By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
When it comes to efficient use of public dollars, Gilbert’s two high-performing school districts got dinged by the state Auditor General – one for its administration costs and the other for transportation expenses.
Overall, classroom spending in Arizona has increased for the second year in a row to 54 cents of every dollar in the past school year but remains lower than the highest level spent for instruction since monitoring began in 2001, according to the Auditor General’s annual report on school spending.
Instructional spending largely includes salaries and benefits for teachers and aides as well as instructional supplies like pencils and paper, instructional software, athletics, band and choir.
Gilbert Public Schools’ spending for transportation was deemed “very high” when compared with the average for similarly sized districts and the statewide average.
GPS spent $4.38 per mile, the peer district average was $3.72 a mile and the state average was $4.05 a mile. Higley’s was $4.47 a mile.
Spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said GPS has hired an outside consultant to look at making student transportation more efficient. The full report with recommendations is expected to be available mid-year, she said.
“As a public school district, it is our priority to maximize spending in the classroom where it impacts students most,” she said, noting the district “successfully achieved a 61 percent instructional spending percentage.”
“Dollars in the classroom increased while administrative costs stayed low,” she added.
Gilbert’s spending on administration was $583 per pupil – much lower than per-pupil administrative costs for similarly sized districts and the state average.
Higley’s administration costs, however, jumped 31.7 percent to $875 per pupil spending in 2018 from $664, which was considered “high,” according to the report.
Higley was higher than its peers’ average of $804 and the $860 state average.
The district’s administration spending in the auditor’s report appears to jump because the district pre-paid a $2.5 million insurance payment, which was coded under administration, according to Michelle Reese, Higley spokeswoman.
Ultimately, the expense will be paid out to cover a portion of employee health insurance, which benefits all staff – from teachers to operations to transportation and student services, Reese said.
In reality, without the $2.5 million insurance payment, the district determined its administration costs went down .2 percent over the prior year and classroom spending would remain level with a .2 percent decrease, she added.
“Higley continues to be carefully diligent when spending taxpayer monies, while also watching the financial changes happening at the state level in terms of education dollars,” Reese said.
For total per-pupil operational costs – administration, instruction, plant operations, food service, student support, instruction support and transportation – Higley and Gilbert were below that of their peer and state averages.
The total operational costs for Gilbert, with 39 campuses, came in at $7,550 per pupil compared with the peer average of $7,947 and the state’s $8,296.
Total operation costs for Higley’s 13 campuses was $6,790 per pupil compared to the $7,732 of its peers and the $8,296 for the state.
Throw in non-operational expenses, such as equipment, interest and land, and Gilbert spent $8,477 per pupil compared with the $9,334 average of its peers and $9,929 for the state. Higley’s per pupil spending was $8,824 while its peers averaged at $9,392.
Auditor General Lindsey Perry said the instructional share of per-pupil spending is still 4.6 percent below the high point in 2004.
And even after adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than it was in 2004 and $861 below the high point in 2008 before the Great Recession.
Between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, districts’ operational spending increased by $119 million with $82 million of the increase spent on instruction.
With the additional instructional spending, the state’s average teacher salary increased from $48,372 to $48,951.
In Gilbert, the average teacher pay was $51,049 – higher than its peers’ average of $43,920 and the state average of $48,951.
Higley’s average pay was $46,404 – above its peer districts’ average of $43,920, but below the state average.
Perry said even with the boost in teacher pay, salaries here remain close to $11,300 below the national average.
“Part of the reason for Arizona’s lower average teacher salary may be due to Arizona’s teachers having fewer years of experience, on average, when compared to the national average,’’ she reported.
Perry said Arizona teachers average 11 years of experience compared with the national figure of 13.7 years. In GPS, the average years of experience for teachers was 12.4 and in Higley, 8.9 years.
Reese explained Higley’s average teacher experience is below the state average, which may indicate why Higley teacher salaries are below the state average.
The district has increased salaries, and saw an increase in the instructional spending area, between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years, she said.
Perry said overall school districts hired 101 more teachers, which resulted in a slight reduction in the state’s students per teacher ratio – Gilbert’s was 17.4 to 1 and Higley’s was 18.1 to 1.
In the most recent year, Arizona’s average class size was 18.5 students per teacher compared with the national average of 16.
The bottom line, she said, is that Arizona spends less than $8,300 per student in operating costs, compared with the national average of more than $11,800.
But Perry said this isn’t due to high administration costs, pointing out that these costs in the average Arizona district eat up 10.4 percent of dollars versus 11.2 percent nationally.
What is making a difference, she said, are other costs.
One of those falls in the category of “plant operations,’’ primarily what districts spend on energy costs. Both Gilbert and Higley’s plant operations expenses were both below that of their peers and the state.
Perry said some districts have worked to identify the potential for improved efficiency and cost savings. But, overall, Arizona schools spend 11.9 percent of their budgets on plant operations, versus 9.2 percent for the rest of the country.
Arizona on average also spends more on food service, transportation and instructional support such as salaries for curriculum directors.
The real gap, however, is in the category of student support, everything from attendance clerks and social workers to counselors, nurses, audiologists and speech pathologists.
Perry said some of that could be due to the number of school districts serving a large percentage of students living in poverty or those with special needs, all of whom need additional services.
-Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to the story.