Lawrence school board leadership expects to make administrative cuts, but breadth of those cuts will be up for debate
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World
As the Lawrence school board prepares to make millions of dollars in cuts to address the district’s budget shortfall, board leaders say they expect those cuts will include reductions at the administrative level. But how deep those cuts will go and which cuts will be made will be up for debate.
Whether the district is administratively top-heavy has been a key question among the public, and the board recently received reports comparing the district’s administration levels and spending to other districts in the state. The data presented a mixed picture about the district’s level of administrators. Among the 18 largest districts in Kansas, the Lawrence district indeed has some of the highest levels of central office administrators; however, the district is slightly below average when it comes to the level of administrators working in school buildings. Spending levels and salaries vary widely depending on a district’s size, but some indicators for Lawrence, when compared to districts with similar enrollments, were roughly on par.
Both School Board President Erica Hill and School Board Vice President Shannon Kimball said cuts would be needed at all levels, including the administrative level. Proposed budget cuts up to this point have included both administrative staff and salary reductions, and both Kimball and Hill said they were open to both options and would be considering various factors in making those decisions.
However, Kimball said she didn’t think it was realistic or feasible to believe that making cuts at the administrative level could be the primary way for the district to address its budget shortage, as some have suggested.
“We are having to look at all areas of our operations in this conversation, and administration is not off the list; it’s definitely in the mix,” Kimball said. “I do not believe that we can solve our budget problems in this district solely by reconfiguring the way that our administrative structure looks.”
Comments about the district’s number of administrators topped the list in a recently completed “thought exchange,” an online platform where the public can submit input and assign rankings to others’ comments. The highest-ranked comment was that cuts should be made to “bloated” district administrative salaries and unnecessary administrative positions rather than those that affect students and staff.
Central office vs. building administrators
A recent Kansas Association of School Boards report provided to the Lawrence school board compared the number of certified central office administrators and building administrators in the state’s 18 largest districts. The report found that Lawrence had one of the highest levels of certified central office administrators of the 18 districts when compared to the number of students enrolled. However, the district was below average when it came to the number of certified administrators at the building level, which would include principals and assistant principals.
Kimball said while the district probably has more certified staff in its central office than other districts, that doesn’t necessarily mean the district is administratively top-heavy. She said she thought the data reflected the district’s choice to do more of its work at the central office level and less at the building level, as opposed to other districts that might have a different distribution of work.
“I think that this data is complicated and nuanced, and for me it does not paint a clear picture that supports the narrative that I think some in the community were looking for this to support,” Kimball said. “As with all things around our budget, it’s far more complicated and you really do have to dig into the details to understand exactly what’s happening and what the impacts of making changes would be.”
Hill said the concerns from the public about administrative levels were important to consider, as was the data provided by the recent reports. Like Kimball, she said that administrative cuts were on the table along with everything else, but she didn’t expect them to bear the brunt of the reductions.
“There is going to be most likely cuts across the board,” Hill said. “… I think the data is really important to actually see the numbers, and not just go off of feeling or perception.”
Both Kimball and Hill considered the data with the caveat that it may not always be a direct “apples to apples” comparison. Both noted comments from KASB Assistant Executive Director of Leadership Britton Hart, who created the report. Hart previously told the board that there are some variations in how districts draw up job descriptions, identify titles and distribute the work throughout the district, which needed to be kept in mind when considering the report.
As the Journal-World reported, the comparison indicated Lawrence had among the highest numbers of administrators serving the smallest numbers of students. Among the 18 districts, on average, there was roughly one certified central office administrator for every 838 students. The Lawrence district has 20 certified central office administrators and a total enrollment of 11,150 students, meaning there is one administrator for about every 558 students. The district had the third lowest student-to-administrator ratio, behind only Salina and Olathe, which had ratios of about 1-to-409 and 1-to-499, respectively.
photo by: KASB
The central office comparison looks specifically at the number of certified central office administrators, meaning it would not include administrators who don’t have education certificates. Another table in the report looks at the certified administrators at the building level, meaning those working on site at the district’s 21 elementary school, middle school and high school buildings. Another table looks at all noncertified staff districtwide.
The Lawrence district has 33 certified building administrators, which puts it below the average among the 18 districts. The average number of certified building administrators per building among the 18 districts was 1.71, and the average ratio of students to each administrator was about 319. The Lawrence district has 1.57 certified administrators per building and about 338 students for each certified building administrator.
Kimball said she thought the numbers spoke to the district’s philosophy of dividing tasks and duties among central office and building administrators. She said the district was previously very site-based, meaning things could be different from one elementary school to the next or one middle school to the next. But she said there has been an effort in recent years to have more handled at the district level for a more consistent approach.
