As Pinellas school officials prepare to plug a huge hole in next year's budget, they say they are looking for savings in every department.
But nowhere is the case for cuts more compelling than at the top. There, in a budget category called "general administration," Pinellas spends more proportionately than any other large district in Florida.
By several measures and over many years, a Times analysis found, the district devotes a larger percentage of its operating budget to administration than most or all of its peers.
• While the district spends $5.5-million on general administration this year, Orange County schools, with 64,000 more students than Pinellas, will spend $3-million.
• Pinellas has budgeted $3.8-million for top administrative salaries in 2008-09 — about the same as Hillsborough County, where the system is 80 percent larger.
• Brevard County, a district Pinellas is trying to emulate, will spend .34 percent of its operating budget on top administrators this year. Pinellas will spend almost twice that percentage.
The general administration budget pays salaries and benefits for superintendent Julie Janssen and the rest of the district's top leadership, including deputy, associate and assistant superintendents. It also pays for some other employees and assorted expenses such as supplies.
"There's excess," said Angela Katz, a parent at Palm Harbor Elementary, one of seven schools the district wants to close as it addresses a deepening state budget crisis. She and other parents have criticized the district for moving to close schools before cutting the budget in other areas, including administration.
"What message does that send?" asked Katz, a former hotel company executive. "Shouldn't they look within their own back yard first?"
Said School Board member Janet Clark: "People have the perception that we're really top heavy. I think we are."
Janssen, who has been superintendent for three months, said the size of the general administration budget is "a big concern of mine."
She said one factor will be how the district handles administrators who retire under the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, known as DROP.
Some are hired back at six-figure salaries after the superintendent determines the district needs their years of expertise in a critical area. After they have been in their rehired position for 11 months, they can collect both state retirement benefits and district pay.
The general administration payroll includes four such employees — one brought back by Janssen and three by former superintendent Clayton Wilcox.
Two of them currently receive district pay on top of retirement benefits.
An example is associate superintendent Ron Stone, who has negotiated the district's contracts with labor unions for years. Wilcox brought him back to bargain a set of contracts that expired last summer. But in a contentious budget year, the district and the unions have failed to reach agreement and Stone remains employed.
For years the district has brought back such employees at the pay they received when they retired. But Janssen said she recently was made aware that the district can bring employees back at a lower pay rate.
"As far as taxpayer money is concerned, we've got to stop this," Clark said of the old practice.
"We need to bring them back at a reduced level," said board member Carol Cook.
In addition to administrative expenses, Janssen said she is focused on lowering busing and construction costs.
She said the number of supervisors and extra drivers in the transportation department was "way out of line" with what other districts carry. As for construction, the district's bidding process is "not a good system," Janssen said.
At a recent statewide conference of school officials, a contractor stood up and talked about building two elementary schools — one in Pinellas, one in Pasco County. He said the Pinellas school cost $10-million more.
Clark, who was in the audience that day, relayed the story to Janssen, who said in an interview that "significant changes" are in the works.
She said of the budget crisis: "It sure makes us really re-evaluate how we do things."
Clark said she has long felt that the district's top staff was too large. She plans to renew her call for the board to hire a permanent independent auditor, which is allowed under state law.
Yes, it would mean another administrator, she conceded, "but you think of the dividends it would pay."
The Times analysis of administrative costs started with the district's own report comparing itself to other large districts. The most recent version of the report showed Pinellas ranked No. 1 in general administration costs for 2007-08.
The analysis sought to find out if the same held true for the 2008-09 budget. It did.
It also looked at how much large districts spent per student on general administration. Pinellas ranked No. 1 last year and No. 2 this year, behind Hillsborough.
Finally, the analysis used state data on per-student administrative costs, including expenses beyond those listed under general administration.
The data was for 10 years, from 1997-98 to 2006-07. In four of those years Pinellas ranked No. 1 in administrative costs per student compared to the state's six other large counties and Brevard County. In five of the years, it ranked No. 2.
In contrast, Orange and Brevard counties ranked at the bottom of the list year after year.
"That is part of the (district's) culture and it has been forever," said Judy Preston, associate superintendent for financial services in Brevard. "You put as much money at the school level as you possibly can and keep it very lean at the district level. We monitor that very closely; we pay attention to it."
Pinellas' ranking in per-student administrative costs fell to No. 4 among large counties in 2006-07. The district has cut general administration staff in recent years, from 72 positions in 2004 to 69 this year.
Janssen said she would press the district's finance staff to determine if Pinellas' high rankings reflect reality or are the result of differences in the way Florida school systems classify employees.
By several measures, however, the district comes out looking fatter in administration than its peer districts.
"That is definitely something we're going to have to look at in the very near future," said Cook, the School Board member. "We are going to have to look at everything with a much more intense magnifying glass than we have in the past."
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