Sunday, November 20, 2011

Administrative Cuts: Easy to Be Hard

Recently, I had two conversations with people who are actively involved in the school district about the district's administrative costs. Neither person works for the district.

One person told me that he feels the district is very hard pressed to get anything done because they have cut so much administrative staff, perhaps too much.
Another person said to me, at one of the recent budget forums, "What do all these administrators do?" [There were an awful lot of administrators at the budget forums. I assume they had been directed to be there.]

I don't know this for sure, but I think that the second commenter's opinion is more common in the district, and of course, I've been curious myself as to whether the district had actually cut a lot of administrative staff.

So, back in the summer, I asked the Ann Arbor school district for information on administrative staffing during the 2005-2006 year and the 2010-2011 school year. It was my first ever FOIA request! (And it really wasn't that hard to submit--thanks Ed Vielmetti for all those FOIA Friday posts.)

The reason that I picked 2005-2006 as my baseline was that I had heard that it was the year that the district got the most per-pupil funding. (Not true, as it turns out--that was 2008-2009.) It also gave me a five-year span to compare.
In 2005-2006, per-pupil funding was $9,409;
in 2008-2009 per-pupil funding was $9,723;
and in 2010-2011 per-pupil funding was $9,490.
But per-pupil funding has fallen to $9,020 in 2011-2012, which brings us back to 2001-2002 in actual dollars (not taking into account inflation).

Anyway, I digress. I asked for information about administrative salaries during 2005-2006 and 2010-2011--everything from the assistant principal level on up. As you shall see, I might have asked for the wrong thing. It's still interesting data, though! What I got was the district's "Cabinet" (Superintendent plus top administrators), all the principals and assistant principals, and the athletic directors--who are considered to be at an assistant principal level.

By using 2010-2011 instead of 2011-2012 I got actual staffing expenses rather than budgeted expenses. I also have the (lower) Superintendent's salary of 2010-2011.

In 2005-2006, the district had 20 elementary schools, 1 K-8 school, 5 middle schools, and 5 high schools. Five years later, the district has the same configuration, except that now Skyline High School has been built and has three of its grades.  And based on my notes below (which I put into a table for you), it doesn't seem like very much administration has been cut at all. But that might be due to me asking for the "wrong" things.

First of all, it's hard to compare the Cabinet. Each superintendent decides who should be in the cabinet, and the cabinet has been significantly reconfigured. For example, currently there is a Director of Physical Properties in the cabinet--that is Randy Trent. His position was made cabinet level after two lower-level positions (of which he had one) were combined into one position following someone's retirement. In 2005 there was nobody from special education services in the cabinet, and now there is--which is definitely a good thing for special education services. In 2005, I believe that all legal work was done on contract. Now we have a legal voice (David Comsa) in the cabinet. All cabinet positions are non-union.

But--why do the cabinet level position pay increases exceed the increases of the unionized administrative staff?  That seems wrong. And I believe that the district just filled at least two fairly high-level administrative positions. I wonder how their pay compares.

Second of all, I only asked for the positions of assistant principals on up.
There were, I believe, several positions in administration cut, but they were obviously at levels below what I requested in my FOIA request. At the levels I requested, it doesn't look like there has been very much administrative cutting at all. It does look like the raises--below the cabinet level--have been reasonable (and at a rate less than inflation).

What happens when one gets raises at a rate less than inflation is that one constantly feels like one is getting cut. While this is true in terms of adjusted dollars, in terms of actual dollars it is not a true cut. The same thing is happening with principals, in a different way. I know that Pioneer and Huron *feel* like they have lost a lot of asst. principal positions. Really, those positions have gotten transferred to Skyline, and the ratio of principals to high school students at the big schools is fairly stable. 

In this data, it is also possible to see some areas where there could--and probably should--be changes.

1. Skyline has an athletic coordinator and not an athletic director (therefore, he doesn't show up on this chart) because I was told that the plan is that, after one of the other ADs retires there will only be one AD and two athletic coordinators. Here's how I think about it. The Athletic Directors are at the level of Asst. Principals, and every year there are asst. principal positions open. Why not move one of the ADs into an assistant principal position now and replace her or him with a lower-level athletic coordinator? Why wait until someone decides to retire? If we only need one athletic director, why wait?

