Superintendent Tim Foist made a pitch to his school board earlier this school year to reduce administrative costs—starting with himself.
Mr. Foist is the superintendent of the 1,200-student Mingus Union High School District in Cottonwood, Ariz., a single-school district 100 miles north of Phoenix. He argued that it makes financial sense for the district to make him a part-time superintendent, paying him for 145 days of work instead of 260.
It’s an arrangement that seems to be making sense to a growing number of other school districts as well.
As budgets grow tighter, districts that have always had their own top administrators are considering new leadership structures, including creating part-time superintendent positions, sharing superintendents with neighboring jurisdictions, and consolidating roles, such as having a superintendent also serve as a principal. These primarily small and rural districts hope to keep their identities and avoid consolidation while still realizing some savings.
In the Mingus Union district, the change will reduce Mr. Foist’s salary to $68,000 a year, from $98,000, starting in the 2012-13 school year. Mr. Foist, who had previous stints as a superintendent in Arizona’s 2,000-student Holbrook and 3,000-student Yuma Union High School districts, also receives a pension because he had retired before taking the job at Mingus four years ago.
Mr. Foist said that shifting to part-time status will save the district enough to stave off cuts to arts and music programs in its budget, which totaled about $6.8 million in fiscal 2012. “What I’m trying to do is allow people to see that in some small districts, if they’re managed properly, this can work,” he said.
John Tavasci Jr., a member of the Mingus district’s governing board, said voters have flatly refused to merge the high school district with its three feeder K-8 districts, each of which has its own full-time superintendent. “It’s territorial,” he said.
But in a one-campus district such as Mingus, it’s feasible to have a part-time superintendent with other administrators handling day-to-day duties, Mr. Tavasci said. Mr. Foist’s “leadership is ever present, whether he’s here or not,” he said.
Spurred by Economy
Arrangements in which a district chief performs double duty are not a new phenomenon, particularly in districts with small enrollments in the Midwest and in New England, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va.
What is new, he said, is the trend of districts considering shared leadership because of the budget fallout from the recent recession. Those partnerships may face a bumpier road, because sharing services has not been done before, nor may it be the preferred option, Mr. Domenech said.
“We’ve seen some places where they’ve done it and they didn’t like it,” said Dan E. Ernst, the associate executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. But, “when times are tight fiscally, you look at all opportunities to maximize your money.”
William H. Mayes, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, says money concerns are the driving force behind recent district partnerships in his state as well.
“Traditionally, Michigan has not shared superintendents,” Mr. Mayes said. Michigan districts have been facing tightening budgets for years, he said, but districts are fighting to keep their independence rather than consolidate.
The boards of the 700-student Mendon district and the 945-student Centreville district, both K-12 districts located about 35 miles south of Kalamazoo, Mich., decided to share a superintendent after the former leaders of both districts retired. Since the 2010-11 school year, the two neighboring districts have shared administrator Rob Kuhlman. The districts pay about $82,000 each to cover his salary and benefits.
“We got exactly what we thought we’d be getting, and it’s as good as we’d hoped,” Michael Eley, at the time the president of the Centreville school board, told the Kalamazoo Gazette.
The April 2011 edition of The School Administrator, a publication of the AASA, explored the issue of shared superintendents in depth. It noted that the number of districts with shared superintendents in Iowa, for example, had risen from 28 to 63 over the past three years. Iowa lawmakers have periodically provided bonuses to districts to merge or share services. The latest incentive package, which started in the 2007-08 school year and expires next year, provides up to $240,000 to districts that share administrative services.
Some research suggests that smaller districts devote a higher percentage of their budgets to administrative costs. Wisconsin Taxpayer Magazine, a publication of the nonpartisan watchdog group Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, studied school administrative costs in a January 2011 report. Statewide, the average amount districts spent on administration equaled 8.1 percent of operating funds.
Districts with fewer than 500 students spent an average of 10.3 percent of their operating budget on administration. Districts with 500 to 749 students spent 9.8 percent on administration, and districts with 750 to 999 students spent 9.6 percent.
However, on average about 61 percent of administrative costs were spent on building-level administrators, as opposed to central administration.
Some small districts were able to buck the trend, the Wisconsin group’s report noted. For example, the 336-student Belmont district, 65 miles southwest of Madison, spent $706 per student on administration, compared to the statewide average of $913. That district has a part-time superintendent and one principal. The other small districts with lower-than-average administration costs had also consolidated leadership roles, or had administrators working part time.
At least one Wisconsin superintendent said that splitting his duties between two districts is working well—though he adds that administrators and school boards should both enter such partnerships carefully.
For the past four years, Bill Fisher has served as the superintendent of the 375-student Elcho district and the 213-student White Lake district. Both rural districts are about 190 miles north of Madison, but are 40 miles away from each other.
Facing declining enrollments, they decided to share a top administrator after their individual superintendents retired in 2008. The search for a joint superintendent took six months before Mr. Fisher was hired, for $102,000.
“I was drawn by the challenge,” said Mr. Fisher, a former principal. Right now, he spends Mondays and Wednesdays in Elcho, and Tuesdays and Thursdays in White Lake. He tries to alternate his Fridays between the districts.
Mr. Fisher said the workload is heavy. “Every month, I have two separate board meetings. Both districts have to be very flexible; there has to be a lot of give and take,” he said. “If I still had small children at home, it’d be almost impossible.”
On the positive side, Mr. Fisher said he has two “excellent” boards that communicate well, and have been understanding when he has to devote extra time to a pressing issue in the other district.
The two districts share a football team, but otherwise compete against each other in sports. Mr. Fisher said he tries to spend an equal amount of time on each team’s side, putting up with good-natured ribbing from his two constituencies. “If I do go to a baseball game, I stand in the middle somewhere,” he said.
“It’s not for all districts, it’s not for all boards, and it’s not for all superintendents,” Mr. Fisher said of the dual role. “You do save money, but you have to give up some things.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Budget Pressures Reshape Work Lives Of Superintendents