2014 Az. classroom spending holds steady; down nearly 5% since 2006

PHOENIX -- The slide in the percentage of education funds that ends up in Arizona classrooms appears to have stopped.

But it also isn't getting any better.

A new report Friday by the Auditor General's Office finds that just 53.8 cents out of every dollar spent to educate Arizona youngsters last school year went for instruction. That includes everything from teachers, aides and even coaches to supplies like pencils and papers and some activities like band or choir. That's the same figure as the prior year, remaining at the lowest point since the agency started looking at the issue in 2001.

It's also 7.1 cents below the national average.

This isn't just a question of percentage.

The report shows per-pupil spending on instruction was $204 less last year than in 2007. Yet total spending went up by $196. But it also says that's not because of administrative costs for everything from the school superintendent to the clerical staff are out of line: Arizona districts, on average, spent 10 percent on administration, compared with 10.9 percent nationally.

What's keeping classroom spending below the national figures are other costs, everything from heating and cooling to running buses and serving school lunches.

And Arizona spends a significantly higher percentage on support services like counselors, nurses, librarians and social workers.

But the while the percentage spent in the classroom is below the national average, Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the report also needs to be put into perspective: Arizona provides far less money to schools than pretty much every other state.

Arizona in 2014 spent just $7,578 per student on education last school year -- $330 less than 2009 -- with $4,073 of that for instruction. The most recent national figures put per-pupil spending 40 percent higher, at $10,667, with $6,495 of that going into the classroom.

And those national figures are two years old.

"When we look at dollars spent on each item in Arizona compared to the national average, it shows the miraculous job our schools are doing with limited resources,' said Douglas who has asked lawmakers to boost funding.

Gov. Doug Ducey is using the study to plug his plan to provide $134 million for instruction, about $108 per student.

"This report points to Arizona's urgent need to start putting classrooms first and direct more dollars where the learning happens,' the governor said in a prepared statement.

But his budget actually contains just $11 million in new funds for schools. Everything else actually amounts to an accounting maneuver, ordering schools to cut non-classroom spending by $123 million.

Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the better solution is for the state to comply with a court order to bring inflation funding for schools to where it would have been had lawmakers and both this governor and his predecessor complied with a 2000 voter-approved law. That would immediately add $336 million in new money, $251 million more than lawmakers have offered and Ducey has proposed to settle the claim.

If the state were to concede, that would add $200 per student without the cut in non-classroom spending Ducey demands.

That leaves the question of whether such cuts are possible, and how much.

Essigs said food service costs have to do with who is in school.

"We probably have more children who qualify for free and reduced (price) lunch,' he said. And while that is underwritten with federal dollars that can't be shifted to teaching, the spending there shows up as -- and adds to -- non-classroom spending.

"It doesn't do you any good to cut back your food service program because all you would do is have less students that you feed,' Essigs said.

The report, however, says some districts can keep costs down by maximizing use of free federal commodities. "Less-efficient districts did not obtain the best food prices and had poorly written vendor contracts,' it says.

Then there's heating and cooling where Arizona spend more than the national average.

But audit manager Michael Quinlan said these costs may not be as fixed as some might believe. Consider utilities.

"I get that the rate you pay APS, the school district doesn't have control over that,' he said. "But how efficient they are with energy use and energy conservation, they do have control over.'

Quinlan said savings are possible, citing figures among similarly sized large high school districts with physical plant costs ranging from $4.45 to $8 a square foot.

But Essigs said some districts save on utility bills by getting local taxpayers to approve spending for insulation and load controllers. He said other districts lack that capability.

There's another factor at work: the cost of maintaining buildings which became vacant due to declining enrollment or shifting patterns of where people live.

The report says some districts have sold sell schools or rent them out. But some districts simply have unused buildings which can continue to cost money.

Ducey has proposed making that space available to charter schools. But the governor has provided no details of how that would work, like whether and how the district whose taxpayers built the schools would be compensated.

Support services raise different issues.

Essigs said charter schools recruit kids from public schools. But he said they're less interested in kids with disabilities.

He said that leaves public schools with the costs of serving them like speech therapists.

Even in running school buses, Quinlan said there are ways to make cuts.

For example, a district may have been running the same bus routes for years. In the interim, though, enrollment might have declined from 8,000 to 6,000.

"It's time to take a look at those routes and say, 'Why do we have this route going out and coming back with eight kids and it's only gone for 50 minutes and I've got this route that's completely filled the bus and it's out for an hour and a half,' ' he said.

And Quinlan said even pure administrative costs can be cut.

He said the lowest per-pupil costs are in the largest districts as the charges can be spread among more students. But even among those districts cost ranged from $530 to $855 a student, "which is a pretty big range.'

Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.

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