President’s Perspective: Board members must rebut false claims

by C. Patrick Woods
KASB President
Topeka USD 501

Greetings fellow school board members. It’s that time again; election season! If you’re like me, you probably get a kick out of reading political ads from candidates across the state. I find it fascinating to observe the various rhetorical tools employed by candidates to make their arguments to the voters – their choice of language to describe policies they support as opposed to those they oppose, the way they choose certain statistics to support their arguments and how they define the context that frames the issue.

Let’s take the issue each of us spends our free time thinking about most: education. It’s common to hear two office-seekers cite statistics and facts from the very same source – be it a piece of school finance legislation, a school district budget or a decision from the Supreme Court – in support of arguments that are diametrically opposed to each other.

For example, in this year’s race for the office of Governor, one of the candidates has, in both public statements and debates, cited the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) as a source in his claim Kansas schools are adequately funded, but improperly spending their funds on too much administration. Interestingly enough, this is the same source school district officials cite as evidence public schools in Kansas are spending their funds responsibly on things that directly affect instruction, though many are still recovering from the massive cuts imposed during the Great Recession.

As a school board member, I know the claim that Kansas districts are “top-heavy” is false. In fact, I myself often offer KSDE data as evidence to make the claim our districts spend wisely on instruction. This leaves me, as a three-term board member, scratching my head and asking, “How is it possible for two claims so diametrically opposed to be based on the same data?”

Luckily for us, our own Mark Tallman dug in to this question and the data cited to provide the full picture. He sought to answer the questions, “Are there too many administrators in Kansas schools?” and “Are districts spending too much on management?” Most importantly, he sought to put these questions in proper context by asking, “Compared to what?”

Using the very same data from KSDE, Mr. Tallman compared management expenses in school districts with management and administrative expenses in the private and public sectors statewide, compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor. This comparison brought to light many important facts:

  • First, public education has fewer management level employees (principals and directors of major departments) than do the private and public sectors in all of Kansas;
  • Second, the number of chief executives for school districts (superintendents) has seen a steady decline over the years while the number of chief executive officers has grown in the other sectors;
  • Third, management and chief executive salaries in school districts (principals, directors and superintendents) are significantly lower than those in the other sectors; and
  • Fourth and most importantly, there are simply fewer management jobs and expenditures in school districts than there are in the private and public sectors in Kansas.

So, a quick review of the KASB research helps to paint a clearer picture of this issue by providing the full context. With this important information provided by our association, it’s our duty as board members to rebut false and damaging claims such as this one.

As local board members, we do need to explain why we make the decisions we do. I don’t know of any board member who wants excessive administration. We do want strong, effective leaders and support staff, just like every business in Kansas.

The real question is who should make these decisions for your district: elected members of your community or state government?

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