Budget & Finance

School Administrators Are on the Chopping Block as ESSER Winds Down, Enrollment Drops

By Caitlynn Peetz & Mark Lieberman — August 07, 2023 6 min read
Illustration of 2 hands cutting paper dolls with scissors, representing staffing layoffs.
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School district leaders in Seattle have seen the budget crisis coming for years. But each time it seemed like it was going to come to a head, the district was bailed out by one-time money—whether federal pandemic relief funds or state-level funding decisions to not penalize schools for enrollment declines during the pandemic.

Their luck ran out this year.

After a contentious process plagued by tense public meetings and pushback, the Seattle school board in early July finalized its $1.7 billion budget for the upcoming year, shaving about $130 million from the previous year’s spending plan.

Some of the cuts—about $21 million and 70 positions—came from the district’s central office.

“Now we’re dealing with a structural deficit, which as I define it, is when our revenue and our expenditures are out of whack for a long period of time, and that’s just kind of built into how we do business,” Superintendent Brent Jones said. “So when you take those one-time funds away, now we’re being confronted with having to deal with that.”

Dozens of districts across the country have in recent months put administrative jobs on the chopping block, redirecting those dollars to more direct classroom support, like raising teacher salaries or continuing academic recovery programs.

Many districts—particularly those in low-wealth communities and in states like Texas that haven’t raised education funding in recent years—are feeling acute pressure to trim expenses as federal COVID relief funds start to run out and student enrollment dips.

In June, the Detroit school board approved spending cuts of $300 million, which included eliminating about 300 positions, largely from the central office and school-level administrative ranks.

The refrain is the same in districts from Haywood County, N.C., to Twinsburg, Ohio, to Rapid City, S.D.

Fewer students but greater needs

Seattle’s budget problems, like many other districts’, have been driven in large part by a steadily declining enrollment that’s been the result of pandemic-era departures from the school system and declining birth rates. Since the 2019-20 school year, Seattle’s enrollment has declined by more than 3,400 students, to about 50,000, and is expected to continue on a downward trend for the foreseeable future.

Most districts’ funding is calculated, in part, based on student enrollment, so fewer students equals less money.

Nationally, public school enrollment decreased from 50.8 million children in 2019 to 49.4 million in 2020, the first decrease in more than a decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, K-12 enrollment is projected to continue declining for the next decade, expected to drop to about 47 million students in 2031, according to national estimates.

But as children come to classrooms with more academic and social and emotional needs after extended school closures, schools are grappling with how to provide more services and support with less money.

Some districts ramped up administrative staffing during the height of pandemic-era hybrid learning, when some students were learning at home and others at school, said Angela Von Essen, assistant superintendent of business and operations for the Shoreline school district just north of Seattle.

They had essential roles like parsing through complex rules for federal relief funding and training teachers and students on new learning platforms and technology tools.

Now, with federal relief funds running out, some of those administrator positions might seem expendable. But Von Essen believes they’re still critical, even as their roles might need to evolve.

Last year, when Von Essen was superintendent of the Kittitas district in central Washington, she had to step in for a principal and assistant principal who were both on leave.

“If you could see what I saw last year, it’s horrific,” she said. Student behavior problems consumed much of her time, and without robust administrator support, teachers had to interrupt instruction to handle those problems on their own.

Administrators’ salaries haven’t consumed district budgets

Public school advocates and critics alike often point to administrator salaries—the highest ones in districts—as prime targets for cost reductions. But the notion that school budgets have been subsumed by massive spikes in administrative pay is largely a myth.

Most of the time, compensation for administrators makes up less than 10 percent of a district’s annual operating budget, which means administrative cuts on their own can’t satisfy the need for major cuts, said Jonathan Travers, managing partner at Education Resource Strategies, a school finance consulting firm that works with large districts nationwide.

The portion of school budgets across the country collectively devoted to spending on district administration has barely changed in decades. In 2001, roughly 6.5 percent of K-12 investment nationwide covered administrators’ paychecks. The most recent federal data show that figure is now 7.5 percent.

District decision-makers need to be deliberate about the motivations behind administrative cuts if they’re on the table for the current budget season, Travers said. A drop in student enrollment, for instance, doesn’t necessarily translate to fewer programs and funding streams for administrators to oversee.

“Is this solely just about adjusting to revenue loss? Is this about implementing or responding to a change in underlying student need?” Travers said. “Or are we shifting service delivery or our vision for what we want our central office to do?”

As districts face pressure to make major administrative cuts, states will need to step up to ensure they have the resources to manage these continuing challenges, said Von Essen, from the Shoreline district.

“I think school districts have been very creative in providing instruction to kids during those COVID years,” Von Essen said. “But when it goes away, who’s going to pay for it?”

Involve the community in budget conversations, even when it’s difficult

Seattle schools’ leaders tried to cut positions that were the furthest removed from the classroom and would have the least direct impact on students’ learning, Jones said.

Even so, every job left unfilled alters how the district functions and will have “a secondary or tertiary impact,” Jones said.

“There’s no other reason why central office exists, other than to support our schools,” Jones said. “There’s somewhat of a false separation of central office from schools, but that is where our transportation services, our custodial services, and all these really critical positions sit.

“I think that what people have historically done is think about senior administrators as a place that is eligible to be reduced, but a central office is way more than that—it’s the hub for where people get distributed out to buildings to provide very tangible and critical support.”

As more districts make difficult decisions about positions, services, and programs to cut or reduce to balance their budgets, Jones urged leaders to solicit feedback from community members and factor that into their decisionmaking.

While Seattle was able to plug its budget gap this year, Jones foresees another complicated budget process ahead next year, and has already begun floating ideas to offset future shortfalls, including possibly closing some schools. The move could save up to $30 million, he said.

Starting this month, long before the next budget cycle starts, the district plans to hold a series of meetings for the public to offer feedback and suggestions that will help shape future decisions.

“A budget is an articulation of your priorities—wherever you’re putting money is what you’re saying you value and want to invest in,” Jones said. “...This is hard. Nobody wants to do this, but we all understand what the mission is and what we have to do collectively.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as School Administrators Are on the Chopping Block as ESSER Winds Down, Enrollment Drops

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