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Thursday, July 24, 2014

District cuts target administration

BY LORI YOUNT
The Wichita Eagle

Roughly $10 million of the estimated $25 million in cuts to the Wichita school district budget next year will come from districtwide costs, including combining administrative positions, according to superintendent John Allison.

"We're making as large a reduction in non-campus areas," Allison said, adding that after those cuts are decided, principals would be asked to reduce their school budgets.

The school board on Monday will hear $4.2 million in proposed cuts for central administration, including delaying textbook orders, paying less overtime for custodians and adjusting start times at eight schools.

In an effort to reach his goal of $10 million, Allison said he expects more savings from cutting or combining administrative positions. How many positions could be affected is expected to be presented to the board April 26, district leaders said.

And with almost 30 Wichita school administrators making six-figure salaries, some see plenty of room for cuts to positions and salaries.

"If you're trying to save the school district and the emphasis is really kids, you've got to make drastic cuts," said Sandra Ronsick, a retired midlevel administrator from the district. "It's unrealistic to keep doing that kind of thing."

As with teachers, administrators' pay has been frozen at last school year's levels.

State Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, who is also a former Wichita school board member, said she knows administrative salaries don't make up a big portion of school budgets, but it would be a symbolic gesture if administrators cut their pay.

"Those salaries are the highest salaries, and they should be cut too," she said, adding that legislators took a cut in their salaries. "Every school district has to analyze their positions."

Cutting from the top

Administrators point out that their salaries make up less than 1 percent of the district's expenses. Cutting all their jobs wouldn't come close to filling an estimated $25 million hole in the budget next school year, they said.

Spending on "district leadership" in Wichita has increased about 56 percent in the past five years, according to the district's budget — from $2.3 million in 2005-06 to a budgeted $3.6 million this school year. The $3.6 million is 0.6 percent of the $620.5 million total budget this year.

This spending applies only to 23 top employees in the district's education-related offices, such as assistant superintendents.

In handouts the district has compiled to seek public feedback about how to trim expenses next school year, the district identified 79 full-time district-level administrators. They include many top operations employees, such as the leaders of the finance and transportation departments.

These 79 base salaries add up to roughly $7 million, according to an Eagle analysis of school employee salary data.

The district hired more administrators after state aid to schools was increased in 2006 as a result of a lawsuit over state funding, school board president Barbara Fuller said. About five education administrators have been added since then.

With the new money, Fuller said the school district hired more curriculum leaders to help meet federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, which calls for high-poverty schools to pass state tests or face consequences.

Fuller said the additional positions were based on research about improving test scores.

Since 2000, reading proficiency on state tests has improved by 19 percent, and math proficiency has improved by 24 percent, according to the district.

But with a tight budget, Fuller said she doesn't know if the district can operate at its current level.

"We cannot continue the level of downtown (administration) we have," she said. "(Allison) is looking at all departments and the operations of the departments."

In districts he worked at previously, Allison has tightened administration, but he said most changes were for the efficiency of the district, not necessarily to balance a budget.

"In a perfect world, I would've liked to have had a year without it having to be influenced by budget cuts," said Allison, who arrived in July. "But we'll be doing consolidation because of budget cuts."

Cutting from the top will still have an impact on the district's operation, he said.

"Everyone thinks it's no big deal," Allison said. "Once the cuts are made, they ask, 'Why aren't we doing this anymore?' "

These noticeable cuts could include services such as custodial work and transportation, he said.

Loss of experience

A rash of retirements — six of a total of 26 administrators — will allow the Goddard school district to cut $335,000 in salaries next year, said Rod Dietz, assistant superintendent of business.

"It won't be nearly enough," he said, adding that the district cut roughly $700,000 from its budget this year and expects about the same next year.

Several top administrators, including Dietz, are retiring and being replaced by less costly assistants — or not at all.

"We have known this for a couple of years," Dietz said. "We knew we were going to get hit in this way."

He said the loss of experience and positions next year will affect the district "quite a bit."

"Someone is going to pick up the slack to make things work," Dietz said.

"In the long run, kids are going to suffer."

In Maize, administrative costs have risen in recent years because the school board decided to give raises to employees who aren't administrators or teachers — but count in the state's definition of general administration — to get their salaries in line with other area districts. The board didn't want to go back on the promise despite budget cuts, spokeswoman Karen McDermott said.

Andover is shaving some expenses of its 25 administrators, including principals. More than half took a furlough this school year, business manager Jim Freeman said.

Next school year, he said, the district plans to cut one districtwide support services job and part-time assistant principals at two schools.

And if teachers agree to a pay cut next year in their union contract, superintendent Mark Evans said the pay cut would be made districtwide, including administrators.

District-level cuts won't affect student services as noticeably as loss of school positions, Freeman said.

"They will have some impact down the road," he said.

Room for cuts

After having been a mid-level administrator, Ronsick said she sees much room to cut among the bevy of administrators hired to oversee curriculum as state tests became the principal way of judging a school's quality.

They aren't as necessary in this budget crunch, she said.

"Everyone has to do more with less," Ronsick said. "Why is it not happening at the school district?"

Wichita's administration is much larger than most Kansas districts because it has the most students in the state — about 50,000, legislator Schodorf said.

But although administration makes up a small percentage of a district's budget, she said some mid-level administrators might have to go if there's no money.

"The budget situation is so serious, every position needs to be looked at," Schodorf said. "Administration should be looked at also."

"Those salaries are the highest salaries — they should be cut too."

Board president Fuller said whether administrative salaries are cut depends on the budget reduction process, including more feedback from a panel of community stakeholders planned for this month.

"I don't want to make decisions until I see the whole picture," she said.

Reach Lori Yount at 316-268-6269 or lyount@wichitaeagle.com.

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