Elections have consequences, part 1: The "80 percent" gimmick, the superintendent's salary, and the cost of Kelli Stargel's state mandates
For the first time since I was elected in 2016, I'm going to have to miss a regular School Board meeting on Tuesday. I have an out-of-town work commitment that goes into the evening.
The most consequential vote I will miss likely relates to any potential pay increase for the superintendent. We pay her $230K per year. That's pretty comparable to surrounding districts, when you control for size and relative funding of the districts. So I wanted to explain, here, why I can't support any increase for her. My thinking relates directly to the outcome of the recent election.
The education compliance costs imposed by state government are huge
First, as you read this piece, it's important to remember a basic fact about education in Florida. I've said it 8,000 times. And I'll say it 8,000 times more: Florida has a state-run school system. As a governing entity, your local School Board is more like the Health Department, structurally, than the County Commission.
Thus, virtually all administrative costs in Polk County (and most Florida districts) aren't voluntary administrative costs at all. They are mandatory COMPLIANCE COSTS imposed from Tallahassee by Kelli Stargel and friends. It costs money and effort to COMPLY with the state's fraudulent accountability system; the sham of class size rules; and whatever other nonsense they rain down upon us.
Indeed, you can think of all of these compliance costs as the marketing budget for the for-profit charter companies that supported Kay Fields' re-election. Without fraudulent school grades and VAM etc., it would be much harder to discredit kids and teachers in traditional schools and market various "choice" options -- particularly the ones that put money in people's pockets.
These local compliance costs are a vital, indispensable part of the dead Florida Model of education that dates to Jeb Bush's first election in 1998. Florida education leaders love local district compliance costs. They depend on them. Nothing about the election has changed any of this.
A serious approach to "80 percent" in the classroom will gut DoE, the "Department of Excess"
And that makes for a fascinating collision with probably the highest profile measure in Ron DeSantis' education "plan" -- which is really just a bunch of worn out talking points.
DeSantis' "plan" insists that local districts spend 80 percent of budget in the classroom, whatever that means. The definitional accounting headaches of "classroom" will create an entirely new stream of dead money local compliance costs. The time and money we will waste making sure we're spending money in classroom will be enormous. And for-profit charters will likely get to count rent as classroom spending. If you like how the Class Size Amendment and the Lottery played out, you'll love "80 percent in the classroom."
However, the 80 percent rule could be useful if taken seriously and collaboratively. It could gut the Florida Department of Education, which needs to be gutted. It is America's worst, by far. Remember Pam Stewart's lunch -- and what it says about how seriously DoE leadership takes its job.
If the state ended fraudulent school grades, we could level a BS mountain of local compliance costs here in Polk almost overnight. I suspect a serious approach to "80 percent" would end the entire dead Florida Model. I'll let you decide if our "education leaders" have that in mind.
The consequences for the superintendent's pay and administrative salaries
All of that is context for the superintendent salary discussion. Here's the note I sent to senior leadership a few days ago. It addressed both the superintendent and top administrator pay increases.
I just wanted to give you both a heads up on something. I'm a little unclear on the status of the administrative pay scale that we discussed individually a couple of weeks back.
But if there's a vote to come, the governor's race outcome has affected my position.
I'm not going to be able to support raises for senior director and above positions. (This is just for non-school-based admin.) There are two reasons for that.
1) The 80 percent in the classroom rule, while a gimmick, is now poised to become law. I don't think we can afford to have our highest paid people getting money that the state will mandate us to send to the classroom, either financially or from the public's point of view. I also expect that our budget will be terrible, with possible major cuts. I hate it. I know you all work hard. But elections have consequences.
2) Senior directors and above staff don't live on the edge of economic insecurity the way or bus drivers and teachers and mid-level support staff do. We don't have senior director and senior administrator shortages.
Again, this is not something I'm at all happy about. But I think the realities of last Tuesday dictate it. I'm sorry.
Can you please update me on precisely on the status of admin. pay? I don't recall seeing it on the consent agenda last meeting. But it's always possible that I missed it. Thanks.
Here is the response I received. It appears your board members, and thus you, the public, don't get a say on how senior staff members are paid if they are not our direct board employees.
This action isn’t submitted for a vote. Staff has been in communication with employees regarding the salary increases scheduled for the December pay period as discussed with the School Board members previously.
I wonder if the public knew that; because I don't really think I did. I can't speak for other board members, but the "discussion" I had was an unscheduled cell phone call a couple weeks ago from the superintendent. During this call, she quickly laid out her plan for administrative pay increases. I didn't even have time to take notes; and I still haven't seen anything in writing. I expressed some concerns about the amount of money top administrators would get. I do not recall the superintendent responding with: this is what we're doing. Deal with it. You and the public you represent don't get a say.
The call seemed like an open-ended heads up to me. I would have appreciated clarity around the fact that it was not. But clarity is an ongoing problem with our district culture as a whole; and I'm excited about the new board's capacity to collaborate with the superintendent to improve it.
Prioritize volunteer background checks over top salaries
However, your School Board clearly does get a say on the superintendent's salary. She works for us, the board, and thus, you, the public, directly.
I should note that superintendent of public schools in Polk County is probably the toughest single administrative job in Polk County. Compared to say, the CEO of Lakeland Regional Health, the superintendent, as a position, is vastly underpaid. But she's not underpaid compared to peer school districts, based on my analysis. I should also note that limiting salary increases of top staff would be an entirely symbolic move. It would have exactly zero meaningful impact on the classroom. But symbols matter.
And for now, I think the superintendent's $230K salary is plenty, especially considering what's likely to come down from Kelli Stargel and company during the next Legislative session. So, I would be a no vote on Tuesday for any increase.
I would prefer that any money considered as an addition to her salary go instead to eliminating the cost for volunteer background checks. A few weeks back, the School Board publicly committed to paying for volunteer background checks fully. We need to follow through. 10K or 20K that might otherwise go the the superintendent's salary will make a pretty solid dent in that. And it will reflect a renewed commitment to public and parental engagement.