Every so often, “clackers,” as teachers at Hiram Johnson High call them, will visit Mary Rodríguez’s class to watch her teach and make recommendations. These administrators, she said, wear shoes that aren’t ideal for Hiram Johnson’s floors, making it easy to hear them coming.
A lot of them roam the halls these days: Sacramento City Unified has increased spending on administrators during the last several years while cutting spending on teachers.
“We are just putting our noses to the grindstone and trying to teach the kids, and it becomes exhausting,” Rodríguez said.
The imbalance at Sac City has become the norm in California. As funding grew following years of budget cuts, California school districts increased spending for administrator pay faster than they raised spending for teacher pay, a Bee review of state financial data found.
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General fund spending by school districts on teacher salaries rose by 15 percent, or $3 billion, from the 2010-11 school year to 2015-16. During the same period, administrator pay grew by 27 percent, or $700 million.
Adjusted for inflation, California’s school districts spent less money on teacher salaries in 2015-16 than they did in 2006-2007, the last year before the recession. The opposite was true for administrators: Districts spent slightly more on administrators in 2015-16 than they did during the year before the recession.
Teachers and the unions that represent them say the trend has hurt students by increasing class sizes, and that it has prompted some teachers to leave the profession.
“Even though they are paying more to administrators, we have this incredible turnover,” said Rodríguez, a special education teacher, referring to other teachers leaving her school due to low pay and other factors. “ It's beyond embarrassing.”
School district officials say they spend far more money on teachers than on administrators. “Almost two thirds of our budget goes toward salary and benefits for teachers,” said Maria L. Lopez, a spokeswoman for Sacramento City Unified.
Lopez and others also said administrators do important work. At the school level, administrators play a vital role in keeping schools running. At the district level, administrators help ensure that instructional materials and practices are uniformly effective. They maintain payrolls, deal with a mountain of paperwork and they obtain money for schools through grants.
Naj Alikhan, a spokesman for the Association of California School Administrators, said administrators often negotiate for pay individually while teachers negotiate for pay collectively, which can produce divergent results. “I don’t think you can compare and contrast,” he said.
Administrators come in different flavors, ranging from a middle school vice principal to the superintendent of a large district. The state further breaks down spending on administrative pay by whether it is primarily used for school administration – running a particular school – and everything else, largely central office administration. Teachers most often criticize central office staff, not school site staff, when bemoaning increased spending on administration.
“I want our school to have multiple vice principals,” said Larry Ferlazzo, an English teacher at Luther Burbank High in Sacramento who also blogs for national publication Education Week Teacher. “I would have many more concerns about central office than on the ground level.”
Spending on central office staff has outstripped spending on school site administrators, however. Total spending statewide for school site administrators grew about 22 percent from 2010-11 to 2015-16, compared with a 33 percent increase for other types of administrators.
Eighty-two of the 100 largest school districts in the state increased spending for administrator pay faster than they increased spending on teacher pay from 2010-11 through 2015-16, state data show. Eight of the 10 largest districts in the Sacramento region did the same.
The trend has its roots in the last recession. The housing bust and corresponding declines in tax revenue badly hurt schools across California, leading to layoffs, furloughs and sharp spending cuts. Between 2008 and 2011, districts statewide cut the equivalent of about 32,000 teachers and 4,100 administrators, state figures show.
Districts began to slowly recover. By 2014-15, districts had added the equivalent of about 18,000 teachers, about half the teaching positions that had been cut, and about 3,200 administrators, the large majority of lost administrator positions. Staffing figures for 2015-16 are not yet available, though data on spending for salaries show the trends – faster growth for administrator pay than teacher pay – continued.
Several school districts with rising expenditures on administrators cited the same reason for the trend: They eliminated too many administrative positions during the recession.
"We reinstated positions that were previously cut such as vice principals and coordinators, which are critical support staff needed on school sites," Lopez said, also citing the cost of giving long-serving administrators raises.
Sacramento City Unified general fund spending on teacher salaries fell from $143.4 million in 2010-11 to $138.1 million in 2015-16, a decline of 4 percent. Over the same period, general fund spending on administrative salaries grew from about $22 million to $25 million, a rise of about 15 percent. (Adjusted for inflation, spending on teacher pay fell by 10 percent while administrator pay rose by 8 percent.)
Lopez noted that due to declining enrollment the district spends more per teacher today than it did five years ago. Both average teacher and administrator pay in the district grew faster than inflation between 2010-11 and 2015-16, state figures show.
School districts are largely funded based on their enrollment, and Sacramento City officials pointed to enrollment losses when explaining the drop in spending on teacher pay. Less students, they said, means less teachers, which in turn means less expenditures on teachers.
Nikki Milevsky doesn’t agree with that assessment. She heads the Sacramento Teachers Association, the union that represents district teachers, and she argues the district is spending a disproportionate share of its money to pay administrators in its central office.
"When you go over to the district office, it is packed with people," she said. "You go into our classrooms and they are packed with children. That is a misappropriation of employees."
The strain of large classes and relatively low pay has pushed many teachers away from the district, teachers said. At Hiram Johnson High, dozens of teachers have transferred to other schools, left for other districts or stopped teaching altogether in the last seven years in response to low pay, said Rodríguez, the Hiram Johnson teacher.
Before the recession, Hiram Johnson had 19 teachers with at least 20 years of experience, state figures show. By 2014-15, it had seven.
“The students literally say, how long are you going to be here?” Rodríguez said. “It affects them behaviorally. I'm considered a veteran teacher. I've only been here seven years.”
District officials counter that class sizes have decreased during the recession and point to a new district policy that mandates K-3 classrooms have no more than 24 students, down from 28.
Sacramento City Unified's administration, school board and teacher's union are in the middle of a contentious contract negotiation over pay and other issues. The growing number of administrators is an issue of contention.
Just north of Sacramento, the Natomas Unified School District increased general fund spending on administrator pay by 81 percent, or $2.9 million. The district increased spending on teacher salaries by 31 percent, or $8.8 million.
Natomas Unified spokesman Jim Sanders said the district sharply reduced the ranks of administrators years ago as it faced a state takeover due to budget issues. After the threat of a takeover passed, they quickly hired more administrators.
“A decision was made that more leaders were needed to ensure the district ran more efficiently and restore those positions impacted by the budget crisis,” Sanders said. “Thirteen positions were added. Since that year, 15 new management positions were added as Natomas has grown by 2,500 students.”
Amber Allison, a teacher with 12 years experience said, “We do have a lot of great administrators that have the best intentions of the kids in mind.” But, she added, her kindergarten class has 27 students this year – down from prior years but still too high.
“It is frustrating to see lots of administrators when I have that many kids,” she said. “More administrators at the district office does not help me to teach small groups in my classroom.”
At Elk Grove Unified, the largest district in the region, general fund spending on administrators grew from 2010-11 to 2015-16 by 41 percent, or about $7 million. Spending on teacher pay grew by 25 percent, or about $47 million.
Elk Grove Unified spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton pointed out that the district dramatically cut spending on administrators in 2010-11, then increased it again during the economic recovery. Elk Grove teacher and administrator pay grew by a roughly equal amount if the 2016-17 school year is compared to 2009-10, instead of to 2010-11.
All of this spending is in flux. The economy is recovering and districts across the region are hiring teachers – and administrators. At the same time, the state has moved to a local control funding formula that could affect how much districts spend on teachers and administrators.
Natomas Unified, for instance, will receive less money in 2017-18 than in prior years because of the new formula, and will cut management positions, Sanders said. The district will continue adding new teaching positions, he said.
“I feel like they have made steps in the right direction,” said Allison, the Natomas Unified teacher.