A Wichita high school with 12 assistant principals? Kobach’s claim is not true

Kansas governor candidate Kris Kobach said during a debate that one Wichita high school has a dozen assistant principals.

Wichita district officials said that statement is “simply untrue,” and they pushed back against Kobach’s claims that schools spend too much on administration.

“It’s important to look beyond political rhetoric about administrative spending, and look at the reality of school district budgets,” said Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita district.

During a debate Saturday at the Kansas State Fair, Kobach, the Republican secretary of state, said K-12 education spending has “more than doubled” in the past 20 years, but that not enough funding is getting to students in classrooms.

“You know, there’s one high school in Wichita that has 12 assistant principals,” Kobach said. “My high school had one assistant principal, and I didn’t know what that guy did.

“Why does a school district, or a high school, need 12 assistant principals? We have got to stop spending so much money on administration and spend it instead in the classroom — on the teacher salaries and on the computers and books.”

Arensman, the Wichita spokeswoman, said the district’s largest high school — East High, which has more than 2,300 students — has five assistant principals.

“Those leaders support academics, activities, behavior, student support, building operations, parent and community engagement, and many other functions,” she said. “They also provide a leadership pipeline in order to grow our building leader ranks from within.”

Sara Richardson took over as principal at East — the state’s largest high school — this year, succeeding longtime principal Ken Thiessen, who retired.

One assistant principal supervises the school’s International Baccalaureate program. The other four are assigned to oversee a particular grade level — freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors — as is the case at most Wichita high schools, Arensman said.

Kobach spokeswoman Danedri Herbert said the candidate “was told by a state legislator” that there were 12 assistant principals at one Wichita high school.

“Because of your question, we double-checked to see what school that legislator was thinking of,” Herbert said in an e-mail.

“We learned that when you combine East High School and North High School, you’ve got a dozen principals and vice principals between the two. That is clearly excessive. It is undeniable that the K-12 system is top-heavy with administrators.”

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said he isn’t aware of any school in the state having 12 assistant principals. But a school having that many assistant principals may not automatically be a bad thing, he suggested.

“Let’s suppose that was true. What are the results that building is getting? Why might they be doing that? Maybe what they call assistant positions are working with kids in different ways, maybe they’re doing things to support students,” Tallman said.

Criticism of spending on school administrators is nothing new. Tallman said how districts spend money is a longstanding issue, generating attention throughout the years.

“We have not seen any evidence to say — whether you’re comparing Kansas to other states or whether you’re comparing Kansas schools to other organizations — that Kansas schools are in some sense top-heavy in these (administration) areas,” Tallman said.

Herbert, the Kobach spokeswoman, said Kobach “uses a figure from the Kansas Policy Institute when he says about 50 percent of school funding goes to the classroom.” As governor, she said, he would advocate for a policy requiring schools to spend 75 cents of every dollar on instruction and classroom materials.

Arensman, the Wichita spokeswoman, said more than 87 percent of the district’s operating budget “directly supports students in classrooms and schools,” including teachers, counselors, nurses, technology, food service, textbooks, utilities and transportation.

School administrators — principals and assistant principals, along with clerical staff and office-related expenditures — account for about 6 percent of the district’s overall budget. District-level administration comprises another 1 percent.

The Legislature this spring approved a $500 million increase in school spending that will phase in over several years. The Kansas Supreme Court wants lawmakers to take inflation into account next year — a change that could add millions to the overall cost of the funding increase.

Before the Legislature approved the spending this year, a study commissioned by lawmakers found Kansas has among the country’s most efficient schools.

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, questioned how Kobach could argue that schools aren’t being efficient with money given the study.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t have enough money in the system. Period,” Desetti said. “And until we put more money in the system, we’re not going to get better.”

School board members in Wichita, the state’s largest school district with about 50,000 students, approved a budget of nearly $740 million for the current fiscal year.

The bulk of Wichita’s $57 million in additional funding went toward teacher retirement payments, a pay raise for teachers, a longer school year, more preschool classrooms and a new elementary school for children struggling with behavior problems.

Wichita superintendent Alicia Thompson and other administrators got pay raises this year as well. Thompson, the state’s highest paid superintendent, receives $307,524 a year in salary and other compensation.