School administration
At a time of tight budgets, school districts should trim head office first

School districts in Minnesota have faced tight budgets in recent years, and that puts the onus on school officials to ensure that dollars are being spent as efficiently as possible. That’s especially true when it comes to administrative costs.

While sound administration is clearly essential to the effective operation of a school district, spending any more than necessary is inappropriate, particularly at a time when schools are considering major cuts to educational programming.

As we report this week, both the Ely and the St. Louis County school districts have administrative costs that are above the norm. Ely school officials are aware of that fact, which is a good starting point for addressing any problem. Given the frequent turnover in the school district’s administration in recent years, school officials are hoping for a year of stability before exploring further reductions to administration.

By contrast, while some board members in ISD 2142 have begun to question the district’s excessive overhead, school administrators in the district seem more focused on obscuring that fact than actually addressing it.

That’s a shame. The reluctance of top administrators in the district to acknowledge the serious problem of administrative bloat in ISD 2142 has a direct and negative effect on students.

And there is no doubt that ISD 2142 is in a league by itself when it comes to administrative costs. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the district spends fully 74 percent more per student on administration than other districts of similar size.

We’re not the first to make that point. Back in 2008, as the district was exploring restructuring, Charles Speiker, a finance specialist with MDE, told the board that the district’s administrative costs were the highest he could find among similar districts, and by a wide margin. At that time, the district was spending $1,170 per student on administration. In the most recently completed school year, it was $1,360 per student using the same data set cited by Speiker five years ago. That’s a 16 percent increase in just five years, at a time when state pupil aid has been nearly flat.

That’s not all attributable to administrative wages , which have increased by a smaller percentage over the past five years. But unlike most school districts, where school administrators operate from existing schools, ISD 2142 runs its administration from a separate headquarters, and the cost of operating that building has undoubtedly increased significantly along with the price of heating fuels and other utilities.

So at a time when most other school districts are endeavoring to keep their administrative costs in check, the ISD 2142 school board has done nothing to address the problem, proposing instead to cut 15 teachers in order to protect its bloated administrative staff from any streamlining.

Priorities speak volumes about what really matters in any school district. When districts direct their resources to the classroom, that’s evidence that kids count. When they sit idly by as administrative costs increasingly consume precious state aid, it indicates something else entirely. And it isn’t flattering.


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