Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | August 3, 2022

Administrative spending soars at largest Oklahoma school districts

Ray Carter

Oklahoma schools devote a larger share of funding to non-instructional uses than their counterparts in several surrounding states and a dramatic surge in administrative spending in some of Oklahoma’s largest school districts suggests that situation is poised to get worse, based on data in a recent report by a state watchdog agency.

In a report reviewing Oklahoma’s K-12 public-school funding, officials with the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) found that administrative spending in Oklahoma schools is growing at a faster pace than instructional spending.

LOFT found that, between 2010 and 2021, Oklahoma public schools’ administrative expenditures increased by 40 percent while spending on instruction grew at a slower rate of 35 percent.

“Year-over-year, growth in administrative staff continues to outpace both student enrollment and the number of classroom teachers,” the LOFT report stated. “To illustrate, between 2020 and 2021, student enrollment and the number of classroom teachers declined by one percent, but the number of administrators grew by two percent.”

Ben Scafidi, a professor of economics and director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University who has been analyzing public-school spending and staffing for over 30 years, said Oklahoma is not alone. He said growth in administration spending is occurring nationwide.

“Public school advocates and researchers think of administration as a ‘fixed cost’ of operating public school districts and schools,” Scafidi said. “However, public-school spending on administration has increased by $11 billion in the U.S. since 2010. Adjusted for inflation, this is a 10 percent increase in administrative costs in public schools nationwide. Clearly, these administrative costs are not ‘fixed.’”

While the number of administrative staff in Oklahoma schools has increased overall, LOFT found that administrative-spending growth is not consistent across all districts. Instead, the problem is concentrated among a plurality of districts.

Between the 2016 and 2021 state budget years, LOFT found 230 school districts (42 percent) had a greater increase in administrative spending than in instructional expenditures.

That trend was especially prominent in some of Oklahoma’s largest school districts.

The LOFT report found that from the 2016 to 2021 state budget years spending on instruction in the Oklahoma City school district increased just 3 percent while administrative spending surged 41 percent.

“Put simply, the growth of administrative payroll has limited schools’ ability to hire more classroom teachers.” —Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT)

In the Tulsa district, instructional spending rose just 6 percent during that five-year period while administrative spending grew 26 percent.

A similar pattern occurred in the Putnam City district, which boosted instructional spending by 24 percent but also increased administrative spending by 43 percent.

In the Lawton district, instructional spending grew 16 percent while administrative spending rose 32 percent.

Those trends were not a byproduct of school-district size because administrative spending did not increase at a faster pace than instruction in other large districts.

Instead, in the Moore, Union, and Norman school districts, instructional and administrative spending grew at roughly the same pace from 2016 to 2021 with instructional-spending growth slightly exceeding the growth rate for administrative spending. Spending in the two categories at Edmond was virtually identical, although administrative spending slightly outpaced instructional expenditures in that district.

Meanwhile, the trend in two of the state’s 10 largest districts was the opposite of the pattern seen in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Putnam City, and Lawton. In the Broken Arrow district, instructional spending grew 19 percent, a far faster rate of growth than the 7-percent increase in administrative spending. At Jenks, instructional spending increased 29 percent while administrative spending grew 17 percent.

The LOFT report defined instructional spending to include instructional staff compensation, classroom materials, and curriculum design. The non-instructional spending category included facilities operation and maintenance, student transportation, school administration, and food services.

The report showed that pay for public-school administrative personnel has surged significantly since 2011, when LOFT found the average salary for school administrative personnel was $69,463. By 2021, the average school administrative salary was $92,995, an increase of 34 percent.

In 2019, LOFT noted that Oklahoma ranked 43rd in the nation for the percentage of education expenditures allocated to classroom instruction, based on a 2021 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the most recent data available for national comparisons.

In the 2020-21 academic school year, 58 percent of Oklahoma’s K-12 common education expenditures went to classroom instruction, which trailed the share directed to classroom instruction in neighboring Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico.

With the growth of school administrative spending outpacing instructional-spending growth, those statistics could worsen in future years, and LOFT officials noted the trend has ripple effects throughout the education system.

“Put simply, the growth of administrative payroll has limited schools’ ability to hire more classroom teachers,” the report stated. “LOFT finds if the growth of school administrative personnel had followed student enrollment growth between 2011 and 2021, approximately $26.4 million in salary and benefits from school administrative staff could have been available to hire the equivalent of 500 teachers.”

In a July 11 letter of response included in the LOFT report, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) downplayed the report’s findings on non-instructional spending.

Hofmeister’s letter argued for combining “instructional expenditures with instruction-related expenditures,” saying those combined categories would represent 67.74 percent of school spending in the 2021 state budget year.

“Instruction-related expenditures are directly related to providing instruction and for activities that assist with classroom instruction,” the OSDE document stated. “These include salaries and benefits for teachers, teaching assistants, librarians and library aides, in-service teacher trainers, curriculum development, student assessment, technology (for students but outside the classroom), and supplies and purchased services related to these activities.”

But in a July 12 response, LOFT officials noted that OSDE “cites the salaries and benefits of teachers and teaching assistants as being ‘instruction-related,’ implying that LOFT did not include this significant cost category in instructional expenses. LOFT’s methodology included the salaries and benefits of those involved in delivering instruction to students.”

LOFT executive director Mike Jackson also noted the report’s state-to-state comparisons were made on an apples-to-apples basis using the same definitions for instructional expenditures. As a result, Oklahoma did not rank below neighboring states for the share of money going to instruction because of definitional differences, but because of basic math.

“LOFT’s report on K-12 expenditures categorizes ‘instructional’ and ‘non-instructional’ spending using the coding definitions provided by the National Center of Education Statistics,” Jackson said. “As the primary statistical agency within the U.S. Department of Education, NCES has the latest and most accurate data available for national comparisons.”

Scafidi said public schools in Oklahoma and elsewhere have relatively little incentive to be efficient under the current system, saying the “lack of competition in K-12 education is what permits administrative spending to grow excessively over time.”

“If district public schools had to compete more with charter and private schools—because taxpayer funds for education were given directly to parents—then all schools, public, charter, and private, would have to spend their resources more wisely and economize on things like administration,” he said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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