The population of Le Flore County in southeastern Oklahoma is less than a tenth of Oklahoma County’s population. Yet Le Flore has 17 school districts compared to Oklahoma County’s 15.
At Reydon Public Schools in western Oklahoma, the superintendent makes $116,000 a year, including benefits, to oversee one of the smallest districts in the state, at 124 students. That’s $936 per student, compared to $6 for Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard, the highest paid superintendent this year, making $260,000.
For years, conservative legislators and others have decried what they say are high administrative costs in Oklahoma districts and schools. They say the state’s K-12 system is top-heavy and wasteful. And they point to this as a reason not to increase Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding to levels found in most other states, and to expand school-choice options such as charter schools.
Oklahoma Watch took an in-depth look at federal and state data on administrative and classroom costs in district schools. The data show that compared with other states, Oklahoma spends a high percentage of its budget on district administration and a low percentage on instruction. Oklahoma spends just above the national average on school administration.
In 2011-2012, Oklahoma ranked sixth among states in percentage of funds spent on district administration, at 3.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those costs include superintendent pay, the school board, support staff and related office expenses.
The state ranked 16th in proportion spent on school administration, at 5.4 percent. That includes salaries and other staff costs.
In instruction, which includes teacher pay, the state ranked 40th, at 52 percent. The national average is 55 percent.
The measures don’t necessarily mean that most districts and schools in Oklahoma are rolling in administrative fat.
The state is one of the leanest spenders on common education in the nation, ranking 48th in per-pupil spending.
That has persisted for years even as Oklahoma schools were required to implement reforms that school officials say led to greater administrative costs. More testing and
accountability, a new teacher evaluation system and more data collection took hold, yet per-pupil funding did not keep pace, school officials say.
State data shows that over the past decade, spending on district oversight increased by nearly 13 percent when adjusted for inflation. Classroom spending went up by under 8 percent.
Some advocacy groups call administration spending a red herring.
Gene Perry, policy director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank, said if Oklahoma were to cut its 3.2-percent rate of spending on district oversight to that of Hawaii’s, the lowest in the nation at 0.5 percent, it would have relatively little impact. The savings would total $249 per student, or $165 million, a year. If all of the savings went to the classroom, Oklahoma would move up only one spot, to fourth from last, in instructional spending per student.
Perry said the state instead should focus on increasing overall K-12 funding. That would raise classroom spending while reducing the overall percentage going to administration.
“Adding a little bit is better than nothing … but it’s not going to make up for the education cuts we made in previous years,” Perry said.
State Superintendent Janet Barresi said Oklahoma needs to realign its priorities to get more money directed to the classroom.
Even if cutting administrative overhead yields small savings, the additional money for the classroom would help schools. It could mean hiring new teachers or buying new textbooks.
“Are these administrators directly supporting the classroom or are they just doing paperwork?” Barresi said. “The closer you get to the student and supporting the teacher, in my experience it has shown year after year you get better academic results.”
Joy Hofmeister, who defeated Barresi in the Republican primary on Tuesday, did not respond to requests for comment.
The debate over administrative costs often revolves around whether more of the state’s numerous school districts should be consolidated.
In 2010-2011, the state had 570 school districts, the 10th most in the nation, although it ranked 27th in enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The number of districts has declined to 517 this year because of efforts to promote consolidation, including using financial incentives.
Nancy Hughes, executive director of financial accounting at the State Department of Education, said the number of districts pushes Oklahoma toward the higher end of administrative costs.
“We have 517 districts … That’s 517 superintendents,” she said.
But many lawmakers say consolidation should remain a local decision, not a state mandate, because closing a school can cripple a small community. The district may be a key employer and the town’s social and athletic center.
In Freedom Public Schools, a rural district with fewer than 100 students, Superintendent Danny McCuiston said consolidation is not an easy prospect. Western Oklahoma has small districts that are located up to 30 miles from other districts, which would cause problems in transporting students.
That isolated nature can also make it difficult to share staff.
