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Administrative costs — is less truly more?

Arizona charter schools oppose more state regulationAs representatives of Arizona’s schools and districts, it is incumbent up on us to share timely, educational information in which our taxpayers and educational consumers have a vested interest. Often we hear criticism about being “top-heavy” in administration and that dollars earmarked for administrative salaries should be placed in classrooms to impact students.

The economic conditions that have plagued us as a state and nation for the past number of years have affected every tier of society in programs ranging from housing to education.  As a result, each of the 239 school districts in our state has done significant budget belt-tightening.

Recent statistics from a new U.S. Census Bureau Report on Public Education Finances, state that Arizona schools spend the least amount in the nation on administrative expenses. When we reference administrative expenses, the general notion is merely salaries for top administrators. In actuality, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s Office Report on School District Spending for 2012,  administration is categorized as,  “Salaries and benefits for superintendents; principals; business managers; and clerical and other staff who perform accounting, payroll, purchasing, warehousing,  printing,  human resource activities, and administrative technology services; and other costs related to these services and the governing board.” Certainly a much broader range of services than most people imagine when they read about administrative costs. These comprehensive services enable our schools to operate efficiently and provide the necessary support to teachers so they can focus on the vital tasks of teaching and learning.

Data from the Arizona Auditor General’s Report indicated, in 2012, that Arizona spent $736 per pupil on school administrative expenses as compared with the national average of $1,139. That translates into a ranking for Arizona of 47th in the nation in administrative costs with 46 other states spending more and only 3 states, Tennessee, Idaho, and Utah, spending less than Arizona.  Also noted in 2012, Arizona districts spent

9.9 percent of their total operating dollars on administration, 0.8 percentage points less than the national average.  Additionally, Arizona spent a lower percentage on administration, but higher percentage in other non-classroom operational areas, specifically plant operations and student support services.

The startling reality is that Arizona would have to spend 37 percent more to move us to the national average for administrative costs. With over 1 million students in Arizona schools, it would require a spending increase of more than $2.8 billion to move our state to equal the national average.

Compelling research from education experts Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters (2009) indicates leadership does make a significant difference in student achievement. There is a strong correlation between district level administrative action and student achievement.  Effective leadership at the school and district levels change what happens in classrooms and has a positive, direct impact on student achievement. Moreover, according to the Wallace Foundation’s report on How Leadership Influences Student Learning published in July 2010, effective educational leadership makes a difference in improving learning. The data show leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors contributing to what students learn at school.

Arizona educators have shown they are placing the emphasis in the classroom, focusing additional dollars on student learning and showing increased achievement with added accountability. This is good news for all stakeholders who believe education should be a priority, while ensuring school budgets should reflect the values of the taxpayers and the economic conditions in the state.

With diminished resources comes the burden of having school and district staff constantly doing “more with less.” As one of the lowest funded states, you would expect Arizona students to be listed at the bottom of the achievement rankings.  Instead, Arizona’s students are ranked 31st out of 50 states in student achievement, slightly less than the national average of 2013 Quality Counts academic indicators.  Although there is still room for considerable growth, imagine what could be if our education system were better funded.

We speak from decades of experience when we say that administrators are the leaders who provide the vision to shape Arizona’s schools and districts. Their focus on student learning is demonstrated daily as they inspire and motivate staff, students, families and communities.

Creating successful school experiences and preparing students for their futures in post-secondary education and career readiness are the goals that are actualized daily in each school and district. Rather than being critical, let’s look at what each of us can do to ensure that our schools and teachers have the resources they need to achieve their goals and create success for all students.

— Debra Duvall is executive director of Arizona School Administrators, Inc.

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