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School district offices support schools behind the scenes
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Education happens in the classroom, but there’s plenty going on behind the scenes.

“There are just a lot of different things it takes to make a school system run,” said Brad Brown, executive director of human resources for the Hall County School District. “There are so many different pieces. Every piece is important and it’s there for a reason.”

School district central offices are charged with making sure each school — 35 in Hall and eight in the Gainesville district — has what it needs to educate students, keep them safe, feed them and comply with an array of state and federal regulations.

“There are very few positions here (in the central office) that don’t have some kind of compliance element to them,” said Wanda Creel, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools.

Districts must comply with regulations on everything from teacher certification to curriculum and special-education standards.

In addition, central offices create district policy, stay prepared for multiple types of audits, provide professional training, handle payroll and hiring, keep track of funds that come from different sources and have different allocations and implement plans for every aspect of running schools, from technology to testing.

“Our district probably operates an $85 million budget (when outside funds are included). It takes people to manage that and cover everything that we have to do,” Creel said. “All of these things don’t just happen in the classroom.”

While most school funds spent by districts go directly to schools and teacher salaries, central offices are costly to operate. Like any other department, the greatest share is salaries.

In Gainesville schools, central office salaries and benefits make up about 6 percent of the district’s total salaries and benefits. The district expects to spend $3,623,255 on central office salaries and benefits and $2,875,523 on salaries and benefits for transportation, maintenance and operations in fiscal year 2015.

The district will spend $56,862,563 on salaries and benefits districtwide. The total district budget is $77,127,795.

In Hall County, the district does not differentiate between district-level expenses and school-level expenses in its budget, but the total budget for 2015 is $297,122,528, including a general fund of $222,364,396. Deputy Superintendent Lee Lovett, who oversees the district’s finance department, estimated personnel costs make up about three-quarters of general fund expenses.

There are approximately 3,400 employees districtwide, around 90 to 100 of whom work at the district level, not including more than 200 bus drivers.

In the Gainesville district, the central office is divided into three main categories — instruction, learning supports and operations — each of which houses several departments.

Instruction is headed by Chief Academic Officer Sarah Bell and also includes the directors of college and career readiness, special education and STEAM innovation.

Learning supports is headed by the chief achievement and accountability officer, Priscilla Collins, and also includes the directors of state and federal accountability, learning supports and Title III, a federal accountability program.

Operations is headed by Chief Operations Officer Christine Brosky and Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison and includes directors of school food nutrition, technology, maintenance and operations and transportation. The category also includes the human resources department.

The office also includes support staff such as secretaries and payroll clerks. Many of the support staff, Creel said, are bilingual. Creel said around half the students in the district are Hispanic, and resources are allocated both for communicating with parents who aren’t fluent in English, and for teaching English as a second language.

In Hall County’s central office, there are departments for budget and finance, personnel, facilities, food services, teaching and learning, maintenance and technology.

Some of house smaller departments. For example, the department of teaching and learning, headed by Assistant Superintendent Eloise Barron, also includes directors of special education, middle and secondary school education, student services and elementary education, among others.

The department, according to Barron, “provides curriculum development and instructional support and services to elementary, middle and high schools in the system.”

Each employee in the department has a long list of responsibilities.

For example, the director of middle and secondary education is responsible for curriculum and Common Core units, assessments and data analysis, college and career readiness accountability, school improvement support, textbook adoption and ordering, grade reporting and professional learning related to Common Core. The job description includes 11 more items.

The department also includes employees below the director level, such as a data analyst, a test coordinator and secretaries.

“I know people look and say, wow, there’s so many people up there,” Brown said. “But if they could see what we do and know we’re down 13 people in the last five years, they’d understand.”

Brown also addressed use of employees who have retired from the school system and returned to work for the district. Brown said the district hires retired employees both for their expertise and because they draw smaller salaries — only 49 percent, at most, of the regular salary for their jobs.

One teacher with a master’s degree whose experience puts him or her at the top of the salary range, Brown said, costs more than two retired teachers with the same qualifications.

At the district level, Brown said retired workers are especially needed for jobs on disciplinary tribunals and in testing coordination. The jobs require a lot of expertise, he said, but it’s harder to find qualified applicants who are not retired because the jobs are part time or seasonal and often have odd hours.

Brown said all of these jobs support the same goal of providing a quality education, even if regulations and innovation have made that task more complicated than it used to be.

“Everyone’s got different responsibilities, but they’re all equally crucial to making everything work,” he said.

The central office, Creel said, is the glue that holds the district’s schools together.

“Although we’re celebrating the uniqueness of every school, what we’re also seeing is the collaboration and coordination of schools,” said Creel. “It takes individuals to help us coordinate all of those endeavors.”