Mandated Administrative Bloat Will Destroy Small Public Schools

by James C. Sherlock

I am a big fan of small schools.

Studies and common sense both indicate the benefits for the kids and staff can outweigh any disadvantages.

But small public schools are being driven out of business by costs in some parts of Virginia. Much of the cost disadvantage in those small schools is driven by administrative bloat forced by a combination of state laws and regulations and school division mandates.

Some of the latter-day “must haves” of management and specialist staffing for schools have demonstrated value in improved outcomes for the kids, some have not. In general, the state mandates the positions that matter, local school often districts require additional ones that don’t.

The fixed cost of management and administration must be absorbed no matter the size of the school, driving up per student costs in smaller schools. Many are being driven out of existence by costs they are not permitted to control.

I am going to offer here for comparison two schools, both elementary schools, one in Loudoun County and the other in Wise County.

They differ in size. Hillsboro Charter Academy in Loudoun has 143 kids. Union Primary School in Wise County has 789.

The Wise County school has a traditionally far more challenging student body than Hillsboro. Sixty-two percent of Union kids are economically disadvantaged, including 27 homeless kids. The Loudoun school has a student body 2% economically disadvantaged with no homeless children.

And Hillsboro Charter Academy spends more than twice as much per student as Union.

But even with that built-in head start and small class sizes, Hillsboro gets poorer academic results.

If you think that the cost differentials are driven entirely by salary differentials, you are mistaken. The difference in cost-per-student can be traced in considerable part to Hillsboro’s huge administrative bloat driven by Loudoun County staffing rules, not state requirements.

For a look at the difference, see here. Scan the entire document. The differences are astonishing. It shows what happens if you get enough education Ph.D’s and Ed.D’s on a division staff with near-limitless funds to expend in the nation’s richest county. Ed schools work in mysterious ways, many of which won’t survive rational analysis.

Yet there is no evidence offered that the differences in non-teacher staffing matter to the children’s educations.

The difference in performance of the children between the Loudon school and the Wise County school is inexplicable by anything other than better teaching, better learning and better environments for both at Union Primary.

That, in turn, is traceable to leadership at every level, starting with the district.

In Loudoun, we will consider Hillsboro Charter Academy in Purcellsville.

In 2018-19 Hillsboro Charter Academy in Purcellville had 143 kids. Students: 2.8% Asian; 2.8% Black; 6.3% Hispanic; 7.7% multiple races; 81% white. Economically disadvantaged 2.1% – three kids. English learners 1.4% – two kids. None homeless. Students with disabilities 6.2%.

SOL pass rates: Reading 80%; math 89%.

Hillsboro, a K-5 public charter school, has a staff of 27. Seven of those are teachers, one for each grade and one for special ed. Five are teachers assistants.   The rest, 15 of 27, are the “leadership team.” specialists, and interventionists.

One of the Hillsboro employees is an ELL interventionist. There are exactly two ELL kids in the school. Four Hillsboro staff are employees of the district, and may be shared with other schools. There is no school nurse listed.

With 142 students in six grades, Hillsboro has the following leadership, management, specialist and instructional staff:

  1. Principal, Leadership Team
  2. Operations Manager, Leadership Team
  3. First Grade, Dean of Instruction, Leadership Team (I have counted as first grade teacher)
  4. HCS/Office Assistant
  5. Counselor, Testing Coordinator, Leadership Team
  6. Dean of Curriculum; Gifted Specialist; STEAM Specialist; IF,T; PD, Leadership Team
  7. Social Worker* (*employee of school division – might be shared with another school)
  8. Educational Diagnostician*
  9. School Psychologist*
  10. Speech/Language Pathologist*
  11. Librarian
  12. ELL, Interventionist
  13. Reading Specialist, Interventionist
  14. Art Specialist
  15. Music Specialist
  16. P.E. Specialist
  17. Special Education
  18. Kindergarten Teacher
  19. Second Grade Teacher
  20. Third Grade Teacher
  21. Fourth Grade Teacher
  22. Fifth Grade Teacher
  23. Math/Reading/STEAM Teacher Assistant
  24. Kindergarten Teacher’s Assistant
  25. Special Education Teacher Assistant
  26. Instructional Teacher Assistant
  27. Teacher Assistant

Cost per student: $19,930. District average costs per student $15,507.

In Wise County, let’s look at Union Primary.

In 2018-19 Union had 789 kids. No Asians; 3% Black; 1% Hispanic; 1% multiple races; 95% white. Economically disadvantaged 62.4%. English learners – three kids. Homeless – 27 kids. Students with disabilities – 11%.

SOL Pass rates: Reading 90%; math 97%.

With 789 students in five grades, Union Primary has a principal, an AP, a family engagement coordinator, a nurse, a speech therapist, two school counselors, one clerical support person, sixty teachers and three paraprofessionals.

Cost per student: $7,848. Wise County school division cost per student $9,254.

Bottom line. First, congratulations to Wise County for showing what can be done with the right leadership, management and parental involvement. But then Hillsboro, as a charter, also has parental involvement.

That leaves leadership and management as the issues in Loudoun County.

Second, it is time for a real analysis of the need, as opposed to desire, for ever increasing non-teacher staffs in rich counties, including “leadership teams,” specialists in virtually everything, and lots of teacher assistants. Just because they can be afforded does not mean that they help the kids achieve. Perhaps in some cases they should help, like reading specialists, but we need the data to judge.

Such a review can usefully start in Loudoun County.

The school board, when not otherwise distracted, needs to look at the actual data and see what is happening. They are unlikely to get enough information to do their jobs in Powerpoint presentations from the superintendent.

Citizens should also seek to ensure that the elect boards with broad experience. Former teachers can and do contribute, especially so if they also have school management experience, but theirs are not the only experiences and talents that count.

