This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For the last 18 months, District officials have frequently highlighted the steps they’ve taken to slash the central office bureaucracy as a way of dealing with an enormous budget gap that came to light in 2011.
They did not highlight their decision to change course and add some jobs back.
And so it was a surprise to many to discover — on page 62 of the budget document released last week — that the number of District administrative support positions on the books has grown by more than 100 compared to 2011-12, and that District spending is over budget in several administrative areas.
District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski acknowledged that some jobs were added to the central office, but says most of the reductions in force still stand. About 100 of the 833 positions that are on the books are vacant as of March, he said.
And much of the spending increase has been funded by grants rather than by general operating funds. (Money from grants is typically restricted for designated purposes, whereas the bulk of the District spending is from unrestricted "operating funds.")
Stanski said that District officials had realized some of the initial budget cuts made in the fall of 2011 went too far and jeopardized the District’s capacity to function.
“There was a risk with the amount of cuts we had made,” he said.
Central office expenditures and administrator salaries are a frequent target for critics of District spending practices. But District officials maintain that they’ve managed to keep administrative spending to an extremely low percentage of overall costs, while still maintaining a central office that can carry out essential tasks.
The latest budget documents provide a breakdown of the 833 full-time staff positions in nine administrative areas, covering districtwide functions from academics to finance to human resources. Last year at this time, the District was reporting there were 729 central office jobs.
However, Stanski said only 725 of the 833 approved positions were filled as of this March. That is a small uptick compared to 708 filled jobs in the same departments in December 2011. He said the District has frozen most hiring, and so there must be administrative approval for vacant positions to be filled.
In six central office categories where positions were added, the estimated spending for this year exceeds what was budgeted by more than $26 million, according to budget documents. However, about two-thirds of that excess is covered by grant funding that wasn’t anticipated in the budget.
“We get our Race to the Top in the middle of the year – $6 million,” Stanski said, pointing to the biggest example of a grant that wasn’t anticipated in the 2012-13 budget and was used to support central office functions.
The District’s fiscal year 2014 budget calls for 780 central office positions – still more than last year’s level. But Stanski noted that officials are preparing to make an additional $23 million in cuts to administrative support positions if the District’s requests for increased revenues do not come to fruition.
The decision of top District officials to add back central office staff positions has not been a regular part of the District’s public budget presentations. Officials have consistently highlighted the reductions in spending and staffing made since fall 2011.
In May 2012, interim District chief Thomas Knudsen told the School Reform Commission that “we cut $63 million from our central office, reducing staff by almost a third.” He spoke in support of a budget plan last spring that called for the central office to become even more “bare bones.”
This Monday in City Council testimony, Superintendent William Hite testified that “the central office budget over the last two years reduced full-time positions from approximately 800 to 400.”
The latter statement referred to positions in the operating budget only, Stanski explained. Of the 725 currently filled central office positions, 433 are funding by the operating budget and 292 are grant-funded. But counting unfilled positions, the current budget includes 504 positions funded by the operating budget and 329 grant-funded positions.
Officials maintain that the size of the central office is modest compared to other school districts. “We’re still at 3 percent of the operating budget,” Stanski said, referring to the percentage of total spending that is devoted to the central office.
District budget documents show that central office staffing peaked at about 1,000 positions in 2010, with nearly 800 of those jobs funded by the operating budget. In 2011 and early 2012, officials repeatedly promised to cut the size of the central office by half.
Looking at filled positions, the employee census has actually dropped by about 30 percent since 2011.
According to Stanski, Knudsen was an advocate internally for the restoration of some cuts he felt had made it impossible for certain departments to operate.
“The cuts were so severe that the recommendation was to put some resources back in,” Stanski said.
The District also was under scrutiny for inadequate compliance with grant requirements. Of the positions that were added, 54 were in funded from the grants budget, Stanski said. “The investment of grant dollars in those positions is worth it to manage the grants [in compliance with] federal and state guidelines.” He said District spending on grant compliance is still well below the level recommended by experts as best practice.
The addition of jobs came as the District had a little more breathing room in its current year’s budget than it did in 2011-12. Facing potential bankruptcy last summer, the District was able to defer a second round of deep cuts by issuing a one-time bond to raise $300 million, giving it adequate cash to operate. But it is now struggling to fill a gap of the same size for the coming year.