The Orleans Parish School Board central office, much reduced since Hurricane Katrina, is headquartered in Algiers. Credit: Jessica Williams

Ben Kleban, head of New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, doesn’t understand why the Orleans Parish School Board has a central office staff nine times larger than his own, but just twice as many students in schools it directly oversees.

“I don’t believe the central office staffing has come down even a fraction of what it should have” after Hurricane Katrina, Kleban told Orleans Parish School Board members at their August meeting, just before they approved a $44 million operating budget.

Actually, it has. With enrollment down 81 percent in schools that answer to the Orleans Parish School Board, central office staffing is down 90 percent. And even though enrollment has dropped, school officials point out that they still are responsible for some administrative issues applicable to all parish public schools — chartered or direct-run — and even private schools.

In August the Orleans Parish School Board sold two former administration buildings at its headquarters in Algiers. Before Katrina, these two buildings housed about 440 of the district's 750 central office employees. Today, about 75 school board employees use just a portion of a smaller building.
In August the Orleans Parish School Board sold two former administration buildings at its headquarters in Algiers. Before Katrina, these two buildings housed about 440 of the district’s 750 central office employees. Today, about 75 school board employees use just a portion of a smaller building. Credit: Jessica Williams / The Lens

Whether the parish school board’s administrative staff remains top-heavy eight years after Hurricane Katrina — especially now that it educates only a small portion of city students — is a topic of continuing debate. Some board-watchers believe the district could trim operations and costs. They question the number of staff needed to perform tasks that charters contend they could do for less.

The skepticism is echoed by national charter school proponents, who argue that bureaucracy in traditional school districts stymies creativity and can slow funding to classrooms that need it.

Kleban, reflecting on his statement a month later, acknowledged that the school board office has more responsibilities than his charter network does, among them collecting and disbursing taxes  for all schools in the district.

But he wondered if the additional tasks justify a central office as big as the parish school board maintains. A simple budgeting change could better illustrate what it is that they do, Kleban said.

“They are arguing that ‘we do more things,’ and I’m arguing that it can’t possibly be that many more things, and they need to have a better explanation of what those things are,” he said.

How things have changed since Katrina

Before Katrina and the Recovery School District’s takeover of failing schools, the Orleans Parish School Board governed nearly 65,000 students in almost 130 schools. It was the largest district in the state. They did it with a central office staff of about 750, including close to 90 supervisors, administrators or directors, nearly 50 administrative specialists, and a host of maintenance employees.

These days, the district directly runs six schools and oversees 14 charters, for a total enrollment of less than 13,000. Though a charter school’s administrators handle most management issues, for federal funding purposes they are considered part of the parish school board. The board handles federal grant compliance on their behalf.

Today’s central office staff totals 75. That’s a staff decrease of 90 percent. Enrollment, meanwhile, has dropped 81 percent overall — 95 percent when you count just the non-chartered schools run directly by the school board.

Most of the pre-Katrina positions have been eliminated or transferred to the budgetary authority of specific schools they serve, interim Chief Financial Officer Wayne DeLarge said. The school board no longer employs an in-house maintenance team; that work is contracted out.

In all, OPSB employs one central office staffer for every 167 students, counting charters, direct-run schools and the city’s Youth Study Center. The ratio tightens when counting only direct-run schools, as Kleban does – a central office bureaucrat for every 41 students.

1:86OPSB bureaucrat-to-student ratio, pre-Katrina1:167OPSB bureaucrat-to-student ratio, post-Katrina

The slightly larger Iberia Parish School Board has a 1:165 bureaucrat-to-student ratio, with 85 administrators for 14,050 students. The Franklin Parish School Board, with an enrollment comparable to that of schools run directly by the Orleans Parish School Board, has a 1:66 staff-to-student ratio.

Cathy Mincberg, who heads the nonprofit Center for Reform of School Systems and trained the Orleans school board on best practices during an April retreat, said she’s not aware of any guidelines for an appropriate central office size based on enrollment.

For Orleans Parish “it’s a tough question,” she wrote in an email, because the school system hopes to add more schools in the coming years.

Comparing a charter district to a traditional district

Parish school board administrators contend that the size of the post-Katrina central office is appropriate considering its responsibilities. Chief Academic Officer Rosalynne Dennis dismissed Kleban’s criticisms, saying he doesn’t understand what it takes to run a traditional school district.

Not only does the school board control how much money comes in to local schools, it also has many responsibilities that charter management organizations don’t, such as handling services for special-needs students in 70-plus private schools in Orleans Parish. OPSB is required by law to provide those services. It also pays for textbooks for private schools.

Moreover, OPSB’s child nutrition department serves its own schools and some RSD charters, DeLarge said. The school board also authorizes and regulates charter schools, and, along with the Recovery School District, is responsible for financing and managing school facilities. It also must handle legacy costs incurred before the post-Katrina shakeup, such as health care benefits for retirees.

DeLarge said he’s working on a presentation for the public that would shed more light on the board’s extra tasks. “In any organization, there’s always room for operational efficiencies,” he said. But that’s an ongoing management function that happens “everywhere, every day.”

Some call for budgeting change

One way to determine if the parish board should trim overhead is to change the way it allocates costs, board-watchers say. When budgeting, the board’s finance team separates central office costs and revenue from school-level costs and revenues. If they were to switch to school-based budgeting — allocating the cost of administrative positions to the schools themselves — it would be easier to see excesses, Kleban said.

OPSB board member Woody Koppel agreed. That sort of budgeting — which would likely require district employees to track time spent on school-specific tasks — would make it possible to bill schools for the work the district does to support them, he said. If a school leader doesn’t need a service that the district provides, “then we need to eliminate it,” Koppel said.

In cases when a central office employee provides a service for a private school, that employee’s time should be tied to the federal funding the parish school board gets to perform those services, Koppel said.

This idea isn’t likely to be popular among central office staff. “They’ve never had to do that before, but in our new landscape, it’s incumbent that you do that,” Koppel said.

Stan Smith, the board’s interim superintendent, said school leaders’ recent calls for streamlining the central office follow several years of stagnant state funding. The city’s schools “are stressed for money right now,” he said.

He called the suggested budgeting change “a possible solution … as long it’s something that’s responsible, and that we don’t spend a lot of money in accounting costs, as compared to what we spend putting in the schools.”

But he said he doesn’t want the call for streamlining to negatively impact valuable services that the school board offers to multiple entities, such its child nutrition program.

“I’d hate to walk away from that just to show that we are reducing our staff or reducing our central office level to match someone else’s.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...