News Section: Opinion
As Budget Cuts Loom, Focus Shifts to School District's Administrative Salaries
Like nearly every government body in Florida (or the U.S. for that matter), the Manatee County School District has faced plunging revenues over the last several years, while struggling to achieve the deep budget cuts necessary to prevent the deficits they are not lawfully allowed to incur. It hasn't always been successful, as recent audits uncovering huge deficits in its health care plan, as well as misuse of certain tax revenues to fill other holes, have demonstrated.
Now the jig is up. The budget ax will fall – where and how are the only remaining questions. The district may have been counting on a Class Size Amendment repeal to give it some breathing room, but when the referendum was defeated last November, the picture only grew more bleak. Those same elections also carried in a wave of legislators with little in the way of sympathy for the plight of ailing school districts and a hunger for things like merit pay, retirement reform and the elimination of teacher tenure.
Going into the budget sessions, teachers were already facing a 3 percent contribution to a retirement system that used to be funded as part of their compensation. The health care deficit was clearly going to include some sort of change that would mean a higher premium contribution and/or higher co-pays and less dependent coverage. Now, as the district eliminates step increases for continuing education and further “classroom cuts” are considered, some are pointing to an administrative salary budget that they see as bloated and out of step with the county's economic realities.
Most Manatee County taxpayers would probably be very surprised to learn that their school district has 40 employees earning six-figure incomes. Ranging from the food services director to school principals, to the head of construction services, those positions are just some of the many high-paying jobs that reform advocates feel should be front and center when the board weighs decisions on where to trim costs and ask for workers to sacrifice.
Over $550,000 is spent on just the base salary of the superintendent and his three assistant superintendents. The district's on-staff attorney tops the list with a base salary of just over $182,000 with another staff attorney pulling down just under $95k. Most of the highest salaries go to “directors” of various departments, who also have one or more assistants making $60,000 or more. In fact, of the top 100 salaries in the district, only one is a regular k-12 teacher, a language arts instructor who's been with the district 36 years. She comes in at number 97 on the list.
What's more offensive to some taxpayers and reform activists is the fact that many of these administrative costs have risen sharply over the past five years of economic decline, as well as the increase in administrative positions and budgets, while student populations have remained largely flat and cuts to programs and teacher compensation have continued to occur.
James Ferguson, an accountant who holds post-graduate degrees in both accounting and finance has been consistently critical of the district's cost management. Ferguson, who previously sat on the sales tax oversight committee, is currently a member of the district's budget committee and has thoroughly analyzed the district's cost center financial records and has argued that the public is not getting an accurate view of costs from the data claimed by the district administration.
In a string of emails with District Superintendent Tim McGonegal, Ferguson raised some very good questions and pointed out some interesting particulars regarding savings the district has been claiming to have made on the administrative side. In his cost center analysis, he was unable to find the claimed $6.1 million in administrative cuts since 2007-08 that the district has been touting. He also pointed out that using the 2007-08 fiscal year as a base was misleading because it failed to consider an average rate of executive pay increase of 17 percent from 2005-06, and an 18 percent raise in 2006-07, before the pace of executive pay increases was curbed to 3 percent and then7 percent for the following years.
According to Ferguson's emails, the district has “added far more non-school level staff than is warranted for the enrollment increases in the district during the past 5 years” and that this, as well as “the lack of control over personnel salary increases is what is really causing the budget crisis.”
In a letter to school board members, Ferguson urged them to consider the idea that while student enrollment has remained relatively consistent over the past few years, the district has added administrative positions and pay, only to come to the board now and ask them to balance the operating budget through reduced compensation for teachers and school-level cuts.
“Ask yourself if it is fiscally responsible to hire 400 more employees while demanding the balance of the employees to accept cuts for positions that didn’t exist last year, or the year before that, “ wrote Ferguson. “Ask if the teachers and staff of the schools should be punished by accepting reduced pay to support positions unneeded before today? And ask yourself what else has changed to put you in the position of needing to cut services to the students simply because of poor fiscal restraint?”
Ferguson is not alone in his criticism. A group of citizen activists have also been dogging the administration, demanding answers on questions of fiscal accountability and administrative cost control. Linda Schaich and Peggy Martin have been busy steadily writing newspaper editors, petitioning the board and attempting to inform citizens of what they see as serious mismanagement. Schaich has continuously raised the notion of hiring an outside auditor with expertise in cost analysis to review the budget and recommend items that could be eliminated or consolidated. Like Ferguson, she's also been critical of “spin” from the district when lauding cuts, like supposedly “eliminated” positions that remain on the payroll and budget into 2012.
The consistent complaint has been a general lack of willingness to take a serious swipe at administrative salaries and positions at the expense of cuts to the classroom instructors and programs that are the foundation of what the district is in place to support – a quality education for the students of Manatee County – the best once possible for the taxpayer's financial investment.
Criticism of the administrative end is not new, nor is it limited to McGonegal's tenure as superintendent. With many lucrative positions being held by the politically well-connected, it has long been thought of as a soft place to land for the right people. However, less was made of the district's payroll in high times, when budgets were fat with inflated property taxes and rapid growth and development promised more loot. But now that the county faces bleak long-term revenue forecasts and the state continues to push draconian cuts, parents are worried that their children are not getting the best education available and there is no appetite for patronage or administrative waste.
While each position might indeed have its own story or supposed justification, studying the list makes it difficult to feel as though the compensation levels are anywhere near being inline with the county at-large, where the average household only pulls down half of the “Supervising Coordinator of Dropout Prevention's” $93,266 annual salary, and the per capita income is less than a third of what's paid to the district's “Director of Vehicle Maintenance.” Such realities, no matter the explanation, are difficult pills to swallow for parents of area local students who have to hear time and again that the reason cuts are being made or help isn't available is an unavoidable lack of room in the budget.
The board sent McGonegal back to the drawing board earlier this month, saying they could not accept a budget that impacted the classroom as much as his proposal would. A new budget proposed by the superintendent, that will be presented to the school board at Monday's meeting, calls for less classroom cuts, but further "across the board" salary reductions.
Critics argue that such pay cuts are unfair since losing 1 percent might be a mere inconvenience to one of the district's three high school principals who are paid over $115,000, while being considerably more painful to the lowest paid teachers who earn less than $40,000 and often have to go out of pocket to pay for classroom supplies no longer provided by the district. For parents, who each year are presented with a larger classroom supply list and steeper "teacher wish lists" to furnish supplies they thought their tax dollars went toward, the idea that they are instead funding a job – perhaps quite similar to theirs, only at significantly more pay – is understandably vexing. As the district continues to iron out its spending plan this summer, it had better come up with more satisfying answers as to why its administrative payroll seems so out of touch with the county's economic realities.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. An archive of his columns is available here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.