With the Santa Barbara school board poised to cut millions of dollars from the school district’s budget for the fourth consecutive year Tuesday, the perennial call to keep the knife “as far away from the classroom as possible” has come to sound almost cliché. So, too, have the demands to cut what many perceive to be the administrative bloat.

So it raises the question: How bloated is the administration in Santa Barbara’s K-12 school system? Comparatively speaking, not very, according to a statewide school consulting agency based in Sacramento.

The Santa Barbara school board is expected to trim $6 million from its $120 million discretionary budget Tuesday night, with about 9.3 percent of the reductions coming from the administration side in the cash-strapped district.

The Santa Barbara school board is expected to trim $6 million from its $120 million discretionary budget Tuesday night, with about 9.3 percent of the reductions coming from the administration side in the cash-strapped district. (Kirsten Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo)

Throughout California, in 2008-09, the average school district spent about 7.2 percent of its budget on administrative salaries. The Santa Barbara School District spent about 6 percent, according to School Services of California, whose director of management consulting, Suzanne Speck, provided Noozhawk the figures last week.

The findings do not jibe with widespread opinion.

“There’s no question the general consensus is that the administration is top heavy,” school board president Ed Heron said. The reality, he added, is that “our administrators are just loaded with responsibility.”

All in all, after enduring three consecutive years of program cuts, the entire budget of Santa Barbara’s K-12 system is about 16 percent smaller than it was in February 2007. The number of full-time teachers has dropped in recent years to around 775 from 820. After Tuesday night, the budget could be 20 percent smaller than it was three years ago, and the number of teachers 45 fewer than last year. By comparison, the size of the student population has shrunk only minimally over the past three years, by about 3 percent.

In short, there is little else to trim that won’t directly affect students.

“We are now cutting off limbs, we’re not cutting fat, and that’s a very difficult place to be,” said Layne Wheeler, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association.

Noozhawk has obtained a list of the Santa Barbara district’s top 21 wage earners and their salaries, as well as a list of the top 24 salaries of administrators who work at the downtown district office at 720 Santa Barbara St. (The main difference between the two lists is that the second excludes principals.) The lists — both of which are being published by Noozhawk — do not take into account benefit packages. Click here for the overall salary list. Click here for the district office salary list.

With an annual salary of $204,400, Superintendent Brian Sarvis is the highest-paid district employee. On this, Santa Barbara’s spending appears to exceed that of the statewide average. Elsewhere in California, school superintendents earn, on average, $150,176, according to School Services.

However, superintendent pay tends to correspond to the size of the respective districts, and Santa Barbara’s 16,000-student system is considerably larger than the average size of a California school district, which is 5,820 students. A better comparative figure might be that which is provided by the state Department of Education, which puts the average superintendent salary for districts enrolling between 10,000 and 20,000 students at $191,155. And that figure could still be low, given that it is from the 2007-08 school year (the latest data available). What’s more, Sarvis in June donated $10,000 of his salary to the general fund for the district’s “2009-10 fiscal solvency plan.”

By way of context, Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of California’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, makes $250,000. But his predecessor, David L. Brewer, took home $300,000.

Sarvis is followed on the top salaries list by Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith, who makes $186,000; Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske, $155,000; special education executive director Tom Guajardo, $138,348; and director of student services Michael Gonzalez, $136,632.

The highest paid principal is San Marcos High’s Norm Clevenger, who makes $125,847, followed by Dos Pueblos High’s Mark Swanitz, $124,022; and a three-way tie between Kathy Abney of La Cuesta Continuation High, Jo Ann Caines of La Cumbre Junior High and David Ortiz of La Colina Junior High, all of whom make $120,813.

On Tuesday night, the school board is expected to decide how to carve $6 million from its $120 million discretionary budget.

Teachers are expected to take a pretty big hit, as the district has proposed increasing seventh-through-12th grade class sizes to either 33 or 35 students, depending on the school. Currently, average class sizes at the middle and high schools range from 25 to 30. This would translate into the loss of about 45 full-time teachers and a savings of $3.3 million — more than half of the necessary cuts. A larger-than-average number of teachers — 26 — is retiring this year, Smith said, which should offset some of the pain.

Proposed cuts to administration amount to $557,000, or about 9.3 percent of the $6 million in reductions. Among the district’s ideas for shrinking its administration are eliminating two assistant junior high principals, a truancy administrator and a childhood development coordinator, as well as replacing the principal at the K-6 Santa Barbara Community Academy with a head teacher. (That school’s new principal, Eric Nichols, was placed on extended leave last month.)

Also on the table is the option to order furloughs for administrators, but not teachers, because such a move would require negotiating with the union.

“We’ve always tried to treat our employees across the board in the same way,” school board member Kate Parker said. “This would be treating administrators differently. But it does keep cuts farther away from the classroom.”

Another option is to close Community Day School, which serves junior high students who struggle in the traditional classroom setting. This year, the school has 21 students enrolled, at a total annual cost of $260,000, Parker said. It employs two teachers, two instructional assistants, one counselor and one secretary.

Heron said he would favor cutting two of the three teacher orientation days at the beginning of the school year.

“It would be a cut to the teachers, so that’s unpopular,” he acknowledged.

As for the teachers union, it hasn’t made much noise about this year’s cut proposals. That could have something to do with how the board and the union have been quietly bargaining, and apparently with some success. On Friday, the district office announced that the district and the union had reached a tentative agreement on the teachers’ contract for the next school year. The details have yet to be publicized, but the board is scheduled to discuss that item Tuesday, as well, just before getting to the budget cuts.

Asked to comment on the district’s suggestions for cuts, Wheeler was cautious.

“The budget report suggests a number of possible cuts; the teachers association would want to know if that list includes every possible area,” he said.

Meanwhile, the district, according to its own figures, spends about 41 percent of its discretionary budget on teacher salaries. Judging by an online report from the state Department of Education, that amount is right in line with the state average.

According to the district’s own figures, it currently spends 5 percent on administrative salaries. That’s 1 percent less than what School Services says the district spent in 2008-09.

“We’re pretty lean administratively, especially at the district office,” said Smith, adding that Santa Barbara is the leanest of the five districts for which he’s worked.

“In any district that goes through a series of consecutive cutting, it’s unlikely you’re going to be top heavy, and I think that’s true here.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.