Pinellas School Board member Janet Clark is right. While the school system has made progress on paper in downsizing its administrative overhead, "it's a facade almost.'' Much of the success is the result of changing accounting techniques. The bottom line is that the administration is still bloated in an era of declining tax revenues, and the district needs to get more aggressive about becoming more efficient.
The school district's sprawling headquarters and vast bureaucracy have been an easy target for years for critics and School Board candidates. The St. Petersburg Times reported in January that the district spent more per student on general administration in 2007-08 than any other big district in Florida. That is not a list anyone wants to top, particularly when Pinellas' academic rankings among many of those districts has been average at best.
By the end of fiscal year 2008-09, the Times reported this week, the district had reduced its general administration costs by an impressive 40 percent. But that is deceiving, because most all of the savings were the result of shifting costs to other categories. In the best possible light, the changes make it easier to compare apples-to-apples spending with other districts. But they do not save tax money that could be put to better use, and they do not make the district leaner.
Pinellas still ranks no better than the third-biggest spender on administration among the state's 12 biggest districts. Hillsborough, a bigger district and the eighth-largest in the country, spends less on administration per student. Pasco, a smaller district, spends the least of the top dozen districts. Meanwhile, the number of Pinellas district employees who earn more than $70,000 has dropped all the way from 91 to 87. That hardly reflects today's economic realities, where private companies and other local governments have dramatically downsized and become more efficient by necessity.
Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said in January that the administrative budget was a "big concern'' and added this week that she still wants to reduce costs and trim expenses. With the state already facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall for 2010-11 and tax revenues still declining, she won't have much choice. After a year as superintendent, Janssen should be reorganizing in ways that better reflect today's economic realities and steer more money into the classroom as she fine-tunes a proposed strategic plan for the district.
The signs on Tuesday were not particularly encouraging. Without discussion, the School Board approved the hiring of a coordinator of strategic communication for more than $67,000 a year (editor's note: The job will be filled by a former Times reporter). The job description says the coordinator will assist Janssen "by coordinating communication and marketing of strategic plans, projects activities and selected events within the school system and to the community at large.'' Surely one — or two or three — of the 87 current district employees who make more than $70,000 could have been assigned those duties.
The problem in Pinellas schools is not marketing. It's performance in the classroom and in a top-heavy administration that still needs pruning.