Wichita-area schools losing administrators to budget cuts

To students, Lynn Simnitt is a therapist, police detective, nurse, tutor, counselor, the muscle, snack-provider, friend — and sometimes mom.

She's also the assistant principal at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School.

Ten minutes after the starting bell rang Wednesday, Simnitt had talked to three students about discipline problems and handed out bowling passes to one who had improved his behavior.

Simnitt's preventive approach to discipline has helped the school lower its suspension rate by 66 percent, principal Linda Hope said.

Almost 14 percent of Minneha's students were suspended last year. This year, 10 of the 665 students have been suspended, though some were suspended multiple times.

Hope said without an assistant principal at the school, there wouldn't have been much progress in lowering the suspension rate. And she needs Simnitt's help to maintain it.

"I could do it, and then I could not do my job," Hope said.

As schools statewide brace for $187 million in budget cuts next school year, school administration costs are being scrutinized as districts try to keep cuts out of the classroom.

Leaving positions open

In Wichita, there are 93 principals and 77 assistant principals. Principals make an average annual salary of $83,845, and assistant principals make an average salary of $66,146, according to district records.

Last year, average salary and benefits for principals at large districts statewide ranged from $84,932 in Topeka to $113,844 in Shawnee Mission, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. State records list the average salary and benefits of a principal in Wichita at $94,418.

Goddard, which had an average principal salary of $94,126 last year, will lose one of its four assistant principal positions at Goddard High School, said Rod Dietz, assistant superintendent of business.

He said that assistant principal will become the principal at a new elementary school opening next year. The high school job won't be filled.

In Maize, a middle school assistant principal position was left open when the employee filled a vacancy in district administration, spokeswoman Karen McDermott said.

She said the salary for that assistant principal position was used to allow teachers to take on athletic director roles at both high schools.

Salary structure

Principal salaries in Wichita are based on responsibility level, which is lowest in elementary school and highest in high school, where principals oversee extracurricular activities.

Most high school assistant principals make more than many elementary school principals.

Salaries also are based on administrative experience and experience within Wichita schools, so principals of the same responsibility level could have different salaries.

Besides having the highest salaries outside of top administrators in Wichita, most principal salaries are paid out of the district's general fund, where most of the estimated $25 million in cuts will come from.

This won't make principals or assistant principals more vulnerable to cuts than other employees, superintendent John Allison said.

"The functioning of those buildings is important," he said. "Really strong instruction is setting a direction for students."

Not an 'exact science'

Assistant principals were on a list of about 30 items from which district leaders asked parents and teachers to choose what they value most.

Preliminary results show that the assistant principals rank in the middle of what people value.

Simnitt said she's trying not to let potential budget cuts affect how she does her job.

"I doubt there's anyone in the district who feels their job is completely safe," she said.

"I trust the decision made is best for the district overall and hope for the best."

Deciding how many assistant principals a school should have "isn't an exact science," but there are guidelines, Allison said.

Elementary assistant principals usually are at schools with more than 500 students.

At the middle schools and high schools, the number of assistant principals depends on the student population, he said. For example, students in special education or English Language Learner classes require more attention and more administrative paperwork.

Principal Janet Jump said she and her staff at Dodge Literacy Magnet Elementary School have managed to keep the same services to students although this is the school's first year without an assistant principal.

She said the school lost the assistant principal position because its enrollment dipped to 460, and another school had enrollment growth.

Now it might take a little longer to respond to parents and students, she said.

"We are making sure our students' needs are met," Jump said. "We are all working together. It would be easier and better to have an assistant principal to help with that."

The human element

At Minneha, Simnitt splits administrative duties with the principal, Hope.

In addition to discipline, Simnitt manages the buses, lunch and half of the teacher evaluations.

"The principal and the assistant principal have the same duties — it doesn't matter the title," she said.

Principals have higher responsibility because they make final decisions.

Despite the paperwork that being a school administrator requires, Simnitt said she avoids paperwork while students are at school.

"You can't replace that human contact," she said, adding that she never takes a lunch break.

Teachers often ask Simnitt to talk to students when they run out of ideas to help them improve behaviorally or academically.

On Wednesday, a teacher told Simnitt she was heartbroken by a once-star student whose grades and behavior were dropping. There might be family problems, the teacher added.

While walking the halls at her typically brisk pace, Simnitt spotted the student and took him aside for a talk at an empty cafeteria table.

"Are you living in the same place?" she asked, and he nodded. "What about Dad?"

"He's not there anymore," the student said, his mood darkening.

"All we have is the mom," he said, turning his face into a troubled frown.

Simnitt tried to offer encouragement.

"School is the one place you can come and not worry about who lives at your house," she said.

He brightened a little when she told him he could talk to her if he was worried or sad about home.

"Now maybe he'll have a good hour — or two," Simnitt said as he hustled back to his class.

She said she isn't sure if he and other students would get that one-on-one conversation without her role.

"To think of a school without an assistant principal — taking me out of the equation — kids will ultimately suffer," she said.

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