Jump-starting budget reform in Seattle schools

A parent’s critical analysis of budget reporting has helped the Seattle school board consider administrative costs in analyzing where to make cuts next year.
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Rainier Beach High School Principal Robert Gary Jr. (left) and Seattle schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson

A parent’s critical analysis of budget reporting has helped the Seattle school board consider administrative costs in analyzing where to make cuts next year.

Some of the 110 or so coaches in Seattle Public Schools may find themselves back in the classroom next fall in order to help the district close an estimated $17 million budget gap for the 2010-2011 school year.

Pause a moment: We'ꀙre not talking about athletic coaches. These 'ꀜcoaches'ꀝ are the topnotch teachers the district has assigned to help other teachers become better teachers of reading and math in our schools. About a quarter of them are in the central office and also work on curriculum, according to Duggan Harmon, the district'ꀙs executive director of finance. The rest are out in the schools helping teachers improve their skills. Using subject-matter coaches this way has become a major district approach to 'ꀜprofessional development'ꀝ over the past decade, a key tool to boost student achievement.

But compared with increasing class sizes and other ways to cut spending, how important are the coaches, wondered School Board President Michael DeBell at a Thursday meeting of the board'ꀙs audit and finance committee. 'ꀜIf we have to make cuts, it makes sense to get these people back in the classroom,'ꀝ DeBell said.

'ꀜAre we getting what we want out of our professional development, which is really expensive?'ꀝ he asked. Teacher coaches are a $12 million item among the programs the district uses to help teachers teach better.

DeBell'ꀙs idea wasn'ꀙt the board'ꀙs position, said audit and finance chairman Steve Sundquist, but ideas like that will need to be discussed as the board develops next year'ꀙs spending plan.

Teacher coaching was caught in the spotlight earlier in the meeting as Harmon, the finance officer, presented the district'ꀙs response to a study of district administrative costs by parent and former business analyst Meg Diaz. Diaz'ꀙs report, first publicized in Crosscut Oct. 26, showed that district officials routinely minimized administrative costs in the annual budgets presented to the board. Among personnel that could be considered administrative because they perform supervisory functions are academic coaches.

Harmon proposed solving that problem by declaring that henceforth coaches would be considered teachers. Until now they have been "miscoded" as supervisory instead of teaching, he wrote in a PowerPoint presentation to the committee.

Diaz'ꀙs study was also one of the factors in getting district staff to revise a budget category called 'ꀜcore administration'ꀝ (about $15 million this year), which understated administrative costs by $30 million. Other administrators in teaching support, nutrition, transportation, and buildings — which the district included directly in those programs but not in central administration in the budgets presented to the board — will now be included in central administration. The use of 'ꀜcore administration,'ꀝ which includes little more than the superintendent'ꀙs office and school board support to minimize apparent administrative costs, has been a practice for a least a decade and did not originate with new Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. From now on the budget will be shown 'ꀜin a form consistent with the reporting structure required by [the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction]," according to a procedure introduced by Goodloe-Johnson on Oct. 21. The total budgets in both cases are the same, $556 million this year.

Whether the OSPI format provides a clearer look at where the money is going is frequently debated. If you'ꀙre looking for the cost of a particular activity from top to bottom, the district'ꀙs approach is probably clearer and closer to general accounting methods, said Eric Sonnett, the district'ꀙs budget manager, after the meeting.

'ꀜI think getting the budgets (district and OSPI) to match is a good first step,'ꀝ Diaz said after listening to the committee discussion. 'ꀜBut the issue is spending.'ꀝ

And in that, too, Diaz may already have an influence. By shining a brighter light on where administrative dollars are spent, she seems to have jump-started the board'ꀙs analysis of next year'ꀙs budget. Among other compliment from board members, Peter Maier said 'ꀜMs. Diaz'ꀙs work has brought to light something that certainly has needed examination.'ꀝ


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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.