Is there room to cut bloat in the V.I. government to help fill its crippling structural deficit?
In a $1 billion budget, the V.I. Education Department is by far the biggest item, with $167 million from the V.I. budget and another $38 million in federal funding. The second biggest line item is “miscellaneous,” which is really many dozens of small appropriations. The next largest agency budget is Human Services, followed by the V.I. Police Department. But as you can see in the big purple line in the bar graph of proportional V.I. spending on the left, Education dwarfs all of them like Godzilla standing over a house. The only item that comes close is direct cash subsidies to rum makers, the light blue line at the top. To make a big dent in the deficit, it will really help if savings can be found in Education spending.
But the V.I. Department of Education has trouble hiring enough highly qualified teachers. It has trouble filling nurse positions. Pay levels for rank and file employees are not high and most employees are teachers and paraprofessionals. The school buildings need many tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements. How can there be room for savings, if the schools are struggling now?
If you ask on the street or in private conversations with former government officials, many say the upper ranks of management in the V.I. Education Department are bloated and overpaid. That is anecdotal and its truth is difficult to assess objectively. There are many competent, hard working officials in the department. Many V.I. students get good educations, go on to college and do very well for themselves.
But could there some bloat in management despite a lack of funding in some areas and good performance by many teachers and professionals?
How does V.I. Education Department spending on management stack up compared to other U.S. school systems of similar size?
The Newport News, Virginia, Public School System serves 29,000 pupils, with a total budget of $304 million including federal funding, according to the 2017 budget posted on its website. It is neither particularly wealthy nor particularly poor, with mixed demographics.
The V.I. public school system serves 13,800 pupils with a total budget of $206 million, including federal funding. So on its face, the V.I. system spends two thirds as much money to educate half as many students as Newport News. Newport News schools have some structural issues but notably less severe than many USVI public schools.
The Green Bay, Wisconsin, Educational District serves 21,000 with total funding of $244.4 million; less per student than the USVI.
Those are both larger districts. Are costs higher in smaller ones that cannot take advantage of economies of scale?
The Williamsburg/James City County, Virginia, school system has 11,800 students; slightly less than the USVI’s 13,806 students. But its total budget for 2017 is $127.6 million, with $95 million of that in local revenue; much less than the difference in student population would suggest. The USVI spends more per student than any of these three arbitrarily chosen stateside districts of comparable size.
All three stateside jurisdictions appear to spend smaller percentages of their budgets on administration too. The smaller Williamsburg system budgeted $2.9 million, or 2.3 percent of its budget on administration. Newport News budgeted $7 million or 2.3 percent for all top administrators plus the Board of Education, the school superintendent and assistant superintendent; plus $14 million or 4.6 percent for all administration, attendance and health.
Green Bay, Wisconsin, spent 14.2 percent or $34.9 million on business administration and another $3.4 million or 1.4 percent on “general administration,” for about 15.6 percent.
The 2017 Virgin Islands Education Department budget request included $6.9 million for the Office of the Commissioner and another $28.9 million for fiscal and administrative services that are not part of the Office of the Commissioner, for $35.8 million or 17.5 percent of the budget.
When you look at dollars spent on teacher salaries, the numbers seem to even out a bit, however. The V.I. budget data does not break out instructional salaries from the rest of payroll, But total payroll as a proportion to total number of students is only slightly higher than the stateside jurisdictions that were examined. And in all the examples, teachers are the large majority of all employees.
A more detailed analysis would be helpful but would require more expertise, time and resources than available.
Some V.I. expense categories come in lower than than the stateside jurisdictions. Pupil transportation, busing students to school, is budgeted at $7.44 million for the whole territory for FY 2017. That comes to $538.76 on average for each of the 13,806 V.I. public school pupils. Newport News came out to $637.63 per pupil and the comparably sized Williamsburg, James City County came to $692.03 per pupil; a whopping 28 percent higher, despite higher fuel costs in the territory. Shorter driving distances may be one factor.
Comparing educational system budgets is complicated. There may well be differences in how different jurisdiction’s budgets are done that make this comparison less valid than it appears. The territory’s need to maintain offices in two districts may explain some of the difference. To really get at the heart of the matter will take more than a few days of work. The importance and complexity of school system budgets is a reason many places task their boards of education with the job instead of treating it as one more government agency for county boards of supervisors to oversee.
But those numbers on their face suggest the USVI Education Department spends a disproportionate amount on the Office of the Commissioner. The USVI Education Department has a few surprising expenses too, such as a full-time “executive chauffeur,” for top officials.
Watching the past 10 V.I. budgetary cycles has made clear the V.I. Senate does not have the time or specialized expertise to delve into the details of this giant department’s budget, in the midst of months of hearings for dozens of agencies, big, small and tiny. It spends precisely one day a year discussing the Education Department budget and another day touring schools before the start of the school year to see how repairs are going. Yet this is by far the most costly department.
Most jurisdictions delegate this task to an elected board of education that has budgetary oversight over the schools. Local governments still appropriate a lump sum and still debate for a day, much as the USVI does. But the school board is tasked with the much more detailed oversight that is necessary. And they often hire and fire professional school superintendents, instead of governors or mayors choosing political allies for the job.
Changing to that sort of system may be a way to get a better handle on how the single most expensive part of V.I. government spends its resources.
Next: Part 12: What Else Can the USVI Do To Help? Rationalizing Government Agencies