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Shrinking budgets challenge districts to spend more in classroom


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

Classroom Spending HP

Sixty nine of Arizona’s 236 public school districts, or 29 percent, spent more than the state average of 53.8 percent of their money in the classroom this year and 37, or 15 percent,  have for the past five years, despite funding cuts from the Arizona Legislature that forced districts to make tough choices they remain concerned about today.

School districts considered even more carefully where their dollars were spent as they reduced budgets, said Mark Tregaskes, superintendent of Safford Unified School District, which puts 63.5 percent of its money in the classroom this year and has increased classroom spending one percent over the past five years.

Shrinking budgets challenge districts to spend more in classroom ClassroomSpendingHP

Twenty nine percent of Arizona’s public school districts spent more than the state average in the classroom this year and several have for the past five years, despite funding cuts that forced tough choices they remain concerned about today.

“We’ve always had a fairly high percentage that we put into the classroom as compared to the state average,” Tregaskes said. “We consciously met with our staff, our board and our community and made the decision that if at all possible – in addition to addressing health and safety concerns – to do what we could to keep as much money going into the classroom.”

A five percent override Safford voters passed five years ago and a teacher improvement fund grant from the federal government were both used to attract and retain quality teachers and staff to improve student achievement in the B-rated district, Tregaskes said.

In fiscal year 2013, the statewide average of money spent in the classroom dropped to 53.8 percent, the lowest since its been monitored in the past 13 years, due in part to class sizes more than two students larger than the national average of 16, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s report on Arizona School District Spending (Classroom Dollars).

Classroom spending includes salaries and benefits for teachers, instructional aides and coaches as well as instructional supplies like pencils, paper, and workbooks, and activities like athletics and band.

The auditor general’s report noted that public school districts received $412 less in per-student-funding from Arizona in 2013 than in 2009, and that reduced funding along with costs that are difficult to cut quickly, such as electricity, transportation, and insurance, partially explain the decline in instructional spending.

How does charter schools’ spending compare? The 2012-13 Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Annual Report, the most recent, shows charter schools spent 51.2 percent on classroom instruction and supplies, while district schools spent 54.4 percent, said Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Heber-Overgaard Unified School District’s classroom spending rose 0.4 percent over the past five years, but the number of students attending the district dropped from 563 students in 2009 to 469 in 2013, said Brenda Samon, district business manager.

“When you take the same amount of dollars and spread it over a smaller group of kids, of course it’s going to look like you’re spending more, but we’re really not spending more,” Samon said. “We’re just trying to survive up here in rural Arizona. We’re hurting up in our area.”

Samon said the district hasn’t dipped into capital funds, and while it receives federal funds to supplement its budget, it doesn’t have override funds, because “we don’t have the taxing power other districts do.”

“We know the instruction portion of our budget is important. We are an A-rated district. We’re striving to get what we can for our kids, and we use Beyond Textbooks to help students,” Samon said. “If you look at the percentages of our students who meet state standards, we’re well above our peers and the state.”

Administration costs remain low

Despite a small increase in administration costs, Arizona’s costs remain at 65 percent of the national average, because Arizona school districts pay lower administrator salaries and employ fewer, the auditor general’s report noted.

Charter schools spent 19.8 percent on administration compared to the 10.2 percent  district schools spent in 2012-13, the superintendent’s annual report noted.

Benson Unified School District, which increased total spending per pupil by one percent in the past five years, has reduced administrative costs by sharing services with other school districts, working cooperatively and outsourcing, Superintendent Dr. David Woodall said.

“We provide special education services to one of the local school districts, and we’re outsourcing some information technology services, which allows us to be a little bit more efficient,” Woodall said of the A-rated district. “We have administrators who are wearing a lot of different hats right now.”

Safford reduced administrative staff and cut back on athletic directors, Tregaskes said, noting “The people that we have are all having to work smarter and/or harder.”

Gayle A. Blanchard, Ed. D., superintendent of the J.O. Combs Unified School District, which returned its classroom spending level in 2013 to its 2008 level, said their “administration costs are now in the ‘low’ category as a result of eliminating the dean positions at three elementary sites.”

