What are the functions of a school district central office?

by Leslie Reckler | February 22, 2022 | 0 Comments
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School district central offices are underappreciated. They perform vital functions that keep school districts running, but many of these functions are easy to take for granted.

Leslie Reckler

Guest Contributor
Leslie Reckler

In this post I’ll summarize what the central office does and why it matters.

At the highest level, the district central office exists to carry out the directives of the school board, the county office of education, and the state. School district central offices oversee everything from making sure the water fountains work to ensuring compliance with a gazillion federal, state and local laws and directives.

Central office structure can vary… You do you.

There is no single best way to set up a central office. The size, complexity, and priorities of each school district drive its structure, within the confines of the district’s financial ability to invest in central office positions.

Smaller districts are likely to combine responsibilities, jobs and departments, and forego experts in specialized areas. Larger school districts, by contrast, are more likely to dedicate staff to support specific work, within limits. California State Law specifically discourages over-investing in administration relative to teaching. Districts can experience reductions in state funding if specific teacher-to-administrator ratios are violated:

Maximum ratio of administrative employees to teachers*

In elementary school districts

9 per 100 teachers

In unified school districts

8 per 100 teachers

In high school districts

7 per 100 teachers

*not applicable in a school district that has one or fewer administrators.

How does the work get done?

The superintendent of schools is hired by the school board to implement the board’s direction and vision. Under the superintendent’s leadership, a management team oversees departments that carry out the work of the district office. Collectively, the heads of these departments make up the superintendent’s cabinet. In many districts, these managers have the title associate superintendent or associate superintendent. The cabinet is responsible for running the major operational, programmatic and fiscal functions of the district.

The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) provides support and online professional development for California school administrators, including information about the roles of district staff.

What work is supported in the central office?

Taking care of people

Since over 80% of all school district funds are spent on people, school districts will have a human resources (HR) function responsible for all aspects of personnel. Generally, this department is responsible for recruiting and onboarding employees, as well as retaining and offboarding them.

The HR department is also likely to handle all benefit programs, as well as education-specific pension benefits through California’s retirement systems for teachers (CalSTRS) and public employees (CalPERS). The human resource department usually serves as the main contact for labor relations and negotiation with unions.

Taking care of business

Most school districts collect all of their routine business functions together in one department or group generally called the business office. This office is likely responsible for all financial functions from accounts payable to payroll to forecasting of enrollment and attendance. They will also perform budgeting functions and financial projections to ensure the district can pay for continuing operations.

Compliance, Compliance, Compliance

The business office may also carry responsibility for filing numerous reports with state and county offices of education.

School business officials develop their expertise in conversation with peers and consultants, and through the California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO), which provides training.

Public education is a highly regulated function that requires numerous and frequent reports to county, state and federal agencies. Complying with these requirements is exacting work, and most larger districts employ a manager or department to handle it. Each program that involves money may require districts to apply for funds through a system known as the Consolidated Application.

Taking care of operations

Running a school district involves a tremendous amount of logistics. Functions of an operations division may include purchasing, warehousing, transportation, technology and help desk functions, food service and cafeteria services as well as safety and security functions.

Taking care of facilities

Schools use and maintain big buildings and spaces. The facilities department cares for these places through the custodial function and the maintenance of school properties and grounds. This division might also include the building or remodeling of schools and related structures. As explained in Ed100 lesson 5.9, spending to maintain facilities is an operational cost of a school, but improvements are amortized as capital costs. The facilities department works with the business office to ensure that the accounting for expenditures is square.

Taking care of academics — curriculum, instruction, and assessment

Districts invest in learning materials that are aligned with state standards and generally used across all of their schools. In many district offices, the staff members that support this work are part of a department with a name like Educational Services. This department may also design or select professional development programs or opportunities to help teachers and staff improve. The Educational Services group usually oversees assessment to learn how successfully the curriculum and instruction have been delivered to students and how much students understand.

How do district central offices improve?

A growing body of research by Meredith Honig and others indicates that strong and coordinated support of a district’s central office can help to improve student success. This is achieved when central offices are able to rethink their functions and streamline their processes to remove as many burdens from schools as possible and focus time, resources and support to help principals to improve the instructional practice of their teachers.

How much does the district central office cost?

District central office operations are a small part of the total expenditures of school districts, and most districts work hard to keep it that way. Are you trying to figure out whether your district employs too many “high-priced administrators?” Ed-Data might help you find out. This website, jointly maintained by the California Department of Education, EdSource and FCMAT, is a useful, free-to-the-public resource for transparently comparing district operations, including statistics on pupil-to-administrative ratios.

For those with deeper pockets, School Services of California publishes customized reports that include many comparative statistics about district revenues and expenditures. In their Comparative Analysis of District Income and Expenses (CADIE) report, for example, you are likely to find statistics about administrative salary expenses. Many school districts and labor organizations purchase these reports to understand the expenditure landscape.

Leslie Reckler is a school board trustee in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. She is the mother of two, a passionate supporter of public education, and an occasional contributor to Ed100.org. (See her posts about open meeting laws, school site councils, accreditation, and How to choose a superintendent.)

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