Some members of the ISD 2142 school board have begun asking needed questions about the district’s administrative costs, which continue to be among the very highest in the state compared to districts of similar size. Unfortunately, it’s going to take more
Marshall Helmberger

Some members of the ISD 2142 school board have begun asking needed questions about the district’s administrative costs, which continue to be among the very highest in the state compared to districts of similar size.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than questions. The district needs answers, and a real commitment to getting its extraordinary administrative costs under control, particularly at a time when it is cutting significant numbers of teachers and watching class sizes grow to uncomfortable levels.

To date, whenever board members broach the subject, top administrators fall back on their usual rationalizations, namely that the district is unusually large geographically, which somehow requires more bureaucrats at their Virginia headquarters. Administrators used to argue that the district’s seven schools boosted the district’s administrative costs, but that argument has less relevance now that the district has reduced its facilities to five. The restructuring plan was supposed to bring administrative savings, but— like the rest of the savings promised under the plan— they have yet to materialize.

While the number of schools can certainly affect a district’s school-level administrative costs, ISD 2142’s administrative costs have been far too high at the district-wide level as well. Combined, the district’s administrative costs are fully 75 percent above the statewide average. There’s no excuse for that kind of inefficiency.

It’s clear, however, that the current administration is either incapable or unwilling to find administrative efficiencies. Fortunately, the district does not need to reinvent the wheel. They could point to any school district in the state and find a more efficient administrative model— they simply need to start looking.

While consultants have a mixed track record (think Johnson Controls), this may be one case where the district could benefit from an independent, outside perspective. There are consultants who specialize in helping school districts achieve staffing efficiencies and they would be hard-pressed to find a district more in need of their services than ISD 2142.

An outside consultant would take an in-depth look at the actual work being done by district administrators and determine ways that the work could be streamlined, or positions consolidated.

An outside consultant would also likely question why the district maintains an administrative headquarters located outside the district’s borders. While the district’s unusual geographical layout makes Virginia a relatively central location, that’s far less important with the communications available today. District officials used to argue it was a good, central location for school board meetings— and that was a legitimate argument until the district learned recently that holding meetings there violates the state’s Open Meeting Law.

There’s really no good justification any longer for maintaining the district’s Virginia headquarters. Closing the office and relocating administrative personnel to school buildings within the district would save money.

Combine that with an administrative streamlining and the district could save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, without affecting students. By relocating these positions to communities within the school district, it has the additional advantage of encouraging district staff to live in communities the district serves, where they become taxpayers and their children can attend district schools.

The Tower-Soudan School has plenty of room to accommodate administrative personnel, but other schools could house some staff as well. Dispersing personnel to multiple sites could actually improve efficiency, since many could serve both district-level and school-level administrative services at the same time, as is typical in most school districts. A receptionist who now answers phones at the district office could also answer the phones at a school site, and provide many of the other functions of a school secretary. The superintendent could cover as principal at the school where he or she maintains an office. In most school districts, administrators wear multiple hats. While that is also true in some cases in ISD 2142, the district needs to do more.

The undeniable bottom line is that other school districts have found ways to keep their administrative costs in check, without falling into disarray.

While the ISD 2142 school board deserves credit for starting to raise the question, they can’t let administrators use pat answers to justify their high costs. The district is geographically large, but the school district only administers its school sites, not the vast territory that lies between. And many school districts of similar size maintain five or more school sites, and manage to do so with administrative costs that are far lower than in ISD 2142.

Good administrators understand the needs of their organization and don’t offer up ridiculous justifications for administrative bloat simply to make their jobs easier— and when the school board hears such arguments, it should raise red flags.

ISD 2142 desperately needs a new administrative mindset. If that can’t come from the district’s current administration, then it’s time the board begin searching for leaders who can make it happen.

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3 comments on this item

Too little, too late!

We could " re-purpose" the boondoggle buildings. Fold ISD 2142. The definition of insanity is 2142! Larger, much more successfull districts surround this quaint little SELF-SERVING, OBSOLETE district. Close it down and admit you were wrong already. Remember, it's for the kids!

Marshall makes a ton of sense with his thoughts about moving the district administration forces into one of the schools. Sell the Virginia building, and move to Tower, or Cook.

I like the suggestion that the superintendent could act as principal at Tower if that was the office location.

Spend the money on the kids, not the hired help.

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