District 51 administration targeted for cuts

Dave Montoya, director of transportation, grounds and buildings, is shown in his office at 2115 Grand Ave., the main administrative site for School District 51. The district rarely pays more than the median salary for top management positions compared with school districts of similar size in the state, the top human resources officer for the District 51 said.

Less than 10 percent of District 51 administration employees outside of schools fit the mold of what people usually imagine when they think of administration: a person managing other people, coordinating programs, and often filling out seemingly endless reports to satisfy laws on educational achievement and assessment.

The rest work in schools or district offices, managing cafeterias, mowing lawns, taking calls, checking temperatures, mopping floors, coaching teachers and counselors, working on adaptive education, fixing computers or leaky sinks, and making sure people get their paychecks, to name a few duties.

Suggestions for administrative cuts to cover a what will be a $2 million to $4 million shortfall in the 2012–13 budget poured in throughout four School District 51 community budget forums in February and March. Although some of the suggestions were specific, not everyone calling for the head of the district’s heads knew what the 495 people stationed at the district’s administrative building do, or even how the 192 front-office administration employees they see at schools spend their days. Those totals were obtained by the Daily Sentinel through directory searches and multiple open-records requests sent to District 51.

Administration in the school district means more than administrators. Nutrition Services employees — who are outside of the general fund budget, the focus of cuts ­— may mostly work in schools, but they are based in administration buildings, as are school nurses and technology, grounds, maintenance and some custodial staff. There also are human resources, finance, warehouse, purchasing, printing and communication professionals in administration, plus assessment workers, curriculum specialists and people who work on special education for students with disabilities. Staff also work in the English Language Learner program, help homeless students and gifted and talented students, and work in remedial education. All are housed in five administrative buildings on four sites spread throughout Grand Junction.

Public perception

District 51 estimates administration in its many forms absorbed $5 million worth of personnel budget cuts in the current school year. Eliminating a half-time assistant principal, nine curriculum staff, a human-resources employee and some support staff confused many onlookers, though, considering 282 positions went away this year, including 116 spots for reading aides and 57 1/2 teaching positions.

Administrative cuts for 2012–13 will be suggested by two groups — the citizen Budget Oversight Committee and local budget-study group Save Our Students — when they make budget presentations Tuesday to the District 51 School Board.

Budget Oversight Committee member Will Hayes said administrative cuts may be further away from affecting students, but could still lead other people to take on more duties. District 51 is one of 20 Colorado school districts that spend 7.3 percent or less of their budgets for salary and benefits on pay and benefits for administrators. In District 51, another 5.3 percent is spent on office administrative support. Teacher salaries and benefits take up two-thirds of that budget.

“My guess is (administrative cuts) will be disproportionate to the rest of the cuts that will be made because there are not as many dollars in administration. I think the general public assumes there’s a lot more money spent on administration than there actually is,” Hayes said.

Save Our Students member Rob Pierce said after months of studying the district’s organizational chart and spending, he believes the district isn’t as filled with administrators as some of the group’s 186 members assumed when the group formed last fall.

“If there’s fat there, it’s tiny little pockets of it,” Pierce said. “We’re going to recommend some cuts to administration, but we’ll say up front that’s necessary for the district only to maintain credibility to the public because there is that perception that the district is top-heavy.”

School Board member Ann Tisue said the committees will have an impact on how the board decides to balance the 2012–13 budget. Cuts could come from various areas, she said, and administration is likely to be included.

“I know on the budget committee they’ve asked if there are any redundancies” in administration, she said, referring to a district-assembled Budget Oversight Committee.

Board member Leslie Kiesler is less sure about administrative cuts. She said some administrative positions already have been combined, and more demand will be placed on administration next year when a new educator-evaluation law kicks in, and principals will have to evaluate every teacher every year.

“This is my personal view: I don’t know if there’s anything in administration we could cut and still operate. I think we’ve cut past the bone,” she said.

Board President Greg Mikolai said layoffs aren’t likely anywhere in the district, but he imagines there will be cuts in administration made through attrition. For example, District 51 Communications Director Jeff Kirtland left the district last month and will not be replaced. Mikolai said there are other administrative employees looking for jobs elsewhere that may have their duties spread to existing employees. Still, he’s not sure that will satisfy all naysayers.

“I don’t think some people will think administration is anything but top-heavy until the line item is zero,” he said.

Top brass, top dollar

There is no question District 51’s top administrative positions are compensated better than others. The 20 district employees described as directors, executive directors or assistant directors earn nearly $2 million in annual salary combined for an average yearly pay of $94,287. That amount is almost enough to hire three first-year teachers, minus benefits. Eighteen more people are designated coordinators or central administration managers and earn salaries ranging from $42,361 a year to $92,925.

Salaries are based on an independently researched salary study conducted in 2010, according to District 51 Human Resources Executive Director Colleen Martin. The study looked at pay in similar positions in similar-sized districts in Colorado and surrounding states and tracked salaries in fields where the district was losing employees, such as nonprofit organizations, health professions and other government jobs. Martin said the district rarely pays more than the median salary for its top positions.

“Out of 50 people in the top four ranges, only one is paid above the midrange,” she said, referring to the top four levels of salary in the district, populated exclusively by directors, principals and executive directors.

