for the coming year. As many as six upper-level administrative positions could be eliminated, including those of associate superintendent and several supervisors in the operations department, which covers everything from food services and transportation to financial services and information technology.

Bobby also says that raising local property taxes to increase educational funding is not an option in the current economic climate. "You've got to remember that every school district has a board that's sensitive to asking people to pay more taxes when unemployment is so high. It doesn't seem right," he explains.

Big Cuts in Irving and Wichita

Dana Bedden, superintendent of the Irving (Texas) Independent School District, says that there currently is no plan in his area to raise property taxes, which account for almost 37 percent of the school budget. Instead, he has tapped $6.5 million of the district's reserve fund required under state law to balance this year's budget and will take another $7 million to $10 million for the coming year.

But reserves won't come close to covering the $21 million to $31 million deficit that the Irving district is facing in 2011- 2012. Those figures translate to an 8 percent to 12 percent shortfall and as much as $1,000 less per student. As a result, the district is increasing class size—adding 3 students for an average of 21.5 at the elementary level, for example— and laying off as many as 149 of its 2,500 teachers.

But Bedden also is eliminating 15 vice principal positions across the district's nearly three dozen schools. There also will be changes in the central office. "We'll go from 15 core curriculum coordinators to eight," he adds, noting that the reduction will leave one coordinator each for math, science, English, and social studies at the elementary level, and one each at the secondary level.

At the same time, Bedden is creating a new position of curriculum director. This person will be responsible for the eight remaining subject coordinators. Bedden says that the district is considering a different way of developing curriculum, in which the writing of the curriculum—normally created by the administrators who were just laid off—could be outsourced,while the remaining staff made additional modifications. The in-house staff also will focus on more-effective implementation, professional development of staff and support for schools.

At the Wichita (Kan.) School District, community members made suggestions regarding the school board?s budget in an annual Board of Education Night Out event.

Bedden cautions that his district can only go so far in making administrative cuts without having a negative impact on classroom support systems and supervision. "We are taking it more on the administrative side, but we have to strike a balance between administrative and teaching reductions because we still have to have the capacity to evaluate and supervise," Bedden insists.

That's also a major concern for Wichita's superintendent, John Allison, who is facing a $30 million budget deficit next year after enduring a $20 million deficit this year. After cutting 19 administrative positions for the current year—including an elementary school assistant superintendent, learning support staff, assessment support staff and administrators in special education and technical education—Allison is making another round of cuts for 2011-2012, among them at least one more assistant superintendent, curriculum coordinators and learning coaches.

While Allison's cost-cutting approaches also have ranged from closing an alternative high school to eliminating the district's driver education program, some of the largest reductions have come at the expense of administrators. Losing these administrators has cost the district, Allison explains. "We can't sustain the type of transformation we need to make as a district unless we have the right people in place," he says. "Now a single assistant superintendent has to evaluate all 62 of our elementary schools instead of 31. It takes time to do those evaluations right."

Consolidation in Illinois

Administrators are unusually vulnerable this year in Illinois, where some of the 868 districts consist of a single school and where many localities divide high schools and K8 schools into separate districts. A sweeping, state-mandated consolidation plan by Gov. Pat Quinn would reduce the number of districts to 300, with a $100 million annual savings in administrator salaries.

While the consolidation proposal has stirred stiff opposition, it has also left superintendents like Lea Prentiss doing the math for a potential merger with the four K8 districts that feed the two high schools comprising his district, Community High School District 128, which covers the towns of Libertyville and Vernon Hills. A notice on the District 128 site states in part that the district "and our feeder districts (Oak Grove School District 68, Libertyville School District 70, Rondout School District 72 and Hawthorne School District 73) could be eliminated without local voter approval."

Prentiss's staff presently includes one associate superintendent, who serves as the district's chief operating officer, and two assistant superintendents for finance and curriculum, respectively. A consolidation of District 128 with the four surrounding K8 districts would eliminate four superintendents, but that's just the start of the cuts, he argues. "If we follow the governor's train of thought, we would have no duplication of services whatsoever. Three of the four elementary districts have full-time business administrators, and all four have curriculum people. To get to the economy of scale he's talking about, [consolidating all five districts] would take us from 15 to three or four administrators." Those remaining positions, Prentiss figures, would be limited to a single district administrator for secondary, elementary and finances.

Prentiss and other Illinois superintendents have been making the case on their district Web sites that large-scale consolidation would undermine the local control and community involvement that have defined the state's school districts. "There would be a lot of logistical and legal questions to answer," Prentiss says. For instance, he explains, since elementary districts are on a different salary scale, about $12,000 less annually per teacher than high school faculty salaries, those salaries would have to be adjusted upward in a newly consolidated district, and the overall cost would exceed any savings on administrative reductions.

Superintendent of Irving (Texas) Independent School District Dana Bedden (right) and Debbie Cabrera, associate superintendent of business services, discuss finance on television show, Eye on Education: Superintendent?s Perspective.

Prentiss suggests that the state's consolidation is more political than pedagogical. "I think there's an alignment of the economy and the political climate, and it's provided some pretty frightening scenarios," he says. "We're about 15 minutes from the Wisconsin border. And watching what's going on in Wisconsin, anything's possible," he adds, referring to the successful efforts of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature in cutting the salaries of public employees and rescinding their collective bargaining rights.

Wichita's Allison agrees that politics in his state has made his job tougher over the past two years. "The hard part is that we're in a political climate where education is not valued, which is a change for Kansas, so we've become a favorite target for cuts," Allison concludes. "Everybody likes to talk about administration and the expense involved. I could shut down the entire district administration and only cover 2 percent of the budget. A business couldn't operate like that, and neither can we. And our customers—students and their families—are increasing."

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.