On Your Side Investigation: Is your school's central office overspending?

Published: Apr. 28, 2016 at 3:06 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 28, 2016 at 6:10 PM CDT
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PINE BELT (WDAM) - Administrative personnel are needed to keep school districts functioning, but how much money is spent and how many people are employed in district central offices varies widely across the Pine Belt.

"Four years ago, in fact, we knew that our funding would be diminished over a period of time, so we took a hard look at our central office staff and began to make cuts here," said Tommy Parker, superintendent of Jones County Schools. "We knew that that was the best place to start. Why would you cut out in the classroom when maybe you might have an excess of staff in your central office?"

Jones County Schools is one of the largest districts in the Pine Belt with 11 schools and more than 8,500 students, but its central office spending per student, $191.17, is the lowest of six schools districts Seven On Your Side investigated.

"If you look at the superintendent's report and how we categorize our money that we spend on central office administration, I think you'll find that there's only a couple of districts in the whole state that spending a less percentage than we are in administration," Parker said.

He said that kind of meticulous budget monitoring is an ongoing process that takes up most of his time.

"I spend probably 70 to 80 percent of my time dealing with finances," he said. "I wish that weren't true. I wish I could spend more time supervising instruction and being involved in curriculum, but that's something that I've discovered as superintendent. It's a huge task, and it's something that you have to monitor and stay on top of. You have to have a good business manager. Have to depend on that business manager to keep you apprised of anything that's going on."

According to records requested by Seven on Your Side, Parker's district spends a little over $1.6 million dollars in central office salaries and employs 31 people. One way Parker said he works to keep costs down is consolidating responsibilities for employees working in his office and looking to his office first if employees or positions must be cut.

"From my office, we take a look at our administrative personnel to begin with. What we asked our administrators is: Are you making it OK with your position, the personnel you have? Do you think that you might could take on an additional responsibility?" Parker said. "Although some of the staff here might not like it when they have to focus on one particular area today and something else tomorrow and something else the next day, that's just a requirement that they have to do that."

However, that is not how every Pine Belt school district operates.

Hattiesburg Public School District spends more money in its central office as a whole and per student than any of the other districts investigated.

"Yes, I can believe that," said Greg Ladner, interim superintendent for the district. "I can believe that. Most certainly, there are a couple of school districts that I know you would have asked because they're in this area and, myself, having grown up here and lived here for the greatest portion of my life, I have a pretty good idea about what some of those numbers look like. They're substantially lower. I know that."

Hattiesburg Public School District only has about 300 more students than Petal Public Schools, but there is a more than $1.5 million difference in total central office salaries and about $320 difference in central office cost per student.

Ladner had a simple explanation for Hattiesburg's high costs.

"We have more people," Ladner said. "We have more people making, not maybe the way everyone thinks, slightly higher salaries, but more people making higher salaries. We're doing a 5 percent cut, which should put those administrative salaries a little more in line with the contiguous districts around this area."

Now, the district is working to also make HPSD's staff size more similar to that of other area school districts.

"Position by position, I don't think that we are heavy in administrative salaries necessarily," said Sheryle Coaker, interim chief financial officer for Hattiesburg Public Schools. "We may just be a little heavy on positions that we have in the district."

Ladner said, "What we've set is a goal of trying to save $4 million dollars of what you might call recurring expenditures that typically were expended through salaries. We need to get a handle on have we approached $4 million close enough, say $3.2 to $3.6 million (by June 30). Somewhere in that type of range to where we can kind of slow down and not be aggressive on any more cuts or if we're around $2.8 million up to $3.2 million, then we may need to turn around and yet be a little more aggressive with some non-renewals."

Coaker said Hattiesburg Public School District qualifies for a large amount of federal funding, so certain central office positions are required to run federally funded programs.

"We are a federally, real heavy in federal funding," Coaker said. "So when you look at the number of people that we have as compared to other districts what you would maybe call central office or district-wide personnel, they are federally funded, and it does take that number of people to achieve some of the programming that they've tried to achieve. As compared to other districts, it may seem like a lot more because we do have a little more of a funding source there."

Ladner said, "We are classified as 100 percent free and reduced lunch, so to that end, and that's a really good point. You know, children of poverty really are more challenging to educate than children that come somewhat prepared even in those Pre-K, K years. So our teachers, the district does have to work harder, and in some cases, it does take more personnel."

Even with federally required positions, Ladner still said HPSD employs more people in its central office than other districts where he has worked. That is why he said he cut 14 of the district's "less essential" administration positions.

"We have now gone through and cut a number of directors, specialists, administrators, as well as some secretarial staff," he said. "It was the position that was eliminated, not the person."

Ladner said while the cuts will, of course, save money, they are more about streamlining the district's operation.

"It wasn't really done on the idea of 'hey we're just going to go cut money,' but rather looking at the functions of the central office," he said. "In some cases where we had more people doing certain functions, job functions, than I was used to in the other districts, is what more or less prompted (the cuts). It wasn't so much a cost thing as it was a function. How can we reduce our force, but keep the workload to the proper position within the district?"

Parker said, "Even though the people that are working here have to wear a lot of different hats, we feel like we're sort of lean now, and that we can take care of the needs of our district with the staff that we have. So far, in the last three or four years, we've been able to meet the needs of our students, our faculty and staff out there, administrative staff and meet all the state and federal regulations with the staff that we have now."

Parker said his employees' willingness to redistribute work to reduce cost and staff has been essential to the district's success.

"We're not a wealthy school district," he said. "We have to be conservative. It's really, the way we've been able to be conservative is because of the people we have working for us. We have from our teacher's assistants and our teachers that understand they're expected to do more with less, right on to our local administration and back to this office. That's the message that we send. We're required to do more with less, and they've all bought into that. They work hard and do a good job. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to do it."

Now Hattiesburg Public Schools is sending the same message to its staff.

"I've met with every single principal, every single department head, and they have presented a list of needs that they feel like they can operate next year, calling it sort of an essential budget," Coaker said. "Putting aside things we'd like to have because at this point, we are the point where every number has to be justified that would go into the budget. We're trying very hard to make the budget as lean and as efficient as possible. Possibly take out things that maybe have always been included 'just because.' You know, 'it was there last year.' So we're really cleaning it up, trying to streamline it and work with just what we have to have for the next couple of years. I mean, this is not going to be an easy fix. It's going to take several years to come out of this. So everybody is just more than willing to work as lean as possible to try to make this work."

Ladner said, "I'd like to say there wasn't any agony involved, but you know, any time you start cutting people and positions and taking jobs away from people, it is something that you do very seriously and very deliberately from day to day."

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