At Edward Little High School in Auburn, one principal and four assistant principals oversee 1,048 students. That’s top one administrator for every 209 students.

In terms of assistant principals, that’s one $75,500 position for every 262 kids.

That’s how the School Committee sees it. It’s a very generous ratio. Lower than the state recommends. Lower than other school systems maintain. Lower, some say, than Auburn can afford.

At the behest of the City Council – a council facing myriad financial pressures – the city’s School Committee has proposed eliminating a high school assistant principal. School officials say the cut is doable, that it will save money without decimating the quality of education.

But they also say the more administrators there are, the better for kids.

“They are difference-makers,” said Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill.

How many?

A Sun Journal survey of eight Maine school systems – including some of the state’s largest and some in central and western Maine – showed Auburn’s middle and high schools have the most assistant principals per student. Auburn Middle School has two assistants, called deans of students. That’s one for every at 252 students. With four assistants, the high school has one for every 262.

Across the river, Lewiston High School has one assistant for every 449 students. Portland High School has one for every 506. Bangor High School has one for every 668.

Augusta’s Hodgkins Middle School has one assistant for every 736 students. The position is part time. And it’s being eliminated next year.

“The school board has given guidance that we really need a tax-neutral (budget) presentation,” said Augusta Superintendent Cornelia Brown. “That’s what we’ve done.”

The state’s school funding formula recommends one administrator (including principals and assistant principals) for 305 students at the middle school level and one per 315 students at the high school level.

But while Auburn has a very generous assistant principal-to-student ratio at its middle and high schools, a Sun Journal analysis of per-pupil spending found Auburn also spends far below the state average on administration.

In 2006-07, the last year figures are available, Maine school systems spent, on average, $513 per student on school administration – generally principals and assistant principals. Auburn spent $302 per student.

“We do know that we’re into a different economic time and it is difficult and we’re working very diligently to be responsive and sensitive to that fact,” Morrill said.

In comparison, Lewiston spent $468 per student on school administration. Bangor spent $515. Augusta spent $518.

Portland spent $626. It’s reached its limit.

“We would have more (administrators) if we could afford it,” said Portland Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers

Next year

No matter how much they spend, no matter how many administrators they have, school leaders say principals and assistant principals are vital to schools.

“You don’t often notice the leadership moves that are making that happen. You only notice it when it’s not there,” Whynot-Vickers said.

Typically, principals and assistants have multiple responsibilities, from overseeing teachers and spearheading curriculum changes to chasing down absent students and breaking up fights in the cafeteria. Many serve as mentors and de facto counselors.

“When a world is falling down around a child, or (that’s) how they perceive that, there’s someone there to make sure that (they) can find the necessary resources to build up that hope again,” Morrill said.

School officials in Portland and SAD 17, which covers the Oxford area, both said they’d like to have more school administrators, but they have other priorities at the moment. Bangor Superintendent Robert Ervin said his school system wouldn’t know what to do with additional administrators.

“We don’t need more,” he said. “We have a very efficient operation.”

Auburn plans to add an assistant superintendent next year – reinstating a position that had been eliminated for 2007-08. The salary has been budgeted at $85,000.

At the same time, the committee has proposed cutting one of the four assistant principals working at the high school, a move expected to save just over $83,000 in salary and benefits. If enrollment holds, that will give the high school one top administrator for every 262 students or one assistant superintendent for every 349 students.

“It’s easy for schools to be very expensive and very good. It’s also easy for schools to be very cheap and very poor,” Morrill said. “What I think has been attempted, and we’ve been able to do, is create great value and great schools.”

Right now, Edward Little’s assistant principals are each dedicated to one grade. If the City Council and voters approve the proposed budget this spring, the three remaining assistants will spilt the grades and share responsibilities next school year.

“I think we’ll do the absolute best we can do,” Morrill said. “It will mean some changes. It may mean some things won’t get done that are being done right now. But will we make it work? We absolutely will.”

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