Auditor General reports marked improvement in classroom spending by Arizona schools

Graphic by Chris Myers

Graphic by Chris Myers


Graphic by Chris Myers

A large infusion of new cash has finally resulted in the first increase in years in the percentage of dollars that schools are putting into the classroom.

New figures Thursday from the Auditor General’s Office has 53.8 cents of every dollar spent this past school year on instruction statewide. That largely includes salaries and benefits for teachers and aides as well as instructional supplies like pencils and paper, instructional software, athletics, band and choir.

That compares with 53.5 cents for the prior year.

More to the point, it’s the first increase in 13 years.

But Auditor General Debra Davenport said the instructional share is still 4.8 percent below the high point in 2004. And even after adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $146 less now than it was in 2004.

What’s fueling this year’s bump is an additional nearly $341.8 million put into public schools, largely because of voter approval in 2016 of Proposition 123. Most of that cash came from the state land trust, proceeds from the sale and lease of state lands that already were being held in reserve for schools.

Of that total, Davenport reports, more than $200 million went into instruction.

Still, Arizona remains below the national average of 60.7 cents of every dollar going into instruction. But Davenport said there are some reasons for that.

On one hand, she said the additional dollars allowed school district average pay to increase by 4.3 percent, to $48,372. But even with that increase, Davenport said salaries here are about 17 percent below the national average.

The report also says the state spends less than average on instruction simply by putting more students into classrooms. The average class size in Arizona is 18.6; the figure is 16 nationally.

But Davenport said the lower-than-average percentage of each dollar spent in the classroom cannot be blamed on administrative costs. Arizona schools put an average of 10.4 percent into the category that includes superintendents, principals, business managers, clerical staff, warehousing, printing and human resources. That compares with 11.2 percent nationally.

Overall, the study finds that Arizona spends far less on its students than the national average -- $8,141 in operational costs versus $11,454.

That correlates with contentions by school officials that at least part of the reason they are spending less on instruction is that there are other fixed costs over which they have little control.

It also plugs in to the argument that schools are having to divert the limited state dollars they get to capital needs, including computers, books and buses, money that could otherwise be used in the classroom.

That is at the heart of a lawsuit pending in Maricopa County Superior Court accusing the governor and lawmakers of failing to live up to their constitutional obligation to provide dollars for those costs. Plaintiffs in that lawsuit, including some school districts and education groups, contend the shortfall is in the neighborhood of $300 million a year.

In January, Gov. Doug Ducey announced a plan to eventually restore full funding for the “district additional assistance’’ account -- the one that funds textbooks, computers, school buses and some capital needs -- to bring it back to the $371 million it should be according to state law. But to date the Legislature has not acted on that proposal and the judge just last month refused to dismiss the case.

Christine Medrano, manager of school audits for the Auditor General’s Office, said the fact that Arizona spends about $3,300 per pupil less than the national average on public education can be considered one factor for why the percentage spent in the classroom lags other states. But she said it’s not that simple.

Take the cost of utilities.

“I do agree that they may not have a say in what rate they’re going to be charged,’’ Medrano said. “But they can do things ... for example with energy conservation, to control the amount of energy that they use.’’

And Medrano noted that the report contains numerous examples of efficient districts, with some of them having classroom spending percentage close to or even exceeding the national average.

What is clear is that there are wide variations between efficient and inefficient school districts. And the report says there are some common threads among both categories.

“For example, more efficient districts monitored performance measures, used staffing formulas, had energy conservation plans, maximized the use of free federal food commodities, limited waste by closely monitoring meal production, and adjusted bus routes to ensure that buses were filled to at least 75 percent capacity,’’ the report says. “In contrast, less efficient districts had costly benefit packages and higher noninstructional staffing levels, operated schools far below designed capacity, did not monitor energy consumption, had poorly written vendor contracts, and paid bus drivers for time spent not working.’’

All that makes a difference.

“Districts that operate efficiently allocate more of their resources to instruction,’’ according to the report.

And the report did find wide disparities

She said the Chandler Unified School District spent just $597 per pupil for administration. That compares with $680 for similar-sized district -- and $1,006 in the Tucson Unified School District.

The cost of feeding students also can vary widely.

In the Kayenta Unified School District, the cost came in a $2.71 per pupil, with an average for other comparable districts at $3.54. By contrast, food costs at the Canon (eds: with tilde on first n) Elementary School District came in at $5.03 for each student.

In general, the report finds that larger school districts spend less on administration than smaller ones, “primarily because of their economies of scale and their ability to spread some of those costs over more students.’’

Transportation costs, however, are another matter.

Medrano acknowledged that rural districts probably put more miles on their buses than urban ones. But she said the rural districts have a lower cost per mile, perhaps because the buses operate more efficiently, what with driving on highways and open roads and having less stop-and-go traffic and fewer stops each mile to pick up students.


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