McCuiston said small districts are not bloated with personnel; more often they’re understaffed, forcing administrators to fill multiple roles. McCuiston, for example, is not only superintendent, but also works as an elementary school principal, a teacher and mows the lawn. Freedom Public Schools has two administrators and 10 full-time teachers.
“Rural schools are as efficient as they can be. They have to be,” McCuiston said.
Rural schools often spend higher percentages on district administration because they have lower student-to-administrator levels, McCuiston said.
Rep. David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow, said both sides of the consolidation debate have valid points, but he hopes a bill approved by the Legislature this year will offer a middle ground.
The bill, signed by Gov. Mary Fallin on June 3, will allow small districts to voluntarily share costs, such as for a superintendent, a counselor or a teacher.
The state will spend an estimated $761,000 to set up programs that make school personnel available for sharing among districts. The districts pay fees to defray the costs. The goal is to generate enough savings that will more than pay for the state program. Similar programs have cut costs in Texas and Iowa, Brumbaugh said.
Although districts are spending more on administration, only a handful of districts in recent years have exceeded the cap for such costs set by the state. The caps range from 5 percent to 8 percent, depending on enrollment. Districts that exceed the cap can lose state funding.
Four districts — Mansville, Dover and Straight public schools, and the Discovery School of Tulsa — lost a combined $17,645 in 2013-2014 for exceeding the limit the previous school year.
Superintendents from Straight and Mansville declined requests for interviews. Officials from Dover and Discovery School of Tulsa did not respond.
Of the 26 districts penalized since fiscal 2007, all but three were in far southeastern or eastern Oklahoma, including four districts in Le Flore County, which has more district than any other county, at 17.
The state’s largest district, Oklahoma City Public Schools, spent 2.5 percent of its budget on administration last school year. Tulsa Public Schools spent 3.6 percent.
Trish Williams, chief financial officer for Tulsa Public Schools, said the district has dealt with funding cuts and consolidation on top of increased administrative requirements from the state.
Williams pointed to standardized testing, A-F grading and the state’s teacher evaluation system as new programs that increase administrative spending. Even going after grant money to fund new programs often requires hiring new administrators to handle the grant.
“We should absolutely monitor administrative costs, but lawmakers need to make sure mandates don’t increase (unfunded) administration,” she said.
Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said efforts have been made to reduce paperwork to carry out reforms.
“On the costs of record gathering and reporting, accountability, etc., it is true that there might be some cost involved, but every field, even those funded entirely with taxpayer dollars, feels a fiscal impact of regulation” Bacharach said in an email.
Salaries are a large share of administrative costs and are often cited by critics of education spending.
Salary data for superintendents obtained by Oklahoma Watch show a wide range of compensation that varies generally by enrollment.
When measured in dollars per student, however, the salaries of many small-district leaders far exceed those for superintendents of large districts.
Reydon, Balko and Tenkiller public schools are examples where the superintendent makes six figures for overseeing a district with fewer than 300 students.
Phillip Drouhard of Reydon makes $116,041, including benefits; Larry Mills of Balko makes $103,608, and Randy Rountree of Tenkiller makes $126,130, according to state Department of Education data. Drouhard, Mills and Rountree could not be reached for comment.
At Taloga Public Schools in western Oklahoma, Superintendent Darci Lingle makes $80,682 to lead a district with 70 students. That gives her the highest dollar-per-student rate in the state, at $1,000 per student.
Lingle said in an email that superintendents in small districts handle a variety of duties. “I help with scheduling, policies, student discipline, staff development, drive a route as needed as well as other responsibilities,” she said, adding, “Our revenue comes primarily from local sources.” According to the state, Taloga’s funding is nearly $23,000 per student.
None of the four districts have exceeded their administrative caps.
Steven Crawford, executive director of Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, said higher pay is often needed to draw people to districts like Taloga.
“In order to get the best candidates, you got to pay them enough to move out there,” Crawford said. “These are remote, isolated communities.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues in the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.