Payson schools got a mixed report card from the state auditor general for 2020.
A high cost for plant operations.
High costs for transportation.
Below-average teacher salaries.
And about 14% more students per teacher.
But there’s less to the report than meets the eye, PUSD finance director Kathie Manning explained to the school board last week.
Well, except for the high student-teacher ratio. Payson’s got 21 students per teacher on the payroll — compared to a state average of 18 and an average in similar-sized districts of 19.
Oh, yeah — and the low graduation rate — a measly 68%.
The report showed the district in 2020 had an enrollment of 2,312 — a 2% increase in the past five years. The pandemic wiped out that increase and brought the enrollment below 2,000, but those numbers will show up on the next auditor general’s report. In the meantime, the 2020 figures showed that 16% of Payson students were in special education classes, 2% did not speak English at home, the poverty rate was 26% and 51% qualified for free and reduced lunches based on federal criteria.
A total of 66% of the district’s budget went to “classroom spending,” including instruction, student support and instruction support. That compares to a statewide average of 69%.
Still, taxpayers are getting a bargain in Payson — at least compared to the state average. Payson’s spending $10,174 per student — up 3% from 2019. Statewide, districts spend $11,170 — about 10% more than Payson.
Manning’s report to the board presented the auditor general’s numbers, which compared district spending to both the statewide average and to other rural school districts with similar enrollment considered a useful “peer group.”
But Manning said Payson’s “peer group” in the report included districts with enrollments between 2,000 and 10,000. Payson last year had about 2,200 students, which put it at the extremely low end of the peer group. Large districts generally have lower per-student costs — especially for things like administration, transportation and facilities.
“This is a huge variable,” said Manning of lumping Payson in with 10,000-student districts.
So Manning created her own peer group — districts with between 2,000 and 5,000 students. In most categories, this made the district look a little bit better in its high-spending categories.
“Inquiring minds want to know,” said Manning, “so I set up my own peer group with enrollments closer to ours. In that group, we’re doing quite well.”
Take teacher salaries.
Statewide, teachers make an average of $54,814 for a nine-month contract, which is a 13% increase from 2017. The average Payson teacher makes $52,037. So Payson teachers make 5% less than the state average — or $3,202. However, teachers average $51,600 in districts with 2,000 to 5,000 students.
The lower Payson salaries don’t reflect less teacher experience. Only 3% of Payson teachers are in their first three years in the profession — compared to 18% three years ago.
Payson still has stubbornly high costs in some areas, depending on the peer group you chose:
• Administration: Payson spends $952 per student compared to a state average of $936. But Manning’s peer group spent $1,104 per student.
• Plant operations: Payson spent $6.27 per square foot compared to the state average of $6.55 and a peer average of $5.79.
• Transportation: The district had “very high” costs at $4.84 per mile compared to a state average of $4.28 and a peer average of $3.43. Payson’s cost per rider came to $1,606 compared to the state average of $1,370 and $1,480 for the peer group. Manning said the high costs reflect the district’s 750 square mile attendance area.
Manning took a victory lap in presenting the district’s success in lowering food costs for student meals. A couple of years ago, Payson had “very high” costs. At that time, the district’s contract paid the contractor based on total reported costs. So the district shifted to bids based on a flat, per-meal cost.
Food costs plunged, going from “very high” to “low.” The district in 2020 spent $3.01 per meal compared to a state average of $3.46 and a peer average of $3.39.
Manning wasn’t sure how to explain one major anomaly in the report — a chart showing that Payson collected more than twice as much in federal COVID relief spending as comparable districts — $444,000 for Payson verses $203,000 for comparable districts. That amounts to $192 per student for Payson compared to $40 for peer districts.
She suspects this just means that Payson shuffled the budget around to spend all the money in 2020, rather than moving half the money into the next year’s budget.
“I really don’t see that it’s significant information in this report,” she said.