Looking for waste in schools

June 26, 2013 

School districts throughout the state might be top heavy with administrators, as S.C. Superintendent Mick Zais claims. But asking a disinterested outside consultant to evaluate district spending habits is a better way to determine that than an internal audit by the district itself.

Zais has long contended that school districts waste taxpayers’ money by hiring too many administrators and teachers, and spending too much on non-instructional needs. The number of children in South Carolina schools increased by 10.3 percent from 1995 to 2011, but the number of teachers and administrators rose by 48.1 percent.

Zais cites Department of Education statistics indicating that for every classroom of 21 additional students who entered the state’s public schools since the 1995-96 school year, an additional seven teachers or administrators were hired.

But Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association, says Zais’ analysis mischaracterizes instructional costs as administrative costs. He said increased hiring is largely focused on lowering the student-to-teacher ratio in the classroom.

Teachers and administrators, according to Zais’s view, include teaching aides, guidance counselors, librarians, instructional coordinators, coaches and trainers, and health, psychology, speech, audiology and other social services providers working in schools. But most school district spending still goes to instruction.

Both sides agree that costs can be cut. But the state Education Oversight Committee, which makes policy recommendations for S.C. schools, believes that hiring a private firm to evaluate district spending is the better way to do that.

The committee has proposed an independent evaluation of at least three school districts, analyzing how efficiently they spend money on non-instructional expenses, including overhead, personnel, procurement, facilities, transportation and technology. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who ran unsuccessfully against Nikki Haley for governor in 2010 and who is challenging her next year, convinced fellow senators to include $300,000 for the study in the budget.

Zais opposes the plan, saying more districts should be studied and school districts should help pay for the evaluation. He contends that districts have money they could use to evaluate their own performance.

We don’t believe outside consultants have all the answers. But they can provide an unbiased view free of the prejudices that might influence an internal evaluation.

An outside firm also is likely to be better equipped to troubleshoot problems and find waste in district budgets. And experienced consultants are likely to have a list of tested suggestions for reducing waste.

Finally, the $300,000 price tag is not that daunting. And even if the full Legislature approves the program, the money for the study would be available only if the state’s revenues exceed expectations.

The study doesn’t have to encompass every district in the state. It can focus on a few representative districts and then extrapolate from the data to give other districts guidance in cutting costs.

On the surface, the numbers cited by Zais indicate that districts might be spending too much money on school administration. But the districts that adopted these policies may not be in a position to determine whether that represents wasteful spending.

Let an impartial consultant make that call. It would be money well spent.

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