Friday, September 18, 2009

Self-Titled Categories*

Seattle has been enjoying a stretch of idyllic, sunlit fall. And the picture of the nail polish and the trowel will hopefully make sense, eventually.

I've been running from schools to soccer to coaching to errands to to PTA meetings to hockey on The Soccer Mom Steeplechase, enjoying the weather, albeit a little busily. And while getting all that crud done, I've been thinking an awful lot about the enigmatic inner workings of the Seattle Public Schools. Particularly the central offices. If you're not from Seattle, you may want to stop here (seriously), although sometimes bureaucratic maneuvering can be entertaining. And our Superintendent can stay on message like nobody's business. Girlfriend is apparently deeply committed to ensuring consistent accountability through benchmarking and performance metrics while reaching out to the community for feedback to better improve the system.

Yep, she really does type and talk like that. Or someone types like that for her (hey, 6 PR people have come into the central offices since her arrival), and she reads it aloud. Which-ev-uh.

Either way, it's like a nightmarish bureaucratic Peanuts grown-up who won't answer your questions. Wha-wha-wha consistency wha-wha-wha accountability wha-wha-wha... you get the idea. I read over the Superintendent's proposed budget for 2009-2010 early this summer (fun!), and I was struck by the claim that Central Administration had been reduced from 124.7 the previous year to 112.9 (page 15. This has already been discussed on the Save Seattle Schools blog).

Except it was categorized as "core administration." And the bulk of reductions done in the central office were done by doing things like firing the copy machine maintenance folks and the guy who fixes the blinds (to be totally fair, those folks are listed as central office staff reductions, rather than core administration reductions, which is misleading, but not completely grody). I thought it was... odd.

So I poked around on the OSPI site a little (that's The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of WA), because the public records request I made about the central offices will take over a month to get any kind of answer on. That's neither here nor there, just... what it is (and whether or not you think there are too many people in the downtown offices, they do have actual jobs to complete that have nothing to do with answering questions from the public). And on the OSPI website, strangely, Central Administration Full Time Employees come in at 390 full time employees for 2008-2009.

Weird, right? I mean, really weird. How is it, exactly, that the Superintendent, in her proposed budget, can say that "Core Administration" was 124.7, and yet the Central Administration category on OSPI fills out at 390? That's not including the teaching or principal corps, because I read the documents through to make sure I wasn't getting all budget-bleary (I find budgets a bit dull).

I THINK it's possible that by calling it "Core Administration" instead of "Central," there isn't really any kind of official category. It's like me re-categorizing "yard work" as "outdoor maintenance" so that I can count working on my tan and giving myself an al fresco pedicure in the category. Because those are maintenance, right? And outdoors! And then I could tell Stumpy I put in a ton of hours on outdoor maintenance and insist that I'm being truthful. Because I would be! I would also be an a**hole, but that's a whole 'nother problem. Stumpy's problem, really.


Also, just FYI, those 390 people working downtown are a few more than the 278 in 1997-1998, when enrollment in SPS was a couple thousand kids higher than it is today. The teaching and principal corps, in the same period, have remained fairly stable.

It's probably clear that I don't have undying affection for SPS's downtown offices. I've already sworn that they won't be getting a Christmas card from me. So I wondered if my tendency not to give them the benefit of the doubt was shading my interpretation of the data. So I compared them to other districts. 6 other districts. Turns out, when other districts have lost students, they've also made reductions in their central offices. Bellevue gained students and still made central office cuts. Seattle? Not so much. Hopefully this (admittedly kind of crappy) chart is readable on blogger. You may need to sort out how to enlarge it or something. I have no idea. Or, as some east coast folk say, I have no idear. Same people who say leath-uh. At least the "r" gets recycled.


So. You don't want blue (enrollment loss) or red (central office increases). Ideally, in fact, you'd like to be pink (healthy enrollment growth) and green (central office cuts). Second best would be blue and green, because at least the losses are linked. Yes, I get that unless you're quite preppy, you might prefer red and blue as a color combo over pink and green, but, well, I digress. Again.

So guess what Seattle has both of? That's right! You don't win any prizes, but good guess!

Enrollment loss AND central office increases. The largest central office full-time employee increase of any of the six districts I examined, as it happens. And given that central office growth has accelerated during our Superintendent's tenure, why, exactly are we being told that it's decreased? And that it's about a third of the size it appears to actually be?

It all gets more interesting (to me, and it's my damn blog) because last fall the State Auditor chastisted Seattle Public Schools for their over-staffing in the central office. They pointed out (among other things) that Seattle has "39% more executives, managers and supervisors per student than average for 10 districts." Huh.

The district responded in a distinctly whiny, we're sooooo special sort of way by saying: we're bigger and our problems are more complex, and so we need all those people (page 3 of Appendix E-7, your reader may show it as pge 128/142). Yes, I paraphrased.

Interestingly enough (again, to me), the district also cited a report from McKinsey to say that they're super-duper complicated. I happened to read that report. Buried in there, it also shows that Central Office growth was well out of proportion to any other segment of growth. Here's a chart that uses the McKinsey data (from page 22 of the report) to illustrate it a leeeettle more clearly.

Ooopsie! Guess who's growth outpaces everyone else's? (You know people would read this and think about it if I could give away some Manolos or Louboutins for correct answers. But, thanks, Mom, for taking the time to look it over) Yup. Central Office growth significantly outpaces spending growth in any other sector. Hmmm. I'm not sure that the McKinsey report makes the best defense, there, kids.

The kicker (for me) is that the time period that the State Auditor was evaluating was for 2004-2006. Since the end of 2006, central administration has risen even further, from 350 in the 2005-2006 school year to 390 in the 2008-2009 school year.

