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Lean Regime: A District Cuts Nearly Half Its Administrators

With a ballooning deficit and shrinking resources, Mundelein High School District 120's superintendent decided in 2003 to pare down the administrators' ranks by almost half. While there have been challenges, staff members are making the new system work. Included: A description of how a lean administrative team works.

When it comes time to cut school budgets, trimming usually starts with student activities and new equipment, followed by programs and courses, and then, finally, staff.

More than a year ago, though, with a swelling deficit and a growing enrollment, the new superintendent of Mundelein High School District 120 in Mundelein, Illinois, began pruning from the top.

When he was done, the one-school school district had gone from 22 administrators to 12.5; among the positions eliminated was the high school principal. The district's deputy superintendent now oversees the high school. The staff reductions saved the district $940,000 in one year, and allowed numerous student programs to continue.

"For me, it made sense," deputy superintendent/high school principal John Ahlgrim told Education World. "We still operate with a small-school feeling. We don't need that many administrators in the building; too many can lead to bureaucracy. This was the best use of resources. To know that you can re-allocate resources to things that directly affect kids is good."

NO FAT HERE

Now in its second year with a slimmed-down administration, Mundelein has adapted to the changes.

"It seemed to work fine last year; we worked hard to improve achievement for all students," said Kelley Happ, the district's spokeswoman. "All jobs are being covered, there are just fewer people doing them. We were top heavy and felt we could do with fewer administrators. We wanted to make cuts in areas that least affected students. We anticipate keeping this structure."

Some administrators whose positions were cut were reassigned, some left the district, and some returned to teaching. "We shifted some responsibilities," Happ said. "It's been a matter of finding out whose skills match which responsibility."

In the case of the former high school principal, he resigned and was not replaced. Among the staff positions eliminated were non-teaching department heads; they were replaced by lead teachers who teach a full course load and receive a stipend for extra work related to their departments. A number of deans also were dropped.

"We used to have several deans, whose sole job was to discipline kids," Ahlgrim said.

Ahlgrim, the former high school assistant principal, has his office in the high school and functions as the building principal. "All students and teachers are under his jurisdiction," Happ said. "He oversees deans and teacher evaluations. He is very busy, and very good."

While some people are working harder than before the changes, everything is getting done, and teachers actually spend less time on non-instructional tasks, according to Ahlgrim.

"We have taken levels of middle-management out of the building and empowered teachers," he said. "We've helped them realize they can resolve issues on their own. We were finding middle-management doing a lot of things teachers could do for themselves, like ordering supplies."

Other changes last year included outsourcing technology support, maintenance, and custodial services. Those changes yielded $240,000 in savings last year, and better technical assistance, according to Happ.

Now when teachers need help with computers or need something repaired, they call the companies directly for help.

"We've taken away a lot of grey area," Ahlgrim added. "Now, we only talk to teachers about curriculum and instruction. Before, we could have spent hours at a staff meeting discussing the best way to get something photo-copied. Now we can't spend too much time focusing on those issues. Time is just so precious. And I don't think a lot of administrators got certified to manage custodians."

JUGGLING HATS

At the same time, Ahlgrim has had to learn to address district-wide issues while dealing with the daily responsibilities of running a high school.

"I try to understand the bigger picture for the district," he told Education World. "It's a learning process for me, so I can support the superintendent. Now I work to understand both sides, financial and curriculum.

"I probably have more work, and my responsibilities have increased. But I always put in long days."

DIGGING OUT OF THE HOLE

Mundelein's financial problems had been growing for several years, and when new superintendent Stan Fields took office in July 2003, he reviewed the budget and made the decision to cut middle-management positions. Increasing costs of transportation, insurance, and other budget items and shrinking state and local revenues contributed to an ongoing deficit that is estimated to reach $4 million this year. A tax cap prevents the district from raising taxes above a certain percentage each year.

Using staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures, district officials hope to balance the budget by 2005-06.

"If we hadn't done it [cut administrators], we would have had a bigger deficit," Happ said. "We already had cut activities and raised the fees for activities and driver's education. We were trying to be as responsible as we could."

Changes in the driver's education faculty also yielded savings of several hundred thousand dollars. A number of teachers retired last year, and instead of hiring new teachers, the district re-hired some of the retirees on a contract basis, at a much lower cost.

Still, some programming cuts were necessary. An automotive technology program was scrapped after staff members realized students could take similar coursework at the local community college. The school now uses the auto technology space for a fitness-based physical education program. "We put in programs we felt filled the needs of all kids," Happ said.

WHAT IS TOO LEAN?

While streamlining is admirable, stretching staff members and programming too thin is one of the concerns members of school administrators' organizations had with Mundelein's arrangement.

"Change is a good thing when you can say it benefits students in the classroom," said Barbara Knisely, the spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators. "We are seeing in school systems what we have seen happening with businesses across the U.S. -- everyone is being asked to be smaller, faster, leaner. I just hope the outcome -- student performance -- does not suffer."

Another issue that would concern her is the ability of small administrative staffs to handle more than day-to-day operations. "I would ask, 'Can they still look strategically over three to five years? Do they have enough resources for long-term planning?'"

"We are lean, no question about it," Happ said. "But we do have a district advisory committee and financial advisory committee, made up of community members with an administrative presence, which look at long-term planning. The district recently purchased property in anticipation of long-term growth, and we will form a committee to discuss that. The superintendent has been able to review curriculum, as did a teachers' committee over the summer."

The size of the system and how it operates is a key issue in deciding whether to pare down administration, according to Knisely. "It might be very unique to this kind of school system. The beauty is the local system can respond to the needs in the community."

John Dively, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association, agreed that each district has to weigh the pluses and minuses. "Maybe it works for them [Mundelein]; generally, you need one person in the building to make it clear that someone is in charge," Dively said. "I think that each local district needs the flexibility to make these types of decisions."

For Mundelein staff, the changes have made them look more closely at their priorities. "We are probably as thin as we could get administratively," Ahlgrim said. "Now when we see a hole, we know how to fill it. Before, we didn't know how thin we could get."

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