The Superintendent needs to examine the data and manage to results, not just ask for a bigger budget every year while layering on more consultants and school staff requirements.

Indeed, the board should examine the cost-effectiveness of his staff.

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18 responses to “Mandated Administrative Bloat Will Destroy Small Public Schools”

  1. Great job, Jim. This is exactly the kind of analysis that VDOE should be doing — and has failed utterly to do.

  2. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    The VDOE knows about the difference in cost. They superintendents annual report requires this each year. But they do nothing with the data. It just sits there. They hire equity specialists? Seems to me some kind of analysis should be done? Nada.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock


  3. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Loudoun once ran a tight ship that minded P’s and Q’s about top heavy administration. Here is the former adminstration office for LCPS and the new one. When the new building went up you found more non teaching staff than ever before. Citizens would be wise to never let the school system build a temple for itself.

    1. A picture says a thousand words…
      And contrasting pictures say three thousand words…

      1. Bureaucracies ONLY grow.

  4. I’ll bet there is an interesting story behind Wise County having a lighthouse on their County seal. After all, they’re something like 450 miles from the nearest actual lighthouse.

    Update: Oops, that’s the seal of Wise County Public Schools. Still…

    1. Exactly what I thought… A lighthouse?
      But as a symbol of knowledge, OK, but still…maybe a symbol somehow attached more to the County?

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Something I believe I on which commented on the first article the Captain wrote about Wise Co. schools. Do they even have a lake in the county?


  5. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    I would like to note that several of the other small community-based schools in the Loudoun non-charter population are able to share and therefore split the costs of many of the non-teaching staff. Charter schools can not share those resources and therefore must absorb the cost for all on the one school – spreading the cost over far fewer students resulting in a much higher $/student figure comparatively. Just another way they were screwed and tax payers were harmed by forcing charter status on these two schools.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Thank you.

    2. A devastating comment!

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I second Jim Bacon: This is a great job of analysis. I have long felt that the schools were top heavy with administrative staff; I just never knew the extent of it. The position that I find the most ridiculous is P.E. specialist. Just let the kids go outside and play! Why is there a need for a physical ed specialist?

    Here comes the old fart complaining. I look at these staffing ratios and think about almost a lifetime ago to my first grade at Virgilina Elementary. There were more than 40 of us in Mrs. Jones’ class. We were the first wave of the Baby Boom The school consisted of grades 1-7. There were seven teachers, one principal, one administrative staff, and some kitchen and custodial staff. There were no teachers’ aides or assistant teachers. Nevertheless, many of us went on to college and good careers. Of those who did not go to college, many were successful in business, farming, and other pursuits and led good lives.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Some of us even did a year out of school, without even the benefit of distance learning, when it was decided by the State that closing was better than desegregating, AND we still “went on to college and good careers”.

    2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Dick, one that I find interesting is the teacher assistant.

      There is a job announcement from Albemarle County Schools for an elementary school teacher assistant. Applications are accepted beginning today.

      They are seeking high school graduates to do the grunt work of teaching.


      Look at the

      They seek all of that for $15.10 an hour full time plus benefits. I wonder what the turnover rate is.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Captain in Loudoun one year I had a special ed aide for a kid in wheel chair, I had a hearing impaired aide for another kid, and ESL teacher for another group of students. The rest of the class were classic “sweathogs”. I mean that in a loving way too. Love those guys. Anyways I had to run the 3 adults out of the room. I had no time to manage 30 kids and the 3 adults. It was a great year. Very special class.

  7. tmtfairfax Avatar

    I remember talking with teachers at my kids’ elementary school about the staff size at Fairfax County Public Schools. I mentioned that FCPS reports indicated that, at the time, there were more than 200 curriculum specialists on staff. Needless to say, that got several angry reactions with teachers saying they’d rather have higher pay and few more specialist teachers (math or reading) in the schools than all this “curriculum” help.

    A few years ago, I was on a walk and ran into my son’s 5th grade teacher, who is a neighbor. This was in a time where FCPS had 200 plus vacancies in fulltime teaching positions. The administration offered staff the option of teaching, with payment at the (higher) staff salary and a guaranteed right to return to the employee’s staff position at the end of the school year. Not a single staff person took the offer. But it’s kids first. Right.

  8. Truth Matters Avatar
    Truth Matters

    We should certainly demand accountability from our school systems, but we must do our due diligence as well. Hillsboro Charter Academy has only three administrative staff members who cover all school-based administrative roles including the health clinic (the HCS title stands for Health Clinic Specialist). Some of the staff members you listed are actually district employees who serve multiple schools and are available to evaluate students with special needs and participate in the mandatory special education identification process. Many others are part-time employees with a wide range of hours – all based on the needs of the students and the program. The leadership team is composed of members of the staff, including teachers, who in addition to their primary roles serve in a leadership capacity, necessary for the running of a school quite different from the rest of the district.

    The school serves grades K-5 (not pre-k), with class sizes of 24.

    Also, you may want to know that Hillsboro Charter Academy has never spent $19,930 per pupil per year. The primary funding mechanism (non-fundraising) uses the following formula:

    (District Average Cost Per Pupil – Indirect Cost Fee) X Annual Enrollment

    The school is actually run on less tax-payer funding per year than the district-run small schools in the same county. But beyond this, it’s important when comparing regionally different locations to include consideration of the cost of living and resulting base teacher salary.

    Regarding SOL scores, there are often wide swings for smaller populations and any families who opt out (Loudoun has many who do), count against the school-wide pass rates. But even so, Hillsboro has enjoyed many successes with SOL scores, including a 100% pass rate in science their first year open and just last year their reading pass rate exceeded nearly all other elementary schools in the large district.

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