Save our bloated administrative staff – For the children!

So, the Washoe County School District is shocked – SHOCKED! – to find themselves $40 million in the hole as they work to finalize their budget, as reported last weekend by the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Siobhan McAndrew.

The revelation, less than two years after a popular governor and a Republican Legislature expended a lot of political capital to raise funds for them, and less than six months after voters in Washoe County agreed to raise taxes on themselves even more for those same school, is as maddening as it was predictable. But when you scratch the surface just a little more, “maddening” turns into… well, things that ought not be said on a family-friendly news site. McAndrew’s story raised a lot of great questions that deserve deeper examination.

This was not a surprise. What are some of the excuses being bandied about for the missing money? Expiring waivers for class size and textbook replacement schedules. Union contracts.  Dwindling reserves. Increases in health insurance costs. Not a single one of those things came out of left field, or couldn’t be tracked years in advance. Even the one legitimately unexpected factor, nearly a thousand fewer new students than expected, could only cost more money in the bizarro land of government budgeting.

To be fair, this isn’t the first time the Washoe County School District has complained that it needed more money. But that’s part of the problem, ironically – for decades we’ve heard a steady drone of we-have-a-crisis-we-need-more-money-raise-taxes-for-the-children, over and over and over again.  Whether tax increases were a billion dollars or none at all, the tune is always the same. Is it any wonder no one was listening, or could have expected that this time there really was a wolf?

The people who were surprised shouldn’t have been.  Governor Sandoval learned of the budget hole the same way I did – by cracking open the newspaper. Now, of course, I hope politicians read the news (and pay attention to columnists), and the state’s chief executive can’t memorize the budget projections of every municipality and government agency in the state.

But he made reforming and adequately funding education the centerpiece of his legislative agenda in 2015, and WCSD is the second largest school district in the state (and, not for nothing, where his family has lived). That means one of two things is true. Either he didn’t properly educate himself about the nature and scope of the problem he was trying to solve, or the school district actively misled him about its true financial needs.

The implications of either scenario (and they are not mutually exclusive) are fairly staggering, and should be more than a little embarrassing for everyone involved.

The governor wasn’t alone, though. Activists for WC1, who put their own credibility on the line to ask their neighbors to consent to a tax hike to “Save Our Schools” didn’t know. Newly elected school board members didn’t know, when they should have been the ones breaking the story in the first place. And when obscenely overpaid Superintendent Traci Davis released her statement about the possible need to lay off teachers, well, if she wasn’t surprised, she sure wanted the rest of us to think she was.

I reluctantly voted for WC1. I’ve defended the Republicans who voted to raise taxes last session for education. I don’t know if the people who asked for my money were conning me or just weren’t as competent as I thought they were. But it’s going to be a long, long time before the trust needed to raise taxes again is restored. If ever.

(Dear legislators currently parsing the overall state budget: This goes about quintuple for you.  Pull your heads out of your plastic bag bans and pay attention.)

Can we finally look seriously at administrative bloat?  Part of the RGJ’s story included a pie chart breaking down the budget a bit. Less than 45 percent of the WCSD’s $484.9 million general fund expenditures went to regular classroom instruction, with another 6 percent for special instruction (vocational and the like). The rest was overhead, and most of that was admin costs. If the Washoe County School District was a charity, watchdog organizations would give it a failing grade and advise you to spend “for the children” elsewhere.

A quick look at the district’s own org chart helps show the top-heaviness. In addition to the superintendent, we have a chief of staff, a deputy superintendent, a chief school performance officer, and six regional or “Zone” superintendents. There are no fewer than 11 department heads with nebulous titles like “Chief Communications and Community Engagement Officer,” and “Chief Accountability Officer.” Each one of them makes solid six figures, easily doubling what most of the teachers are making. Many of them are provided with district-owned vehicles.

But if each school already has its own principal, assistant principal (or three), dean of students, administrative assistants, and so on, why do we need so many regional counterparts? What, as one of The Bobs might say, would these people say they do here? What value do they add (or have they added) to graduation rates? Are they more valuable than the two or three classroom teachers who their salaries could pay for? Why is it always teachers they threaten to lay off first, except to guilt/scare taxpayers into continuing to fund lavish benefits for redundant administrators?

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When conservatives talk about a smaller government, the inevitable partisan retort is that we’re twirling our mustaches in glee at the idea of worse education for children, or something. My liberal friends then, with clear consciences and in the sincere belief they’re being noble, vote to take money away from productive people (and their kids) to sustain useless administrative staff and apparently incompetent and short-sighted managers.

It is easier to debate philosophy than to pay attention to details. But our elected officials (on all levels), if they truly want to help our kids, must start doing a lot more of the latter.

Orrin Johnson was a political columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal in 2015 and 2016. He began blogging in 2005 for his law school’s Federalist Society chapter and in 2007 started his own conservative political blog, First Principles. Orrin is a Deputy District Attorney in Carson City. The views expressed in his opinion columns are his alone, and not his employer's.

He can be reached at orrin@orrinjohnson.com. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson.

Photo by David Calvert.