In Heber-Overgaard, two principals oversee the four schools, Samon said.

“Because of funding issues across the state, Glendale Union High School District’s overall dollars have decreased, but our percentage in the classroom has slightly increased,” said Kim Mesquita, communications manager for the A-rated district. “This is, in part, due to our core value of focusing resources in the classroom. In addition to generating more classroom site fund dollars, the district made a conscious effort to utilize some of our carryover funds to support classroom expenditures.”

Transportation costs hit districts hard

Glendale Union High School District, which spent 56.3 percent of its dollars in the classroom in fiscal 2013, said the biggest budget challenge the district faces is transportation, Mesquita said.

“A large part of those costs are related to our special needs population,” Mesquita said. “In addition, the loss of capital funds has limited our ability to replace transportation vehicles which creates more stress on our operating budget for maintenance on an aging fleet.”

Arizona school districts’ transportation, food service, instructional and support services all increased, according to the auditor general’s report. Charter schools spent 24.2 percent on these services in 2012-13 while district schools spent 27.7 percent, according to the superintendent’s annual report.

Like many districts, Heber-Overgaard, Safford and Benson have consolidated bus routes and outsourced food service to cut costs.

“We just can’t afford to replace buses like we should,” said Connie Ayres, business manager for Benson. “With our capital being cut every year, it’s really depleting our ability to replace our old fleet.”

While the district has a good mechanic, it’s trying to keep its older buses rolling as long as possible, Woodall said.

“We made an unpopular decision a few years ago that there are some dirt roads that we won’t go down, because of the wear and tear on our buses,” Woodall said.

While B-rated J.O. Combs district decreased transportation costs in 2012-13, it’s looking for more ways to save, Blanchard said.

“Higher costs are due to special education needs (required transportation) and new high school programs that require travel,” Blanchard said.

Plant operations, cooling costs stress school budgets

Arizona districts’ plant operations costs decreased slightly from the previous year, but energy costs for heating and cooling increased more than the national average, the auditor general’s report said.

“We’re still trying to make ends meet with making the increases in fuel costs and propane costs and just not feeling any relief,” Samon said.

Benson is using a temperature control system to help cut energy costs by turning systems on at 7:30 a.m. and off at 4 p.m., Ayres said.

Safford brought its plant operations cost per square foot to $3.65 well below the $6 state average, by reducing workforce, investing in high efficiency equipment, reducing vacuuming in each classroom from every day to twice a week, using landscaping that requires less maintenance, and having a student recycling group pick up classroom recycling and waste, “saving money on the amount of waste that has to be picked up from our schools,” and that money is put into the classroom, Tregaskes said.

Curriculum drives instructional services increase 

Most of the instructional services spending increase was for developing instructional materials, curriculum and training, according to the auditor general’s report.

“To help address the implementation of Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, J.O. Combs hired academic coaches and purchased reading materials for grades K-3 and math materials for grades K-6,” Blanchard said. “In addition, we continued to expand our instructional programs at our high school which opened in 2009.”

Student in need more likely to use support services

Increases in support services – counselors, social workers, health, psychological, speech, hearing and other therapies – may be related to Arizona’s higher poverty rate because those students are more likely to use support services, the auditor general’s report noted.

Charter schools spent 4.6 percent on student support services, while district schools spent 7.6 percent, the 2012-13 superintendent’s annual report noted.

“We no longer have any counselors at our elementary or middle school levels,” Tregaskes said. “I wish that we did, but we don’t, so that means other people have had to pick up that or it’s not getting done.”

Tregaskes said making changes work district-wide depends largely on “the people you have working for you and the work that they do. We are very fortunate in that area.”

Woodall also noted Benson’s staff “has been very understanding of very hard times.”

“We’re trying to keep more money in the classroom,” Woodall said. “The last several years have been some of the most challenging in school history, at least in my tenure of service. We’ve all been trying to look and save dollars wherever we can.”