How top-heavy are Ohio's school districts?

Earlier this year the Brookings Institution and the Greater Ohio Policy Center garnered attention from both gubernatorial candidates for their suggestion in the Restoring Prosperity report that smaller Ohio school districts consolidate. Despite typically having negative connotations, consolidation came across as a pragmatic rather than ominous idea. That’s because, according to Brookings, Ohio spends 49 percent more on district administration than the national average. It ranks 47th in the level of spending that makes it into K-12 classroom, but ninth in terms of money spent on administration.

A few districts have experimented with consolidating administrative positions. Two Bexley schools – the district’s middle and high school – will have just one principal next year (with assistant principals at each school), a move that will save $100,000. And several years ago, Rittman Exempted Village School District and Orville City School District (in Wayne County) merged their top administrative staffs to realize $270,000 in annual savings. A previous Ohio Gadfly analysis estimated that if school districts with fewer than 1,700 pupils consolidated a few administrative roles it could result in up to $40 million in savings. These numbers are important when one consider that of Ohio’s current 613 districts, half serve fewer than 1,300 students – the size of many high schools.

But can Ohio districts really thin out their central offices, or is there a critical mass of administrative staff toward which most Ohio districts converge out of necessity? How many administrators do districts actually employ, and how much do they spend on them? And do these patterns vary according to district size? We examined student-administrator* ratios and the amount spent on administrators as a percent of total expenditures in all Ohio districts for which the data were available, and broke down the data to see if patterns emerge according to district size. Here’s what we found.

The average student-administrator ratio is 150.2, with the most top-heavy district (Bettsville Local) at 37.4 students per administrator and the leanest (New Albany-Plain Local) at 308.6.

Graph I: Average student-admin ratios in Ohio districts, by size (2008)

Source: FY 2009 Cupp Report, Ohio Department of Education.

As graph I illustrates, the workload for each administrator (as measured by student-administrator ratio) grows with district size up until the largest category of districts with 15,000 or more students (of which Ohio has very few, actually). The smallest districts, those with less than 1,000 students, have nearly 100 fewer pupils per administrator than the leanest districts.

That the largest districts experience a drop in average student-administrator ratio actually makes sense. Large districts – especially urban ones - experience unique management challenges, more complicated and overlapping funding, and a level of performance data tracking that probably justifies extra staff support.

The same findings hold true when comparing spending patterns on administrators, which ranked from 7.3 percent in the leanest district and 21.9 percent at the high end. When broken down by size, we observed a similar pattern-- the larger the district, the more “lean” – up until a point. (View this graph on Flypaper.)

It’s worth noting that the size of district administrative staffs may in fact be higher than reported by this analysis, as it’s commonly purported that districts and schools “hide” administrators in teaching positions instead of reporting them appropriately.

It’s also worth pointing out that while $40 million in savings is significant, true savings potential from staffing reductions – the likes of which will address Ohio’s impending $6 to $8 billion deficit – will only be realized by curbing the number of teachers. (See piece above.)

Unfortunately, increasing student-teacher ratios is not the most politically palatable idea, and Ohio leaders are more likely to gravitate toward a piecemeal approach to savings. Consolidating administrative positions – especially within and across Ohio’s smallest districts—represents one cost savings opportunity that won’t wreak havoc on student performance and could garner bipartisan support.

* Note: “Administrator” is defined broadly in this data and differs from the definition in Restoring Prosperity. This definition is based on state-defined classifications that include: 100-Official/Administrative; 101-Administratoristrative Assistant; 102-Assistant, Deputy/Associate Superintendent; 104-Assistant Principal; 107-Ombudsman; 108-Principal; 109-Superintendent; 110-Supervising/managing/directing assignment; 111-Tax assessing/collecting assignment; 112-Treasurer; 113-Coordinator; 114-Education Administrative Specialist; 115-Director; 116-Community school administrator; 199-Other official/administrative.

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