Think about it. Even as the district whinged and cringed that we're different, so different rules apply to us, and the State Auditor was noting they are crazy-overstaffed downtown, they were staffing up downtown.

Now, I would guess if you asked how, exactly, this load of nonsense has come to pass, your answer would sound alot like this: "Here at SPS, we're committed to every student achieving and everyone accountable, and we're putting benchmarks in place using best practices to examine the performance metrics." Or something like that. You could probably play a game called "Benchmark Bingo" while you listened. Again, though, I got nothin' for you in the way of prizes.

Accountability may be the buzz-word in Seattle Public Schools, but it looks like somebody downtown may be very, very good at playing an old-fashioned game with chutzpah: a shell game.

* Yo. Let's keep this in perspective. This is my personal blog, where I can be as uncorked and snarky as I feel like. That's very, VERY different than thinking that everyone who works in SPS administration is corrupt and awful. Because that would be silly. Still, looking this information over raised some serious questions for me, and hopefully for you, if you've gotten this far. But data can be interpreted many different ways. And you should look at the raw data for yourself, which is why all the links to mind-numbing information are included.


Sahila said...

The whole SPS thing makes me want to puke - out of pure astonishment, followed by frustration, followed by dismay... even despair...

Going back to the Save Seattle School's blog and reading about the cost over-runs in the Garfield HS renovation/rebuild project... original cost $54M, paid to date $125M or thereabouts, with not all the bills paid yet...

And then reading what's happened in the District under the Superintendent's direction.... closing schools despite parents' showing conclusively that there's a baby-boom feeding into the system and there isnt enough capacity in the central, north, north east, north west areas to house all these kids, and then having to spend money re-opening schools that were closed 2 years ago...

Pardon me for being so dense, but I dont get how this can keep going on and on in this District.... why cant we parents/community members come together and stop this train wreck... and I dont mean pushing for privatisation and charters either.... see ... some of us think Seattle is being set up to let charters in....

How can we make change happen here in SPS? Recall the Board? Demand for the Super to be fired? File multiple lawsuits to enforce change?

Meg said...

Sahila- I have lots of questions, but not many answers (and it's not just because I could use another cup of coffee, although I could). I think a board recall, or even an attempt at one, would be disastrous. I disagree at times with board decisions, but that's very different than thinking they're all incompetent boobs who should be removed en masse. It sounds corny, especially after I was so snarky, but I have a ton of respect for the work the board members do.

Right now, I would like the board to, in a unified way, demand rigorous accountability from the Superintendent, who can, in turn, demand it (even if she's been forced to) from central office staffers. If the folks downtown can make a thorough, rational, well-defended explanation for this (and their other choices), even if I don't agree, my level of concern would drop considerably.

I am less concerned about decisions I don't like (even if I whine about those) than what seems, to me, to be a lack of rigorous effort to make - and publicly, thoroughly explain - choices.

Anonymous said...

Hi Meg,

I like your blog and as always appreciate your thorough mining of information and clear interpretations for the rest of us.

I have added your blog to my recommended list at

Oh, and, what do you know, Seattle schools are over enrolled by 1,200 students this fall. Gee, how did that happen? I'm not sure if it was pure incompetence or another shell game. Either way, your careful analysis of the information regarding the demographics shows that either there was extreme incompetence on the part of SPS or another agenda.

I sat in one board meeting in the Spring where first the SPS demographer got up and presented the fact that there was an increase in enrollment of 1,200 for the fall then our CFO got up and was trying to explain why they were riffing so many teachers. DeBell asked for clarification saying that he had just heard from the demographer's presentation that enrollment was increasing. I sat in on the following financial meeting and board meeting and the CFO never rectified his numbers that substantiated the rif.

So is that incompetence or a top down decision that has nothing to do with facts and data but all to do with an agenda?

Inquiring minds sure want to know.


Meg said...

Dora- I keep starting to reply, and then find I can't quite articulate how unsettling it would be to attend a meeting in which the demographer gets up and says "enrollment's up this year" and the CFO says "enrollment's down" and then... when given the demographer's data, doesn't incorporate it. And the thing is, I still can't articulate how unsettling it is. Just... weird.

On another note, since my husband's been giving me a hard time about my crappy charts, I'll be sure to gloat (in a very mature way, of course, as gloating always is) that at least someone thinks my interpretations of data are clear.

Anonymous said...

I think your charts make the point just fine! Kind of Excelly/wonky but hey, that makes it all the more credible. And I found a link somewhere to your report, and it's great. The kind the school district would pay quite a lot of money for. (Then ignore?)

The argument that the size of the SPS district would drive overhead costs per student higher really bugs. Whatever happened to economies of scale? You only need one Grand Poohbah of Department X, no matter how many students are enrolled. More students, and the cost per student declines, not increases. The complexity argument I could buy, although you pretty thoroughly annihilate that one, too.

I hope the board takes this report seriously! Good on you for all the great work.

Meg said...

Anon- I could buy that economies of scale in a school district are not as directly efficient as they are in... something else (factories? Corporations? fancy shoe stores?). If parents get to use the "kids aren't widgets!" plaint, it's probably fair for administrators to say the same thing. Even so, SPS is running 40% more administrators than other districts, which is well out of line. And the state auditor pointed the same thing out... and the period evaluated was before administration took another upward spike.

You're right- the charts ARE very excel-y. Especially on my blog, the charts are pretty much me thinking out loud in excel. Oh, dear. Just typing "thinking out loud in excel" makes me feel painfully nerdy.

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