2. Should a couple of schools be closed? Candidates that would come to mind to me: Pittsfield (size--disperse the school. Downside:  it does draw a huge number of kids from the neighborhood); Mitchell (make Scarlett a K-8); Scarlett (without Mitchell--disperse the school to the other middle schools); Ann Arbor Technical School.

3. Could assistant principals be only part-time principals and work in the classroom?

4. Now that the comprehensive high schools are so much smaller, do we need as many assistant principals as we have? Could we live with one principal and only one or two assistant principals at these schools?

5. Does the preschool need a full-time principal?








Number of Students



Down 327 students
The preschool nearly doubled in size from 95 to 162 but that doesn’t show up in this per-pupil funding count. It does, however, have separate funding. Both times, Pittsfield is the smallest elementary school and Scarlett is the smallest middle school.

Per-Pupil Funding

$9,409/ student

$9,490/ student


That increase does not cover inflation

Number of Cabinet Level Staff



See text

The Superintendent chooses who should be in the cabinet. All these positions are non-union.

High School Principals



Skyline opened

Huron, Pioneer, Community, Clemente, Stone, and then Skyline

High School Asst. Principals



In 2010-2011, Huron had an asst. principal who retired partway through the year and wasn’t replaced. Both counts include Athletic Directors at Huron and Pioneer. Skyline has only an Athletic Coordinator.

Middle School Principals




Middle School Assistant Principals




See elementary school notes

Preschool, Elementary, K-8 Principals




In 2010, the Mitchell principal was pulled out of the school to organize the Mitchell/Scarlett K-8 program for a year and is still counted in this count.

Pay Range for Assistant Principals

$86,660-$97,705 (103,200)


+5% to 6% over 5 years

I think in 2005-2006 one asst. principal was getting a principal’s salary based on past service.

Pay Range for Principals



+2% to 6% over 5 years
2005-2006 Comprehensive HS principals: $120,470
2010-2011 Comprehensive HS principals: $127,840

Pay Range for Cabinet



Increases up to 12% for staff who were in the cabinet at both times.

*Excludes Director of Communications who sits on cabinet but is paid significantly lower rate.

Superintendent Salary

$144,200 (Fornero)
(Roberts, then Allen)


Roberts left part way through the year and the interim supt. was paid the same rate. 2011-2012 Supt. Green’s salary is about $245,000. Compared to 2005-2006, that is an increase of 70%.


  1. I may have been the one who said admin cuts have reduced the effectiveness of district administration, and I still feel that's true. I'm not in the business of defending administration, but this is simply too easy a game to play: well, we won't cut teachers, but we all "know" that there's lots of fat in administration, so don't you dare ask us for more money. These are often the same people who "know" that any government is more wasteful than the private sector. It's a convenient fiction.

    "What do all these administrators do?" Well, a lot of them at these forums were building principals. I find it odd that a lot of people who complain about the quality of instruction in the district - for either special ed students or "gifted" students - are also hot for cutting principals. In my mind, building leadership will be central to the success of our schools, and it's something that Balas should focus on. While we may need to improve principals, I think that trying to get by with less is a dangerous economy. Not to mention the new mandates for annual evaluation of almost all teachers, which will require even more administrative time.

    Otherwise, people seem to forget that we have 16,500 students in the district and some 3,000 employees. How many direct reports does the average private sector manager have? AAPS has administrators to run and do the detailed reporting on special education programs required by the state and federal governments. There are administrators responsible for all the data the district is required to collect and report on pain of losing its funding, including "pupil accounting" to prove how many kids we have. We have administrators who help manage the buildings, which have an average age of over 50 years, even counting Skyline.

    Lastly, about closing schools: last I heard, closing the average elementary building would save about $600,000 per year. That's assuming you eliminate the principal, office staff and custodial positions. Teachers would have to be transferred to pick up the load at other schools (unless we want class sizes to jump even more). But what happens when you close a neighborhood school? The last time we re-drew districts, it created wounds which are still healing. We can't just disperse the students to other schools without eating more transportation costs. Finally, if about 60 kids leave the district as a result of the changes, all the savings are wiped out.

