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OK: Common Education: Administrative costs under fire

By   /   September 4, 2012  /   1 Comment

By Stacy Martin | CapitolBeatOK

OKLAHOMA CITY —A hard press for transparency has led Oklahoma’s first Republican state education superintendent to post more detailed financial data on her agency’s web site.

Oklahoma Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi visits a classroom.

The latest shocker: Oklahoma’s educated system is partly bloated by the $184 million in salaries alone that taxpayers are paying about 2,700 school district administrators.

Pressures for transparency from Oklahoma Watchdog, CapitolBeatOK and lawmakers propelled agency reporting into the open. In evaluations, the website Sunshine Review gives the State Department of Education and other Oklahoma state agencies a “B” for transparency.

State Superintendent Janet Barresi posted district administrators’ salaries prominently on her website so interested taxpayers could easily locate them.

The cost of ranking administrative personnel – full-time, not full-time equivalent, and not including support staff – with benefits excluded:

  • 499 superintendents, collectively earn: $44.1 million
  • 82 assistant superintendents, collectively earn: $7.3 million
  • 1,504 principals earn a combined: $97.3 million
  • 599 assistant vice principals collectively earned: $35.1 million
  • Total district leadership salaries: $184 million

Baressi would not say what she thought of the expense, leaving that to website visitors.

“I’ve said from the beginning that I am against forced consolidation of school districts,” she said in a statement to CapitolBeatOK. “No matter what I think about this issue, this needs to be a decision that is driven by local teachers, parents and individual school districts that are making decisions local areas.

“My focus is on reducing administration costs by building in efficiencies wherever possible to get the most money into the classrooms as we can. We do this by offering purchasing co-ops where possible, such as for instruction or for transportation, so that we achieve economies of scale.

“We can’t force a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “In some cases, a leader’s salary is indicative of multiple hats that person is wearing, such as serving as superintendent as well as principal, bus driver, classroom teacher.”

Barresi was elected as a reformer.

Voters, particularly conservatives, were anxious to contain runaway education costs they’d been bloodied with for so long under decades of Democratic leadership.

During those years, state education appropriations spiraled to one-third and often more of the total state budget.

The new superintendent has shaken things up, redirecting some funding to preschool education, virtual schools and reducing state aid to districts losing students, who are the primary driver of district funding. The latter is what state law directs her to do.

More recently, she worked with seven superintendents to participate in a voluntary, shared-resource program, which will cut superintendent costs for six districts too small for full-time leadership. The $8-million voluntary consolidation fund was put into place by the Legislature several years ago.

As one might expect, Barresi’s approach has won mixed reviews. But she plows on, focusing on the most difficult task of all – trimming overhead.

“Consolidation – that’s a dirty word to us,” said a Mountain View-Gotebo Superintendent Andy Evans. “Nah, I’m just kidding.”

Historically, the most difficult hurdles have been legislators, and even constituents.

They, plus the National Education Association labor union’s state affiliate — the Oklahoma Education Association — angrily call lawmakers whenever school consolidation talk stirs, despite the obvious tax savings.

Last year, legislators successfully repealed the “trial de novo” law. It had given dismissed teachers automatic recourse to district courts.

The repeal may reduce school district costs when boards of education try to fire underperforming educators.

It was an acknowledged blow to the OEA, but the group’s general counsel threatened to make school boards miserable if they try to fire an OEA member. The OEA has not responded to a request for comment on the new data.\

Contact Stacy Martin at Stacy@oklahomawatchdog.org

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Patrick B. McGuigan is bureau chief for the Oklahoma City Bureau of Watchdog.org, and works from the press room at the state Capitol. He is also the editor of CapitolBeatOK, and Associate Publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper. In 2013, The Washington Post blog “The Fix” designated Pat one of the best reporters in Oklahoma. In addition to the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists, where he serves as state secretary-treasurer, Pat is a member of the National Press Club and the Tulsa Press Club.