“Over the years that I’ve been on the board, I’ve watched our district work to tighten that up in a way that meant that students were having similar experiences in many aspects regardless of what school building they’re in in our district,” Kimball said.
The district was slightly below average when it came to noncertified staff districtwide, which would include noncertified administrators but also staff positions, such as maintenance and food service workers. The district has about 201 noncertified staff members, which works out to one staff member for about every 56 students. The average among the 18 districts was one staff member for every 49 students.
An overall picture of spending
One way to look at the district’s overall administrative levels, including both central office and building administrators, is to consider what percentage of the district’s budget goes toward administration. The salaries of top administrators are also a comparison point. Both indicators vary widely, with a district’s size being a key factor.
In a separate report provided to the school board, the district looked specifically at general fund spending on overall administrative costs. For the current school year, the district spent about $10.6 million in general fund dollars on administration and support, or about 16% of its total general fund expenditures, according to data the district provides to the Kansas State Department of Education. The district report compared that to the spending levels of the six districts closest in enrollment to Lawrence: Blue Valley, Kansas City, Topeka, Andover, Maize and DeSoto. The average among the seven districts is 17%.
photo by: USD 497
Another report provided to the board listed the salaries of district superintendents and principals in 18 comparable school districts for last school year. The report states the 18 districts selected included the state’s larger school districts as well as neighboring districts. The Lawrence superintendent contracted salary, including fringe benefits, was $252,442, compared to an average of $236,694 among the 18 districts.
The two districts closest in size to Lawrence, which has 11,150 students, are the Topeka and Andover school districts, which have 12,501 students and 8,824 students, respectively. For comparison, Topeka had a superintendent salary of $284,235 and Andover had a superintendent salary of $219,405.
Lawrence’s average principal salary for last year was $104,658, including fringe benefits, compared to the average among the 18 districts of $110,272. For comparison, Topeka’s average principal salary was $110,077, and Andover’s was $116,376.
The district’s shortfall is in the general fund, but other funds also contribute to administrative costs. For the current school year, about $15.7 million of the Lawrence district’s $201.5 million in total expenditures is allocated toward administration and support, or about 8%, according to data the district provides to the Kansas State Department of Education. For comparison, about $32.6 million of Topeka’s $290.9 million in total expenditures is allocated toward administration and support, or about 11%. About $9.05 million of Andover’s $84.1 million in total expenditures is allocated toward administration and support, or about 11%.
Proposed administrative cuts
The district estimates its budget shortfall for this school year is $3.2 million to $3.85 million, and the board has discussed a target of $7 million in budget reductions to have funding for teacher and staff raises.
Board members previously took school closures off the table for this year, and are instead considering various program and staff reductions. Those include the creation of multi-grade classrooms, teacher cuts and administrative cuts. Potential administrative reductions have included eliminating central office, administrative assistant, and assistant high school principal positions, as well as a proposal to share elementary principals. Another proposal would reduce the salaries of administrators making more than $100,000 by 5% using furlough days.
Kimball and Hill both said administrative staff cuts and salary reductions would need to be discussed. However, Kimball said she doesn’t agree with the notion that some of the district’s administrative positions are unneeded, and she said the board needed to be mindful of how those reductions impact other staff.
“When we make cuts at the administrative level, it means there are things that are going to go undone or it means that someone else is going to have to pick up that workload,” Kimball said. “And what I really don’t want to see happen, is I don’t want to see us make cuts at the administrative level that simply just pushes that work onto the plates of teaching staff and building administrators.”
Both Kimball and Hill said they would be looking to hear from Superintendent Anthony Lewis about whether administrative staff cuts, salary reductions, or both options might be the best approach. The Journal-World spoke to Kimball and Hill before district administrators released their recommended list of budget cuts, which includes $400,000 in administrative staff reductions but a recommendation against administrative salary reductions for reasons of retention. Ultimately, it will be up to the full board to decide which cuts to make.
Hill said there would be implications for both administrative staff and salary cuts, and that she will be interested in the approach that causes the least amount of disruption, especially for students. She said the conversations ahead would be challenging for the board and the community.
“It’s all going to be disruptive; we all can agree on that in one way, shape or form,” Hill said. “But what’s the least disruptive way to do this? That will be how I look at the whole entire budget.”
The board asked district administrators to create a list of potential budget cuts that prioritized those that would impact students the least. The district released that list Friday evening, and the board will receive it during a special budget work session on March 22. The board plans to decide which cuts to pursue at its regularly scheduled meeting on March 28.