PUSD spending

A year or two of spending increase can’t compensate for a decade of neglect when it comes to school financing, according to a just-released Arizona auditor general report on school spending.

Arizona schools are spending $8,300 per student, compared to a national average of $11,800 — that’s 42 percent below the national average.

Although teachers in most districts got a 10 percent raise last year, they still make about 23 percent less than teachers nationally. Moreover, Arizona teachers have 16 percent more students than the national average, according to the report, released on Monday.

And Payson teachers make even less and have even bigger classes.

Payson teachers make about 6 percent less than the state average and have 14 percent more students per teacher — 20.5 students compared to 18.5 statewide.

On the other hand, teachers in Pine, Tonto Basin and Young make about 10 percent more than the state average and have one-half to one-third as many students.

Despite two infusions of money in the past two years, per-student, inflation-adjusted spending in Arizona remains $800 below the level in 2008 before the recession.

Overall, the Payson Unified School District fared well on the report when it comes to low administrative costs and financial stability

Thanks to high transportation and facilities costs, the percentage of the district’s budget going straight into the classroom actually dropped slightly to 49.7 percent. That compares to a statewide classroom share of about 54 percent, up from about 53 percent.

Payson fared poorly when it comes to the graduation rate. Some 75 percent of students graduated, compared to 86 percent in comparable, small, rural school districts and a statewide average of 78 percent.

Payson spent roughly $762 per student on administration, compared to the $860 per-student statewide average. Some 10 percent of the total budget goes to administration.

Payson’s plant operations amount to $6.10 per student, plus $1,501 per student in transportation costs. Because of Payson’s unusual system, students change schools every two to four years. This means the district doesn’t really have neighborhood schools and students wind up getting bused all over town in the course of their career in the district.

On the other hand, Payson students generally have better scores on state assessments than either peer schools or schools statewide. Payson beat the average in math, English and science. That strong student performance came despite a family poverty rate of 23 percent, much higher than the 19 percent state average. Family income and education generally have the biggest single impact on standardized test scores.

Meanwhile, the small Pine, Tonto Basin and Young school districts all reaped huge financial benefits from the state’s small schools formula. This gives them a bonus for each student that far exceeds Payson’s entire per-student spending. The formula compensates for the inability to enjoy economies of scale on things like administration and facilities.

So for a comparison: Payson spends about $9,000 per student. But the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School District spends about $28,000 per student, including a whopping $4,286 on administration. Teachers make about $53,000 and have just 6.6 students per teacher. The district has 112 students, who transfer to Payson once they hit middle school. Students score well above the average, both for the state and for “peer” districts.

The Tonto Basin Elementary School District also spends $28,000 per student, including $6,670 on administration for its 65 students. Teachers make $53,000 and have an average of 9.3 students per teacher. Meals cost $6.92 per student, more than double what Payson spends. Students score well above the state average — and well above Payson.

The Young Elementary School District spends about $36,000 per student, with 39 students in the district. The average teacher salary is $53,000, with about five students per teacher. Just the administrative costs work out to about $8,600 per student — almost as much as Payson spends for everything on a per-student basis. Meals cost $13 each, compared to $2.96 in Payson. Students scored below the state average in math and close to the state average in English. The auditor general’s report didn’t include results for Young in science.

The state auditor general’s cost often focuses on the share of district budgets going to “instructional” costs like teacher salaries versus all other “non-instructional” costs, like administration, facilities and transportation. However schools say the figures are misleading, because many things like counselors, computers, student support services, aides and other costs don’t count as part of the “instructional” percentage.

Nonetheless, Auditor General Lindsey Perry said the instructional share is still 4.6 percentage points below the high point in 2004. And even after adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than it was in 2004 and $861 below the high point in 2008 before the Great Recession. According to Capitol Media Services reporter Howard Fisher.

Perry said that the additional dollars did boost the average teacher pay in Arizona from $48,372 to $48,951. And she said that overall school districts employed 101 additional teachers which resulted in a slight reduction in the state’s students per teacher ratio.

“Part of the reason for Arizona’s lower average teacher salary may be due to Arizona’s teachers having fewer years of experience, on average, when compared to the national average,’’ she reported. Perry said Arizona teachers average 11 years of experience compared with the national figure of 13.7 years.

And there’s something else.

In the most recent year, Arizona’s average class size was 18.5 students per teacher compared to the national average of 16.

The bottom line, she said, is that Arizona spends less than $8,300 per student in operating costs, compared with the national average of more than $11,800, with 54 percent of those Arizona dollars winding up in the classroom in Arizona compared with 60.9 percent of the higher national education spending figure.

But Perry said this isn’t due to high administration costs, pointing out that these costs in the average Arizona district eat up 10.4 percent of dollars, versus 11.2 percent nationally.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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