Report finds Seattle school spending top-heavy on administration

The Seattle School District has the highest administrative costs in the state, according to a district parent's study, putting pressure on Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson as new budget work begins.
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Rainier Beach High School Principal Robert Gary Jr. (left) and Seattle schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson

The Seattle School District has the highest administrative costs in the state, according to a district parent's study, putting pressure on Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson as new budget work begins.

Seattle Public Schools spends three times more on non-teaching support staff and administration than shown in the budgets presented to the School Board, according to a study by a former business analyst — who also is a school district parent.

The study, presented to the board earlier this month by analyst Meg Diaz, has prompted members of the board'ꀙs audit and finance committee to ask Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Don Kennedy, the chief financial officer, to explain the discrepancy. As Diaz puts it, 'ꀜThe lack of consistency between the budgets presented to the board and public and the budgets filed with [the Superintendent of Public Instruction] masks excessive growth in central administration."

Kennedy has promised at least a preliminary response to the Diaz study at the committee'ꀙs Nov. 5 meeting, according to board member Steve Sundquist, the committee chairman. Sundquist, who is retired from an executive position at Russell Investment Group and also has a finance background, described Diaz'ꀙs study as 'ꀜa thorough job'ꀝ that 'ꀜraises a number of questions.'ꀝ

Getting answers from the district is important, according to Sundquist and Michael DeBell, the School Board president, because the district will again need to cut costs to balance next year'ꀙs budget, and the board will need to have a clear picture of what'ꀙs being spent on administration.

'ꀜIf we see things that don'ꀙt make sense to us or suggest we have an overstaffing issue,'ꀝ then the board will look for budget cuts, Sundquist said.

DeBell said he first raised the issue with Kennedy in August, based on 'ꀜa gut feeling that we weren'ꀙt telling the whole story about our central administrative costs'ꀝ and concern for a $16 million deficit already on the horizon.

Diaz, who lives in Madison Park and has two children in Seattle Public Schools, spent about six weeks in September and October doing the comparison between the two versions of the budget and between Seattle and nearby districts. Before taking time off to raise her children, Diaz was an analyst with a business consulting firm.

Comparing the district'ꀙs $556 million 2008-2009 budget (PDF) as approved by the school board and the budget as reported by law to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) , Diaz found more than $45 million spent on non-teaching supervisory and teaching support, compared with only $15 million for 'ꀜcore administration'ꀝ shown in the board-approved budget.

The budget totals are the same, but the $30 million internal discrepancy arises because, as Diaz wrote, 'ꀜmany administrative costs (Supervision of Instruction, Supervision of Nutrition, Supervision of Transportation, and Supervision of Buildings) have been assigned to other categories without explanation. All other districts examined report these costs as Central Administration.'ꀝ In fact, at more than 8 percent of its operating budget, Seattle has the highest administrative burden of any large district in the state, according to the OSPI data Diaz gathered.

The largest growth has been in supervision of instruction, up 129 percent since 2004-2005 while the amount spent on classroom teachers, including pay raises, has risen only 22 percent in the same period, Diaz shows.

Comparing Seattle'ꀙs reports to OSPI with the same documents (a form F-195) filed by sister districts, Diaz also found that:

  • 'ꀜCentral administration FTEs (full-time employees) have increased 48 percent since 1998. Enrollment in the same period has declined 7.5 percent
  • 'ꀜCentral administration cost growth is 96 percent in the last decade, well out of line with growth in the overall operating budget and other budget sectors
  • 'ꀜThe growth trend has not abated since state auditor called attention to top-heavy administrative structure.'ꀝ

Viewed using the OSPI format, Diaz's data shows that between the 2000-01 and 2008-09 school years administrative employment has risen more than 17 percent, while the number of classroom teachers has fallen more than 4 percent. Since a 2008 state audit said that 'ꀜSPS has 39 percent more executives, managers, and supervisors per student than the average,'ꀝ district officials have not reformed. They'ꀙve added more than 50 new administrative employees.

Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy are not the first to move supervisory costs out of 'ꀜadministration.'ꀝ Diaz found that the practice goes back to previous administrations, but the discrepancy between what the district calls administration and what OSPI guidelines categorize as administrative costs has grown on their watch, according to her research.

Nor is Diaz'ꀙs study the first to call attention to the Seattle district'ꀙs high administrative costs. When the state audit noted the problem, district officials replied as they have for years that Seattle is different, claiming primarily that its student body is ethnically more diverse and lower-income than in surrounding districts.

However, by looking at OSPI data to compare Seattle with other metropolitan-area districts, Diaz shows those claims are simply no longer true. Tacoma, Kent, and Federal Way school districts closely match Seattle'ꀙs demographics in all respects and Spokane, Vancouver, and even Bellevue have similarly high percentages of minority or low-income students.

Comparing Seattle and eight other large Washington school districts, Diaz found an average of 183 students for every administrator. For Seattle the number is about 107.

Diaz developed her skepticism of district administrators'ꀙ financial presentations during last year'ꀙs contentious school-closure process.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.