Is Manatee County school administration 'bloated' as critics charge? Doubtful

The Manatee County school district has long stood accused of harboring a bloated and expensive administrative staff during years of budget reductions. Even though about 150 administrative positions have been eliminated over the past four years, those charges have dogged the district amid a clamoring for deeper cuts among top staff.

With district critics continuing to point to state rankings of administrative expenditures placing Manatee among the highest of Florida's 67 counties, Superintendent Tim McGonegal undertook a study of new data collected by the Florida Department of Education.

What he discovered may not mollify those critics, but on first blush it appears the rankings are an apples and oranges comparison of districts. FDOE does not require districts to list administrative costs in a uniform manner. The wide variety of accounting methods results in unfair comparisons.

In a recent report to the school board, McGonegal detailed how Manatee's administrative cost per student would improve from the current 42nd place to 26th lowest if the district accounted for expenditures in curriculum development, central services and administrative technology in a similar way as other districts. The key difference is whether districts classify employees as either "administrative" or "school based."

The superintendent cast a spotlight on several startling comparisons with similarly sized school districts.

Manatee designates 37 percent of central service costs as "administrative" but St. Lucie County only lists 5 percent under that heading. While Manatee assigns 22 percent of administrative technology costs under "administrative," Escambia County designates but 5 percent.

State rankings would surely be skewed under such different accounting methods. As such, FDOE should establish common accounting standards for all districts so comparisons are valid.

McGonegal also supplied the board with an administrator-to-employee comparison chart that listed six like-sized districts, including Sarasota. Even with more schools and more students, Manatee still ranked lower than Sarasota and Collier in the administrator-to-employee ratio. Manatee also had fewer administrators than either district.

He pointed out that the district slashed the number of administrators earning more than $100,000 almost in half, from 40 last year to 20 today. Sarasota has more than 53 administrators with salaries exceeding that figure.

"Because allocation methodologies and data variables vary so greatly among school districts in Florida, it is exceptionally difficult to make true comparisons regarding administrative expenditures," McGonegal wrote in his report to the board.

"While we are not happy or satisfied with the results of these latest rankings, we do not believe they accurately portray the Manatee County School District's commitment to our students."

That is the bone of contention here, that Manatee is steering money out of classrooms to pay for administrators.

After the superintendent's presentation, school board member Karen Carpenter requested a workshop to "vet all the criteria for the categories," an excellent idea borne out of due diligence. If McGonegal's study is accurate -- and we have no reason to believe otherwise -- that workshop should quiet charges of a "bloated" administration.

With the superintendent expected to present his proposed budget on Monday, confirmation of his findings are important to the budget process. Board members and the public can then debate real issues.