Beaumont Independent School District is the 64th largest in Texas. It is also the home of the state’s highest-paid public school administrator. Superintendent Carrol Thomas takes home $346,778 annually — a fact that could soon bring an uncomfortable spotlight to the community.
For lawmakers scrutinizing every possible saving, the broad category of “administrative costs” presents an easy mark.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called the 58,575 people employed in nonteaching support positions by Texas public schools —”your math department supervisors, your curriculum experts” — a "soft target" for budget cutters. Those positions “must be seriously addressed,” he said. “That number is not based on reality.”
According to Patrick, the ratio of teachers to nonteachers, which includes those employed in administrative and support capacities, in districts has grown to nearly 1 to 1 today from 4 to 1 in the 1970s.
But while it may be more palatable to think of those cuts as trimming bureaucratic fat rather than as damaging the vital organs of a school, there may be less to cut than lawmakers imagine, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization. In reality, Griffith said, administrative spending “is not as bad as some of the rhetoric you’re hearing.”
“You might look at a school district and say ‘well, they have 35 people in their office doing administrative work, that seems excessive’ until you find out that 15 to 20 of them are actually paid for in federal grants,” he said. When districts receive Title I and IDEA grants, that money can also cover administrative costs, so cutting those positions doesn’t mean those dollars will go to saving teachers.
Griffith said, there is no “magic number” that reflects the optimal number of teaching to nonteaching personnel for districts, because it’s difficult to make comparisons across campuses. “The best you can see is if people compare their district to similar districts,” he said, “but that means having 1,200 separate little studies” in Texas.
For new state Rep. Rodney Anderson, R-Grand Prairie, the number of school districts in Texas is a prime example of out-of-control administrative costs. He has said the state should look at consolidating districts. State Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, has introduced a bill that would combine districts within counties.
Ed Fuller, a special research associate at the University of Texas, said that data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the number of central office administrators has actually decreased in Texas since 2003. The number of administrators per school is just below the national average, he said, and there is evidence that districts with more administrators may actually increase the effectiveness of schools.
In an analysis that used campuses’ scores in the Texas Comptroller’s recent Financial Accountability for Texas study — which rated schools and districts based on student achievement relative to spending — he found that the more central office administrators per school, the higher the FAST rating.
This could be true, Fuller said, because it could mean that school principals are receiving more guidance and therefore staying in their jobs longer and improving their abilities more rapidly. “If you don’t have enough central office administrators,” he said, “then principals don’t get the support they need.” He said preliminary results from a survey of principals in Texas suggests that this is accurate.
Still, Patrick cites a staggering statistic — Texas school districts are the fifth largest employers in the world — to suggest there is plenty opportunity for slimming down.
“As the old saying goes,” he said, “when I start seeing districts’ firing assistant football coaches, then I’ll really know that they’ll have a lean budget.”
[Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct an error in the ratio of teachers to nonteachers in the 1970s; the correct ratio is four teachers to every one nonteacher.]