Thursday, April 22, 2004


How did we get from the one-room schoolhouse to a $4 billion public school system in Nebraska? How did we get to a spending level per pupil of $13,843.66 per year? How can it be that a Nebraska school district is about to employ our state’s first superintendent making more than $200,000 a year?

Well, in those school-year kickoff speeches they always have, to rev up the teachers, they always say, ‘’Education is people!’’ I’ll go along with that. But here’s an additional motto: ‘’Overspending is administrators!’’

That’s how it happens that we spent $967.9 million paying all the teachers across the state . . . and $115.4 million paying their administrators. Put another way, we have 14 times as many teachers as administrators in schools in this state (21,197 vs. 1,504) but we devote only eight times as much salary to teachers as to their bosses.

It works out to an average of $45,661 per teacher, and $76,746 per administrator. On a per-pupil basis, Nebraska taxpayers devote $406.27 per pupil per year for administrators’ salaries alone, and provide one administrator for every 189 students.

Figures are from a March 4 report on school data prepared by the office of State Auditor Kate Witek.

Consider the fact that most school administrators in Nebraska live in relatively small towns with relatively low costs of living. They also receive off-budget income perks such as annuities, cars, per diems, expense accounts and the freedom to consult on the side. Considering the fact that their total income would rank as the best in town or close to it, you have to ask yourself: is what they do really worth that much money?

Now go to a website with budget figures for a school district (www.ops.org/budget for the state’s largest, the Omaha Public Schools, is a good place to start) and scan through all the budget items administrators call for. Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat: all those people doing all those things beyond delivering the old 3 R’s. Now, some of the things that cost money to manage in our schools have been imposed by regulatory agencies in what administrators call ‘’unfunded mandates,’’ always uttered with frowns and tight lips. But many, many of these costs were brought on by the school administrators themselves -- by their voluntary choice.

It looks as though they have been trying to justify their own jobs, in taking on new programs and activities to administer in schools.

To ‘’look good on paper,’’ in other words . . . to follow after fads and fluff instead of keeping their noses to the grindstone in the delivery of educational basics and foundations, which is what taxpayers and parents want for kids.

And the sad thing is, school administrators have for the most part come up through the ranks of school bureaucracies and don’t even know this is a problem. They’ve been steeped like human tea bags in a culture of ‘’What’s new? Let’s try it!’’ The basics, including the 3 R’s, fell by the wayside and got lost in all the new activities, each with a whole ‘nother set of problems to distract public schools away from their basic mission, and a whole ‘nother set of expenses to bear, including new people to hire and administer.

That’s how come schooling costs so much more today than a generation ago, even though K-12 enrollments are about the same or even less.

Want proof? Talk to just about any employer, and they’ll just shake their heads over how poorly today’s graduates read, write, figure and think. And yet we’re spending nearly $14,000 per child per year.

Bottom line: school administrators have ‘’over-fancified’’ the schools in order to make themselves look good and worth those deluxe salaries.

Now, look. They’re only human. It’s ridiculous to put them in a situation where the checks and balances on their spending are feeble at best -- administrators far outmuscle school-board members in these matters -- and expect them to view their spending patterns the way detached outsiders do.

It’s ridiculous to put administrators into collective bargaining positions with their old cronies from their teaching days who are still in the union, and expect to have fiscal restraint come out of it. We all know having educators on both sides of the bargaining table is the reason we have so many more people making so much more money doing so many more non-educational tasks in education today. It all started when President Kennedy said in the 1960s that public servants could unionize. Boom! That was the old ballgame in transforming schools from a public service to a money-making proposition for public servants.

I’m not saying school administrators aren’t trying to be good public servants. Of course they are. I’m also not saying they are reckless and wanton in their budget decisions. They’re neither ogres nor doormats. In fact, the ones I know are really nice, smart people.

They’re just in a no-win situation. There’s a natural tendency among human beings to want to strive for a little bit more than the other guy has . . . and when you have unlimited access to taxpayer dollars, that winds up as empire-building and featherbedding in the public schools. It gets ridiculous. And it’s catching.

Consider the salary set for the incoming superintendent of the Lincoln Public Schools: $200,000 plus perks. That is going to have huge cascading consequences in administrative salaries across the state as the ‘’keep up with the Joneses’’ syndrome kicks in.

Back in September 2000, the Grand Island Independent reported that 11 Nebraska superintendents were earning more than $100,000 a year in base salary, led by Phillip Schoo of the Lincoln schools, who was making $133,075 at the time. The cost of those high salaries goes far beyond the salaries. For example, Bev Bennett of the Nebraska Education and Research Council (NERC) in nearby Roca, Neb., says that when Schoo was hired nearly 20 years ago, he was given a $10,000 desk.

Consider the claim made by people like Mrs. Bennett that a lot of the problems in schools and their budgets today were actually brought on us by the school administrators themselves. For instance, Mrs. Bennett said that outcome-based education, which was opposed by no school superintendents or administrators that she is aware of, imposed gigantic new expenses on schools over the past 15 years or so. This philosophy of school management, which pervades public schools today, requires the massive new hiring of non-classroom personnel in everything from the administration of Nebraska’s crazy quilt of assessments, to incredible new record-keeping requirements, to high-paid school psychologists, to in-school health aides and social workers, and on down the line.

Consider the administrative job descriptions of today compared to those in our schools a generation ago, and ask yourself if running schools has really gotten this much more complicated, especially with all the technology we’ve bought them to manage our resources better. On the Lincoln school district’s website, www.lps.org, it lists the assistant and associate superintendents for instruction, human resources, business affairs and so forth. Then it lists all the directors and managers under those people. For instance, under “business affairs,” there are managers of accounting, budget, distribution center, facilities and maintenance, finance, internal audit, nutrition services, operations, purchasing, risk mangement and computing services. Each of those people is working with other people’s money with very little public accountability for each spending decision, and has a powerful, natural tendency to want to get more and “be” more. School overspending is thereby built in: everybody’s after more, more, more, more, more.

Can we get back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse? Of course not. But can we keep on going like this? Don’t think so.

We need to be talking about these issues and finding alternatives. Suggestions:

-- Do away with the advanced educational requirements for administrative staff, especially superintendents. Good managers don’t necessarily have doctoral degrees. If you want the best management at the best possible cost, open the doors beyond people who come up through the ranks of the bureaucratic school systems. They’re hardly the best training ground for management.

-- Take those high-priced superintendent salaries, and split them in half. Give one job and still-attractive salary to someone to head up the educational side of the district and report to the school board. Give the other job and nice paycheck to someone who’s truly a manager, who comes from business or the military or some realm other than education, and let that person head up the operational side. This system puts a lot more control back into the hands of the school board and away from the overpowering administration.

-- School boards should hire the meanest, toughest, outside labor negotiation law firm to do the collective bargaining each year. They can’t expect internal employees like school administrators or the law firms they hire to handle this crucial task, negotiating with the administrators’ former buddies and severely tempted to set favorable wage scales that give themselves fat raises along with everybody else.

-- For every teacher who is RIF’ed, a district should RIF at least one non-classroom employee, to signify that teaching is indeed the most important function of the school district.

Because it is . . . isn’t it?


One in a series on Nebraska school finance issues based on a March 4, 2004, report from the office of State Auditor Kate Witek prepared for State Sen. Ronald Raikes. Data sources included the September 2003 Fall Personnel Report from the Nebraska Department of Education, and other 2003-04 statistical information reported by districts to the state.

For Nebraska public education spending reports, see statewide and individual district annual report information on:


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