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VA: School staffing ‘surge’ costs taxpayers nearly $1 billion a year

By   /   November 27, 2012  /   No Comments

ACCELERATING COSTS: Virginia’s public schools lead the nation in growth in non-instructional spending.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

FREDERICKSBURG — From 1992 to 2009, Virginia‘s public schools boosted non-instructional positions by 100 percent — nearly five times more than the growth in student enrollment and almost 10 times the increase in teacher hiring.

The Old Dominion’s ballooning ranks of administrative and other non-teaching personnel outpaced all other states, costing Virginia taxpayers an extra $948 million each year, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which published the report, “The School Staffing Surge.”

The national averages from 1992-2009, as calculated by report author Ben Scafidi, were:

  • Students, up 17 percent.
  • Teachers, up 32 percent.
  • Administrators and other staff, up 46 percent.

Virginia’s figures were:

  • Students, up 22 percent.
  • Teachers, up 11 percent.
  • Administrators and other staff, up 100 percent.

“Other staff” range from custodians and lunch-room aides to maintenance and clerical workers — many of whom are full-timers with benefits.

“These numbers are jaw-dropping when they stand alone. Attach them to salary and benefits costs and they become jarring,” said Amber Winkler, vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-reform think tank.

“The increase in non-teaching personnel is astonishing and, frankly, it is not entirely clear what roles these folks are filling and how critical (or not) they are to students’ academic performance,” Winkler said from her Washington, D.C., office.

Nationally, Scafidi estimated, “If non-teaching personnel had grown at the same rate as the growth in students and if the teaching force had grown ‘only’ 1.5 times as fast as the growth in students, American public schools would have an additional $37.2 billion to spend per year.”

Scafidi suggested that the $37.2 billion in annual savings could be used to:

  • Raise every public school teacher’s salary by more than $11,700 per year.
  • More than double taxpayer funding for early childhood education.
  • Provide property tax relief.
  • Give each child in poverty a voucher worth more than $2,600 to attend private school.

True to the free-market philosophy of the Friedman Foundation, Scafidi said the latter option could be the most potent.

“Unless you have angels running your district, (hiring patterns) are unlikely to change.

“But if (school officials) are threatened with losing students and the funding that goes with those students, they would be forced to use their resources best for the students and their families,” Scafidi told Watchdog.org in an interview.

Fordham’s Winkler asserted that a better allocation of resources would bolster public education.

“We offer another fix for district leader: Slim down your workforce, especially by eliminating ancillary positions —including those in special education,” she said.

Overall, Scafidi said, hiring practices at Virginia’s public school cost taxpayers an additional, and unnecessary, $948 million each year.

Scafidi’s report — which includes a state-by-state breakdown — buttresses an earlier Watchdog.org analysis of top-heavy spending in Virginia, where barely six of every 10 school dollars trickle down to the classroom.

The state Department of Education said Virginia has taken steps to slow the growth in non-instructional staff — or at least shine a light on it.

In 2009, the General Assembly, acting on then-Gov. Tim Kaine‘s recommendation, set a funding cap on support positions.

The cap applies a staffing ratio of one support position for every four teachers and other instructional staff — translating to about 19 administrative and support staff for every 1,000 students, said DOE spokesman Charles Pyle.

The capped administrative and support positions include assistant superintendents, IT help desk support, school secretaries and other district-level administrative positions, school psychologists and maintenance employees.

The cap does not cover cafeteria workers, bus drivers, nurses, teacher assistants, kindergarten aides, guidance counselors or assistant principals.

This year, lawmakers directed the Department of Education to include on school division report cards the percentage of each division’s annual operating budget devoted to instructional costs. Individual district reports can be found here.

Scafidi praised Gov. Bob McDonnell‘s effort to increase “transparency in public education,” but was skeptical of Kaine’s cap.

“Money is fungible, so restrictions on state funds likely do not bind school districts from doing what they want to do. If fewer state funds can go to non-teaching staff, then school districts could just divert more local funds to administration and other non-teaching staff,” he said.

While Scafidi reported that enrollments fell in a handful of states, he found no commensurate decrease in school staffing. Nor did he note any effect by federal No Child Left Behind mandates.

“Pre-NCLB (school) employment increased 2.3 times faster than student growth. That’s also true of the post-NCLB period,” he said.

During the period studied, national high-school graduation rates and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam have stagnated or declined.

“As more adults gain employment in public schools, there is no evidence their numbers are leading to improved academic outcomes for students,” Scafidi concluded.

Virginia’s relatively small addition of teachers — up 11 percent versus 32 percent nationally — could be a “good strategy,” he said.

Compared with states that implemented expansive class-size reduction programs, which swelled faculty ranks, “Virginia appears to have gone to a strategy of paying teachers well and having fewer of them,” Scafidi stated.

Indeed, Virginia was one of the few states where the increase in teachers was outpaced by the growth in student enrollment.

But Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, isn’t so sanguine about commonwealth’s policies. And a state Department of Education report ranked Virginia’s average teacher salary of $51,524 at a middling 24th place nationally.

“I believe low teacher salaries, and a lack of respect for the importance of what the classroom teacher does is partially to blame” for the doubling in administrative staff, Greenburg said.

He asserted that “many teachers are burned out in the classroom, or cannot afford to stay there,” so they leave for higher-paying administration jobs.

“It is devastating our profession and our ability to keep the best teachers on the front lines — where they should be — with our students.”

Contact Kenric Ward at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824.

— Edited by John Trump at jtrump@watchdog.org

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Kenric Ward is a veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers. A California native, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 as Virginia Bureau Chief.

Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau, is in no way affiliated with "The Virginia Watchdog". Any similarities between Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau and "The Virginia Watchdog" is completely coincidental and unintentional. Any inquiries into "The Virginia Watchdog" may be done through their site.

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