Payson schools spend about 13% less per student than the state average, according to the latest annual review of school spending patterns by the Arizona Auditor General’s Office.
On the other hand, Tonto Basin schools spend more than twice the state average, Pine schools spend almost three times the state average, and Young schools spend well over three times the state average.
Statewide, per-student spending in 2019 totaled some $11,170. Payson spent $10,174, Pine spent $30,400, Tonto Basin spent $27,158 and Young spent $34,099.
The figures reflect the struggles faced by small, rural school districts — especially those with 100 or fewer students — when it comes to providing the buildings, services, administration and diversity of classes on a per-student cost basis. Fortunately, the state’s small-schools formula funding gives them far more money to operate on a per-student basis — a financial windfall for districts with less than about 150 students.
The auditor general’s report remains focused on trying to compare districts’ “instructional” costs with “operational costs,” to prod districts to spend more money on “classroom spending” than on “non-classroom spending.” Districts have long disputed the formulas, saying that things like administration, plant operations, food service and transportation are all essential supports for classroom spending.
For 2019, the auditor general categorized 69% as “classroom spending” out of the roughly $10 billion spent by 1,377 schools with 894,000 students in 236 districts. Over the past five years, the number of students in Arizona’s public schools has declined by 2%, despite a rise in the state’s population. Enrollment this year dropped by more than 50,000, although the pandemic probably played a large role in that decline. One big missing element in this year’s report were figures on how student test scores compared from district to district — since schools didn’t administer standardized tests in the spring or consistently in the fall. Many of the figures are also already out of date, given the big enrollment declines for the fall semester.
The report acknowledged the difficulty of comparing this year’s spending patterns to last year considering the impact of the enforced shift to distance learning during the pandemic. A massive infusion of federal money from the federal CARES Act and other shifts created a unique year for school spending patterns.
Nonetheless, the report provides lots of interesting comparisons between districts — especially how each district compared to similar schools in terms of enrollment and setting.
The report noted that Payson had an enrollment of 2,300, an increase of 2% over the past five years. But the pandemic enrollment losses have wiped out that gain — pushing enrollment below 2,000.
The report noted that classroom spending accounted for 66% of Payson’s budget. About 11% of Payson’s budget went to administration, just barely above the state average of 10.2%, despite the district’s relatively small size.
Payson’s teacher salaries have risen modestly since 2019, rising from about $45,000 to $52,000 — a 15% increase thanks to a sustained effort by the state to raise teacher salaries. Payson teacher salaries remain about 5% below the statewide average — although teachers here have a lot more experience.
Payson’s teachers have an average of 17 years in the profession, compared to 12 statewide. Only 3% of Payson’s teachers are in their first three years in the profession, compared to 18% statewide. Interestingly, three years ago 18% of Payson teachers were in their first three years in the profession — which reflects the lack of hires of young teachers in the face of the state’s growing teacher shortage.
Despite the recent increase in Arizona teacher salaries, the state still has among both the lowest teacher salaries and highest average class sizes in the nation.
There are approximately 20 students per teacher in Payson, which is about 10% higher than the state average and virtually unchanged since 2017. By comparison, Pine has about six students per teacher. The teacher-per-student average doesn’t reflect the average actual class sizes, since not all people with teaching credentials teach full time — including jobs like Payson’s student achievement teachers. The average also includes special education teachers, who often have very small classes depending on the disabilities of the students. Payson’s elementary school classes generally have 25 to 28 students and the high school classes generally have 28 to 34 students. At least, they did before the pandemic produced a 10%-15% decline in enrollment, with another 10%-15% remaining in online-only classes.
Payson’s spending pattern was high in transportation and plant operations and low when it comes to the cost of meals.