There has been quite a bit of debate in recent years about whether too much is spent on school administration within Maine’s education system. Former Governor LePage crusaded for school regionalization during his tenure, arguing that there are too many superintendents and administrators on the payroll in our public schools.
On the other hand, the Maine School Management Association and their allies say superintendent salaries are less than one percent of K-12 education spending and that schools need leadership to function properly.
In order to verify or disprove these claims, one must examine the financial data from each school district. The Maine Department of Education releases expenditure information each fiscal year for every school district and categorizes the expenditures. These reports track how much is spent per pupil and the amounts each district spends on administration, instruction, transportation, maintenance and other expenses. In order to draw a state-level conclusion, this data was considered in the aggregate.
According to the 2017-18 report, system and school administration consumed approximately 8.45 percent of school budget expenditures statewide. In the 2017-18 school year, Maine had 129 superintendents, 29 assistant superintendents, 458 principals and 225 assistant principals. While 8.45 percent does not appear to be a significant amount, it represents almost $209 million for one fiscal year, or more than $400 million per budget cycle.
Does Maine truly need this much administration considering the state only serves 182,496 students in the public school system? Quite simply, the answer is “No.”
In Maine, the average superintendent earns $102,345 annually and the average assistant superintendent earns $107,380. The salaries for these positions account for more than $16.3 million. When principals and assistant principals are figured into that cost, the figure swells to approximately $75.8 million for those 841 positions. The remainder of the cost includes other salaries as well as expenditures such as postage, travel, office equipment, etc. If school and district administration regionalized or consolidated, the state and local districts could undoubtedly put more money toward instruction.
According to the Maine Department of Education, expenditures on regular, special education, career and technical education and other instruction has hovered between 60 and 61 percent of school budgets statewide since 2008. According to Title 20-A, Chapter 103-A, instruction expenditures are supposed to grow to 70 percent of each school administrative unit’s budget by fiscal year 2022-23. While this is a good start, Maine should consider adding new measures that prohibit both system and school administrative costs from consuming more than five percent of each school administrative unit’s budget.
When Maine state government was shutdown in 2017, legislators and the governor disagreed on how much to allocate toward K-12 education. Democrats wanted to retain a three percent tax on households that earn more than $200,000 annually, which was estimated to generate $320 million in revenue for education funding over the biennium. Instead of increasing taxes, lawmakers should examine the merits of regionalizing and reducing administration in our school districts, which cost taxpayers almost $410 million over the last biennium. To be clear, this is the regionalization of school administrative staff, not district or school consolidation.
Instead of making the tough decisions that would streamline Maine’s education system, lawmakers, municipal officials and special interests consistently lobby the legislature for more education funding every budget cycle. This approach is easier than finding line items in school budgets that could be cut or consolidated with other districts.
Here is a good example of how towns and cities can regionalize administration: The towns of York and Kittery have different superintendents despite the fact they border each other and have under 2,700 students collectively. One of the two superintendents in these towns could manage the operations of both districts, effectively cutting one position and reducing the cost of one of the facilities.
Similarly, the town of York has under 1,700 students but has four principals (one for each school) to oversee them. There is no reason the town cannot reduce the number of administrators in the school district to manage 1,700 students.
If every school district in the state managed to reduce the cost of administration and regionalized these expenditures, millions of dollars would be free to flow to instruction and other necessary costs to educate Maine students.
Reaching the 70 percent benchmark by the 2022-23 fiscal year will not be easy, and it will require a solution far more thoughtful than “spend more money on education.”