The Pinellas school district is no longer No. 1 when it comes to spending the most on administration.
But despite a major effort to cut and reclassify costs, it still spends more per pupil on general administration than just about every other large district in Florida, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.
According to 2008-09 expenditures, Pinellas ranked No. 2 or No. 3 among the 12 biggest districts, depending on how broadly general administration costs are defined.
In 2007-08, it ranked No. 1 either way.
"We've reassigned duties and changed titles and shifted things around. But we still have the same people," Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark said. "I tell you, it's a facade almost."
The Times review focused most on general administration costs in the general fund, the primary pot of money for day-to-day operations. Most Florida school districts spend less than 1 percent of their budgets on that category, but the dollar amounts are still fiscally significant and, in tough economic times, symbolically potent.
The district began scrutinizing its administrative expenses last January, after an earlier Times analysis noted how top heavy Pinellas was compared with peer districts. By the end of the fiscal year in June, it had reduced spending in the main general administration category from $6.58 million to $3.94 million — a whopping 40 percent.
To do that, it cut some positions. But it shifted far more.
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In Pinellas, general administration includes the salaries of Superintendent Julie Janssen and a handful of other top officials. It also includes the salaries of secretaries, assistants and other workers, and expenses such as supplies, travel and meals.
It does not include dozens of administrators in other categories, or school-level leaders such as principals.
For years, Pinellas put a long list of expenses under general administration despite state guidelines that suggested those expenses should be in other categories.
The result: Other districts looked leaner, even though the comparisons weren't apples to apples.
"It's our own stupidity," said Lansing Johansen, the district's chief business officer. "We really just didn't pay attention to it."
After the Times story in January, nearly a half-million dollars in mail room expenses were moved into a category called "internal services." About $300,000 from the Office of Professional Standards was shifted into "staff services." So was another $300,000 from the Office of Equal Opportunity.
In total, about $1.5 million was moved out of general administration, according to district estimates.
The Times checked with six other districts to see whether those changes were generally consistent with how they classify expenses. They were.
If Brevard schools had counted the mail room as general administration, "I would have had heart failure," said Judy Preston, that district's associate superintendent of financial services.
But the re-classification effort didn't change the bottom line as much as Pinellas administrators had hoped.
At a budget workshop in July, district finance staff told board members that the changes to general administration should drop Pinellas from the top spot to the midpoint among peer districts.
But the district was using 2007-08 figures for comparison. And most of the other districts cut costs, too.
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There are many ways to gauge how much a school district spends on administration. By some measures, Pinellas compares more favorably.
The district determines its ranking among peer districts by calculating what percentage of the total budget it spends on general administration. In 2007-08, it ranked No. 1 among the 12 biggest districts. Last year, it ranked at No. 4 or virtually tied at No. 2, depending on what parts of the budget are considered.
Pasco bested the field last year with 0.44 percent spent on general administration. Pinellas came in at 0.66 percent.
The state Department of Education also tallies administrative spending, looking at district and school levels combined.
For most of the past decade, Pinellas ranked at or near the top among the 12 biggest districts. But in 2007 and 2008, it ranked No. 7. The 2009 report will be issued next spring.
Janssen said Pinellas is looking to trim more and will continue to make attrition part of the plan.
For example, Ron Stone, the associate superintendent of human resources, retired last month and will not be replaced.
Additional changes may surface in a reorganization plan Janssen said she will present to the School Board next week. She said she has one eye on cutting costs, especially with federal stimulus money running out in two years, and another on serving students.
"We're going to push it as far as we can without becoming dysfunctional," she said.
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This is what the numbers say:
In 2007-08, the district had the equivalent of 62.5 full-time employees in the main general administration category, including 27.75 administrators.
Last year, it re-classified 18.45 positions and eliminated 10. Among administrators, the respective figures were 9.9 and four. The positions left at year's end: 34.05.
But axing positions did not mean letting employees go. All four administrators whose positions in general administration were cut are still working for the district.
Robert Poth, who was a "principal on district assignment" is now principal at East Lake High School. And Mike Bessette, who had been the associate superintendent of school safety and security, is now handling a bigger work load as the associate superintendent of facilities and operations, safety and security.
To get a sense of administrative cuts beyond general administration, the Times asked the district for two lists — one with the names, titles and salaries of every district employee who earned more than $70,000 in 2008-09, the other for the same category of employees this year. The lists did not include teachers and school-based administrators.
Last year, there were 91 employees on the list.
This year, there are 87.
"We wanted to downsize," said board member Carol Cook. But "we didn't want to put people on the street."
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The district is making some progress with spending at the top, said school board member Robin Wikle.
But it's not enough, she said, "because we still haven't been able to give our teachers a raise."
Wikle and board member Nina Hayden also said the costs must be viewed in context. Maybe they won't matter as much if parents and taxpayers are confident the district is making progress with students, they said.
If people believe that, then, "I don't think you have as many people concerned about whether the ranking is No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3," Hayden said.
But if they don't, "that's a huge problem."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.