The glare of the spotlight is shining on Arizona’s school districts’ classroom spending.
For the first time, parents and other Arizona taxpayers can compare the percentage each district plans to spend in the classroom this school year, a move spurred by critics such as Gov. Doug Ducey who claim that too much money goes toward administration.
The districts’ 2015-16 budgets were posted on the state Department of Education website in July because of a new state accountability law.
What is your district spending? Scroll down or click here to see a chart.
But the new requirement doesn’t necessarily tell parents everything they need to know about how districts spend money. The breakdowns are in percentages and don’t give exact dollar amounts. There’s no way to easily do side-by-side comparisons. Some district classifications may not match with other districts, and the data do not include everything parents may care about, such as the amount districts spend on security.
The percentage that districts have budgeted for classroom spending, including teachers, aides, counselors and librarians, is now available on the websites throughout the year. A more complete annual report of district spending, in classrooms and on administrators, buses, food and utilities, comes out in February.
Ducey focused attention on the report during his State of the State address in January, when he said districts “spend far too much on administrative costs — on overhead — and that’s got to change.”
Teachers, parents and school advocates protested Ducey’s description of anything outside of instruction as “overhead,” saying that those categories included people crucial to the education mission, such as librarians, principals and school nurses.
“We have to be very careful of not looking at non-classroom spending as evil,” said Julie Bacon, a member of the Paradise Valley Unified School District governing board.
“There’s no way a teacher can do what they do in a classroom without the people around them to support them. It’s important to not vilify our employees who are not teachers.”
In the end, lawmakers expanded classroom spending to include not only teachers and textbooks but guidance counselors, nurses, librarians and curriculum specialists.
That total percentage now appears in a highlighted box on the cover of each district’s annual expenditure budget, which is signed by the district’s governing board members and posted on the Arizona Department of Education website, at http://www.azed.gov/finance/.
The Paradise Valley district held a public forum dedicated to explaining the spending percentages, where one community member, Tyler Heald of Phoenix, expressed dismay that the Legislature didn’t pursue a requirement to shift spending from administration to instruction.
“My concern is that we’re not going to take what this budget was intended to do, which was take money away from administration and put it into teachers’ pockets. It sounds like we’re not going to do it because we’re not legally required to.
“The primary function of education is to educate, not administrate.”
Jim Lee, the superintendent, said: “In my 35 years of experience, I know that good schools are run by good principals.”
Arguing over classroom spending
Not everyone thinks the emphasis on classroom spending is valuable.
“On the one hand, we’re not sure it’s fair. And on the other hand, we’re not sure it’s accurate,” said Sean McCarthy, senior research analyst for the Arizona Tax Research Association watchdog group.
McCarthy said districts have different needs, and it’s difficult to compare the spending percentages of large urban districts with small rural districts.
“And, there’s not enough auditors in the country to make sure this is meaningful,” he added.
The auditors’ report is compiled based on information provided by districts, which might have inaccurate information on how to classify expenses.
He pointed out the example of the Scottsdale Unified School District, which was found this year to have improperly classified millions of dollars in spending over several years. Scottsdale administrators said some of the misclassifications were mistakes but with others, the staff believed them to be correct at the time.
There are no penalties for mischaracterizing spending, and the auditor’s office does a detailed review of only five or six districts every year.
McCarthy said the taxpayer watchdog group believes a more equitable funding formula is the answer.
“If we can have an equitable finance system, it doesn’t bother me whether a school district has a higher need for administrators, because we’re going to give them equitable funding and they choose how to spend it.
“Districts are naturally incentivized to spend their money wisely, because if you’re going to waste money on administration, it’s unsustainable. You’ll lose quality teachers, and you’ll lose students, and if you lose students, you lose money,” he said.
He said some districts receive revenue outside the funding formula, such as for desegregation.
Phoenix Union, which will spend 80 percent of this year’s budget in the classroom, gets $55 million in desegregation funds — about $2,000 a student. It’s one of 14 districts in the county to get the extra money.
“It’s unfair to compare districts that are not getting as much money as another,” he said.