The Edmond Sun

Education

June 30, 2014

Are Oklahoma schools top heavy?

EDMOND — The population of LeFlore County in southeastern Oklahoma is less than a tenth of Oklahoma County’s population. Yet Le Flore has 17 school districts compared to Oklahoma County’s 15.

At Reydon Public Schools in western Oklahoma, the superintendent makes $116,000 a year, including benefits, to oversee one of the smallest districts in the state, at 124 students. That’s $936 per student, compared to $6 for Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard, the highest paid superintendent this year, making $260,000.

For years, conservative legislators and others have decried what they say are high administrative costs in Oklahoma districts and schools. They say the state’s K-12 system is top-heavy and wasteful. And they point to this as a reason not to increase Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding to levels found in most other states, and to expand school-choice options such as charter schools.

Oklahoma Watch took an in-depth look at federal and state data on administrative and classroom costs in district schools. The data show that compared with other states, Oklahoma spends a high percentage of its budget on district administration and a low percentage on instruction. Oklahoma spends just above the national average on school administration.

In 2011-2012, Oklahoma ranked sixth among states in percentage of funds spent on district administration, at 3.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those costs include superintendent pay, the school board, support staff and related office expenses.

The state ranked 16th in proportion spent on school administration, at 5.4 percent. That includes salaries and other staff costs.

In instruction, which includes teacher pay, the state ranked 40th, at 52 percent. The national average is 55 percent.

The measures don’t necessarily mean that most districts and schools in Oklahoma are rolling in administrative fat.

The state is one of the leanest spenders on common education in the nation, ranking 48th in per-pupil spending.

That has persisted for years even as Oklahoma schools were required to implement reforms that school officials say led to greater administrative costs. More testing and accountability, a new teacher evaluation system and more data collection took hold, yet per-pupil funding did not keep pace, school officials say.

State data shows that in the past decade, spending on district oversight increased by nearly 13 percent when adjusted for inflation. Classroom spending went up by under 8 percent.

Some advocacy groups call administration spending a red herring.

Gene Perry, policy director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank, said if Oklahoma were to cut its 3.2-percent rate of spending on district oversight to that of Hawaii’s, the lowest in the nation at 0.5 percent, it would have relatively little impact. The savings would total $249 per student, or $165 million, a year. If all of the savings went to the classroom, Oklahoma would move up only one spot, to fourth from last, in instructional spending per student.

Perry said the state instead should focus on increasing overall K-12 funding. That would raise classroom spending while reducing the overall percentage going to administration.

“Adding a little bit is better than nothing … but it’s not going to make up for the education cuts we made in previous years,” Perry said.

State Superintendent Janet Barresi said Oklahoma needs to realign its priorities to get more money directed to the classroom.

Even if cutting administrative overhead yields small savings, the additional money for the classroom would help schools. It could mean hiring new teachers or buying new textbooks.

“Are these administrators directly supporting the classroom or are they just doing paperwork?” Barresi said. “The closer you get to the student and supporting the teacher, in my experience it has shown year after year you get better academic results.”

Joy Hofmeister, who defeated Barresi in the Republican primary on Tuesday, did not respond to requests for comment.

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