Auditor: Classroom Spending Dwindling

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Payson schools have less money to spend on each child than in 2008, but the district has a B grade overall, mostly because students continue to do better in math, reading, writing and science than either comparable districts or the average student statewide.

On the other hand, the small Pine-Strawberry and Tonto Basin K-8 school districts have far more to spend on each child than the average district — but both districts rate only a C on state rankings.

The difference in school spending is stark based on school size. Payson spends $7,797 per student, Pine-Strawberry $23,690 and Tonto Basin $15,549.

Funding for Pine-Strawberry rose 17 percent between 2012 and 2013, while spending in Tonto Basin and Payson fell slightly.

The detailed spending comparisons on every district in the state included in the just-released Arizona Auditor General’s report shows that statewide the number of teachers has dropped, the percentage of money going into the classroom has shrunk and overall per-student spending has dropped significantly in most districts since 2009.

Statewide since 2009 enrollment has dropped 3 percent, but the number of teachers dropped by 9 percent — resulting in a big increase in average class sizes statewide. Those reductions came during the recession when the Arizona Legislature made deeper cuts in education than almost any other state.

Payson absorbed a big increase in elementary school class sizes three years ago when it closed Frontier Elementary School to balance its budget in the face of state cuts.

Since 2009, total K-12 education spending in Arizona has dropped by $412 per student to $7,485 — 45 percent below the national average of $10,658.

Most of the cuts have fallen chiefly on classroom teachers. The percentage of state education spending going to the classroom declined to about 54 percent. That’s the lowest percentage spent on the classroom in 13 years and more than 7 percent below the national average. In 2003, 58 percent of state school spending went into the classroom.

Surprisingly, Arizona also spends a smaller share of its educational budget on administration than the national average. However, it spends a larger share on plant operations, including heating and cooling costs. The state’s schools also spent a larger share of their budget on student support services.

Payson School District

The figures show that 53 percent of Payson’s budget goes to the classroom — about average. The budget for administration (11 percent) and plant operations (13 percent) are “high” by comparison and the budgets for transportation (6 percent) and food service (5 percent) rank as “very high” compared to other districts.

The total per-student budget came in just a little higher than the state average — not surprising for a district with just 2,400 students. The district spends $818 per student on administration, compared to a state average of $746 and a national average of $1,138.

Total per-student spending in Payson dropped about $110 from 2012 to 2013 to about $7,797, compared to $7,496 statewide and $10,658 nationally.

The average teacher has 13 years experience and made about $46,000, compared to the statewide average of 11 years experience and a salary of $45,000. Only 9 percent of the Payson teachers are in their first three years in the profession, compared to 19 percent statewide.

The district looks best when you compare the student test scores to both similar districts and the state average.

The report included AIMS tests for 2013. The percentage of Payson students who met or exceeded the state standards topped 65 percent in math, 83 percent in reading, 59 percent in writing and 68 percent in science.

Pine-Strawberry

The 109-student, rural district has far higher per-student costs, given the need to provide expensive overhead despite the small number of students. As a result of the special challenges of small districts, the state provides a minimum amount for very small districts rather than providing funding on a per-student basis.

As a result, the small district whose students attend high school in Payson spent $23,000 per student. About 50 percent of that money went into the classroom and 15 percent went for administration.

Over the past five years, as Payson funding fell, Pine’s per-student spending rose a hefty 36 percent. So while Payson spends about 40 percent less than the national average on each student — Pine spends about 50 percent more.

The district has 6.8 students per teacher, compared to 18 statewide and 18.5 in Payson. However, average class sizes are far higher than the teacher/student ratio would suggest, given the number of teachers on non-classroom assignments, the very small classes for special education students and other factors.

Pine’s teachers have an average of 13 years experience, compared to 11 statewide and 13 in Payson. Teachers make an average of $46,000, compared to an average of $45,000 statewide and $46,000 in Payson.

In both Pine and Payson, about 24 percent of the families have poverty-level income — about the same as the state average.

When it came to test scores, Pine students scored a little better than the state average in most categories. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding the AIMS standards include 58 percent in math, 80 percent in reading, 62 percent in writing and 82 percent in science.

Tonto Basin School District

The 69-student K-8 district also feeds into Payson High School — and also has far higher per-student costs due to its tiny size and sizeable overhead.

About 53 percent of the district’s budget goes to the classroom and a hefty 19 percent to overhead — with a modest 9 percent going to plant operations. However, transportation accounts for 6 percent of its budget and food service for a surprising 10 percent.

Spending has risen a scant 1 percent in the past five years.

The total per-student spending rate of $15,093 is about 50 percent above the national average and double what Payson has to spend.

Several of the statistics make Tonto Basin stand out.

Start with the 55 percent poverty rate among families — double the percentage in Payson or Pine or statewide.

Also, the district’s teachers make an average of $58,000 — far higher than Pine or Payson or the state average. That’s mostly because they have an average of 17 years experience — with none of them having taught less than three years — according to the Auditor General’s figures.

The district has 13.7 students per teacher, roughly twice as many as Pine, but about 50 percent fewer than Payson.

Tonto Basin earned a C grade on the state rating system.

The percentage of students meeting or exceeding the AIMS standards included 50 percent in math, 70 percent in reading, 9 percent in writing and 50 percent in science.

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