    AAPS isn't in the position of Willow Run or even Ypsilanti, which have faced huge enrollment losses. Our budget deficit is not from a decline in pupils - as a result, we do not have a lot of excess capacity in our schools. Many elementaries are over capacity. Closing schools is the first step on the death spiral, as families flee to charters and private or parochial schools.

    There are no easy answers. We can do things on the margins, but it won't come close to covering the gap. There is nothing we can do now that will not erode the quality of education in AAPS or interfere with families taking advantage of that education. That's why concerted action in Lansing and on the county millage front are not just good ideas, they are absolutely essential.

  2. Steve, I'm not sure why, but your comments keep getting marked as spam, which is why it didn't show up right away. This is definitely not spam! Thank you very much for sharing this perspective.

    Administration is a very small part of the overall budget, and I agree that any cuts there will be relatively small. Having said that, though, I was surprised by these numbers, because the administration has represented that they have made significant cuts in administration, and I don't see that here. That's why I said that maybe I asked for the wrong information. I should have asked for all administrative staff, including secretaries, etc.
    If you move a third of the high school student body to a new school then of course principals will move with them, and you're not really "cutting" principals at the two other high schools, as was represented publicly.
    And I agree with you that cutting schools may not be the answer. However, you don't have to present the worst case that AAPS will go into a "death spiral" by suggesting we cut a couple of smaller schools. Even some districts with flat or slightly increasing enrollments (Howell and Saline come to mind) have made decisions to close schools, so there must be some savings. Principals, energy costs...

    There has to be better comparisons with other districts so we can adopt some of their best practices.
    As a case in point: when my table asked Robert Allen what districts like Plymouth-Canton do (similar size but they get much less per-pupil funding), one of the answers was that their elementary schools are bigger so they require fewer principals. As far as I'm concerned, principal-sharing is a much worse idea than closing a couple of our smallest buildings. But would it save money? I don't know. I'd like some analysis.

    As an aside, at the budget forum I was at, there were very few principals and most of the administrators were central administration people.

    All I'm saying, is that the district really needs to:
    1. Explain what these administrators do. (Both the top level staff and the hidden ones--the curiculum staff, the data analysts)...
    2. Identify what we would save by closing a school like Pittsfield or Ann Arbor Tech. And also, what would it cost? Share that information.
    3. Don't protect positions because there is a post-retirement plan. (The Athletic Directors positions are an excellent example but they are probably not the only ones.)

    Last, but not least, I think that the leadership is in a stronger position for negotiating with the unions when they show they are cutting themselves as much as, or more than,

    And by the way: I did write a series of pieces a while back on the closings in the 1980s. Search in the search box on the right for "A Little History" and "Was It Worth It?"

  3. Thank for your reply, Ruth. I'll admit that I was tired and cranky when I wrote my comments!

    There is no question that AAPS needs to explain all the functions that central administration performs and what that adds to the district or why it is required. But from what I know, they can justify what they have. The criticisms I've heard often focus on things that are not correct: like the "bond office" (long closed) or failed principals waiting out their contracts (was told there had been a couple, but that is done no more).

    I think a lot of the admins at the Pioneer meeting were principals, but you had virtually the entire cadre of central office folks at Huron - enough to manage 8 or 9 tables? There was also a school board member, the district grant writer, and so on. No mystery there.

    As to closing schools: AAPS's earlier experience with that was before Proposal A, charter schools and schools of choice. It used to be that funding would be mostly steady regardless of small changes in enrollment. Nowdays, we lose $9K plus for each student who leaves the district but save only a fraction of that. Families are free to send their kids to other school systems in the ISD if it works for them (everyone is looking to bring in students), and charter schools were already at 6% of total county public school enrollment a couple of years ago, and growing fast.

    The smaller elementaries in AAPS (Pittsfield, in particular) are also very near a high concentration of charters in Ypsi township, and AAPS has already been competing with them for students. Want to guess what will happen if we close that school? Not to mention that it seems almost inevitable that the current cap on charter schools will be eliminated when (not if) Senate Bill 618 passes.