Principals’ pay range

With nearly 22,000 students, District 51 is the 12th-largest school district in Colorado. The 13th-largest, Greeley 6, offers its principals a lower range of pay than District 51, but it has a higher pay scale for assistant principals. Greeley school administrators, however, work 10 to 20 days more each year than local administrators.

The 11th-largest district in the state, Academy 20 in Colorado Springs, has a higher minimum salary for its principals and assistant principals, but a lower maximum pay threshold than District 51 for high school and elementary school principals.

District 51’s 42 principals and school administrators make between $72,273 a year, the salary of The Opportunity Center Principal Tami Houston, and $103,292 a year, the salary of Central High Principal Jody Diers. Twenty-five assistant principals earn between $29,610 for a part-time position and $86,954 for a full-time job. Five administrative interns who help principals with their duties at elementary schools make an average of $54,895 a year.

Twenty-one people report directly to District 51’s superintendent, according to one of those people, Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita. Boulder Valley School District, with 7,500 more students than District 51, has twice that amount with 42 people reporting to one superintendent. Thompson School District, which has 6,110 fewer students than District 51, has 16 people reporting to a superintendent.

“I agree it needs to be looked at like everything needs to be looked at,” DeVita said of administrative cuts. “But I don’t think people know what we do. My personal thought is everyone needs leadership. I don’t know any organization that’s successful without leadership.”

Mandates, paperwork

Cutting administrators, especially when one salary can save so much, may be tempting. But Superintendent Steve Schultz said three related bills passed since 2008 in the Colorado Legislature make it harder to ask other administrators and their employees to consolidate duties.

Senate Bill 191, in part, asks districts to create an evaluation system for teachers and principals that is half-based on assessments, many of which have to be created because current statewide assessments only test eight grades in four subjects. Tasking districts with making a career-preparation plan for every eighth-grader is one of several duties mandated by Senate Bill 212. Senate Bill 163 asks school districts to assemble Colorado Student Assessment Plan data in numerous categories and create plans for improvement, or staying the course, based on the data.

These jobs usually fall to administration employees who already handle mandates on everything from bullying prevention to literacy plans.

“We can’t just say, ‘Not doing it,’ ” Schultz said. “You’re creative about where you plug it in and do the best you can.”

Government funding and grants help districts with some requirements but often create even more paperwork. Mandates like the ones in the laws above are less likely to come with money in years when the state’s economy is suffering. State Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he voted for Senate Bill 191, knowing it wouldn’t come with any funding to help schools create the evaluations and pay for additional employees to cover the evaluations or take over other administrative duties. But he hoped District 51 voters would pass a mill levy override last year to help pay for those costs.

They didn’t, so now he’s hoping to bend Gov. John Hickenlooper’s ear and see if the 18-year-old Colorado School Finance Act may be altered to get the district more money or at least allow it to count on a base sum regardless of enrollment fluctuations. It’s an idea he said the governor and others are considering.

Schultz said a new literacy bill, House Bill 1238, could add more unfunded duties for administrators. King said he plans to oppose that bill.

“When you have the economy we have, we have to as a legislature take a step back and say we need to shelve this until we have the money, or compromise on it,” King said.

Regardless of that bill’s fate, administrators still will have mandates to handle. Mesa View Elementary Principal Mary Biagini said principals have shifted focus in the past decade from a role as building-operations manager to building manager and instructional coordinator in order to help teachers improve and bring scores up to meet government standards for achievement. Work on mandated reports comes after that, she said.

“I am rarely in my office during the day. I do paperwork after hours. When the kids and teachers are in the building, they’re my priority,” she said.

East Middle School Principal Leigh Grasso said coaching teachers is one of her favorite parts of the job. But it’s not the only part.

“There’s still a whole other list of items to make sure there is a safe and comfortable community in your school,” she said.

Schultz said administrators aren’t looking for sympathy and are quick to praise teachers, support staff and other administration employees for the part they play in keeping schools running. Biagini recently received help from behavior specialists who gave advice to teachers that she could not have offered. Schultz said heating-and-cooling technicians save the district thousands of dollars in potential repair costs through their maintenance efforts. Fruita 8/9 School Principal Cristal Loehr said she “loves tech support” for their computer expertise.

“They take care of the things we don’t do,” Loehr said of other administrative employees.

Unions’ view

The fate of administrative employees is as uncertain as that of any employee in the district if budget cuts continue. Jim Smyth, president of the teacher-advocacy group Mesa Valley Education Association, said teachers are working second and sometimes third jobs to make ends meet as furlough days cut into their salaries. He also heard about a couple of teachers going through home foreclosure because they don’t make enough money to keep up with a mortgage. He said some teachers told him cuts need to take place at the administrative level, but they think the people involved more directly with administration should determine how those cuts are made.

“We as teachers don’t pretend to know what cuts need to be made at the administrative level because we’re not administrators,” Smyth said.

Kate Jackson, head of the union that represents custodians, clerical workers and garage employees in District 51, said the departments she represents have seen their share of cuts, including the loss of a quarter of all custodial employees in the 2011–12 budget cuts.

“We’re running on skeleton crews, and we can barely get our work done in eight hours,” she said.

She wants the school board to leave her departments alone in this year’s budget cuts. But she doesn’t want to crush other departments, either. As with any business, she said, the district needs people at the top in order to run smoothly.

“They could trim it a bit, but they shouldn’t cut is drastically,” she said of other parts of administration. “The district is run as a big team, and it takes all of us.”


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