    The $600,000 figure came from last year's budget forums, so it's not like they have not talked about this. It's a tempting but illusory savings: in other states, districts close schools because it cuts their costs but doesn't much affect their funding. In Michigan, if closing schools leads to student flight, you can end up wiping out the savings. My understanding that the reconfiguration in Saline was partly to abandon older buildings that needed repair. They also had capacity in their newer buildings, and as a smaller district shifting schools was less of an issue (transportation-wise, etc).

    AAPS has cut HS admin - Pioneer and Huron used to have one principal and four grade (assistant) principal. Now each HS has two assistants, a drop from 8 to 6. The superintendent's cabinet hasn't changed much, but those are the top level people responsible for huge swaths of the district's work. It's the folks underneath them and support staff that have been cut. Plus food service and transportation have been outsourced, along with most of the admin staff for those departments.


  4. Cont'd from last comment...

    I guess the point is that smaller, largely neighborhood schools, alternative programming (Open, Skyline, Community), options for kids having difficulty (former Stone, Clemente program), and new programs (Scarlett-Mitchell lab school with UM) are all features that help keep families in the district. Removing those features and going to "big box" schools will not only make it harder to successfully educate a wide range of children, it will also reduce the attraction of AAPS. When we lose students, we lose more money than we save.

    This is what starts the downward spiral. Willow Run and even Ypsilanti are farther down the staircase, but all public districts face the same issues. Continuing to cut back our schools only hastens the outcome that many in this state long for: the virtual end to community-governed public schools and the transfer of public education largely to the private sector (via charter schools and/or vouchers). This is an ideological stance, not a practical one. Many believe that charters must be better for kids simply because they are non-union and non-governmental. Evidence to the contrary simply bounces off. Charters aren't just viewed as a way to improve education (an arguable point), but they are hailed as a way to shrink the last bastion of big government. I used to think that people who said this were paranoid; after sitting through interminable hearings in Lansing on the charter school bills, I've come to conclude that they are probably right.

  5. The teachers will point to administrators when it's time to negotiate, and say that they, the administrators, did not take enough cuts themselves, to come ask the teachers for more cuts. And that's true, the administrators were the least cooperative in negotiations with salary cuts. I don't think took any cut, actually.
    Doesn't matter, because if you end up cutting lots of teachers, it's going to be very miserable for those left, with really big classes, and decreased support staff..
    Absolutely, the powers that be currently are out to gut the last bastion of big government, teachers in public school, and it looks like they are going to do soon. That's our reality.
    However, charters are going to the coming scandal of the next few years, and we all have to hang on. Do you really want to be driving your kids every school day, every year for 13 years, with the price of gas what it is? Seriously, for a charter school education? Walmart education on the public dime. Such irony.
    Look how people flipped out with the reduced bussing in the district. Neighborhood schools will reign supreme, but maybe not just yet.
    The costs savings Lansing is looking for is the teachers salaries, and they will basically, keep balls busting, until they get it.

  6. I have to say, I'm with Steve here. I do believe that whatever itty bitty trims of fat are left, are just that -- quite small, even in admin. Quibbling about cuts it ridiculous at this point. The point is that the Republican-controlled legislature and the Republican governor refuse to fund the public schools, and have used every back-handed loophole they can find to avoid funding them. The push-back from the community has to be fierce.

  7. But Steve I take exception with you lumping AAO, and Stone and Clemente to avoid the Big Box feel to education.
    The Big Box phenomenon can be addressed in those big settings, it's just that no one has set their mind to doing so, and I don't buy Skyline is achieving it..
    When Community and AAO are on lottery, it's not answering a need, it's answering a want.Nobody gets to go to these schools because it's supposedly a better fit to maintain LRE, it's the fickle finger of fate that gets a kid in. Why not move the school that kids get driven anyway and move Clemente to where Open is and move the Open kids out to Clemente?
    And I will always believe that Clemente kids should have had intervention far sooner than when they got to Clemente.