Enrollment is dwindling – down 20% in the past five years.
The poverty rate is high – a daunting 22%.
Grandparents are raising the kids.
The rural economy is putting the squeeze on families.
Administrative costs are high – consuming 15% of the budget.
So Pine-Strawberry’s tiny, shrinking K-8 school district ought to have low scores.
The 93-student school district’s test scores are little short of spectacular.
Some 51% rank as proficient or better in math. Now, that might not sound great – but that compares to just 33% of students statewide and 20% of students in peer, rural schools.
Some 52% rank as proficient or better in English, compared to 40% statewide and 23% in peer schools.
Well, maybe small class sizes, experienced, well-paid teachers and lots of money per student trumps everything.
These figures all come from the 2021-22 analysis of school district spending patterns by the Arizona Auditor General’s office.
To be fair, the Pine Strawberry School District benefits from the state’s generous small-school formula when it comes to per-student funding. The formula is intended to help small, rural districts that have a relative handful of students, but still need classrooms, a principal, a superintendent and other infrastructure. So the district gets $38,000 per student – almost four times the per-student support Payson receives.
And get this – Pine’s per-student support jumped a whopping $8,455 from the previous year – thanks in large measure to a gush of federal pandemic relief money. Payson got a much smaller bump. In fact, just the one-year increase for Pine came to more than two-thirds of total Payson per-student spending.
Pine poured almost all that additional money into instruction – which increased $5,218 per student.
This boosted instructional spending to 63% of the budget – making Pine one of the few districts where the share of the budget going to the classroom is actually increasing.
The district’s still spending 15% of its budget on administration – half again as much as Payson. But plant operations amount to just 12%, food service just 1.4% and transportation just 5% – all lower than most other schools. However, that’s also mostly an artifact of the school’s size. For instance, not many kids ride the bus – so the district doesn’t spend much on transportation. But Pine’s per rider cost comes to $4,177 – compared to a statewide average of $2,020.
The district has two big advantages, when it comes to ensuring students crush it when it comes time to take the standardized state tests.
First, the district has 5.3 students per teacher – compared to more like 20 statewide.
The National Center for Education statistics reported the student-teacher ratio of 23 in Arizona and 16 nationally – which means we have the largest average class sizes in the nation.
Lots of research suggests that keeping class sizes under 17 – especially for elementary school students – has a big impact on student learning.
Statewide, only very small schools can manage this – since Arizona has among the lowest per-student funding in the country. Small class sizes pay off mostly when you get down below 17 or so.
Bear in mind, even if a district like Payson has 18 or 20 students per teacher – average class sizes are likely much larger. The student-teacher ratios include support teachers and special education classes. So in a district with 20 students per teacher – most regular education classes have 25 to 35 students.
Pine’s other potential advantage lies in teacher salaries and teacher experience.
The average teacher in Pine makes $66,000, compared to a statewide average of $58,000. Nationally, the average public school teacher made $65,000 in 2021.
Pine’s teacher salaries have risen from an average of $48,000 in 2017 – and jumped by about $4,000 last year. The average teacher has 20 years of experience – and not a single one was in the first three years of their teaching career.
So here are some of the bottom-line figures for the Pine Strawberry School District included in the auditor general’s 2021-22 report:
• Instructional spending increased 8%, which means it accounted for 63% of the total budget – one of the highest percentages in the state.
• Total per-student spending increased $8,445 to a lofty total of $38,208.
• The district spends $22,736 per student on instruction, $877 on student support and $562 on instruction support.
• The district spends $5,588 per student on administration, $4,287 on plant operations, $495 on food service and $1,841 on transportation.
• Teacher salaries average $66,000, compared to a statewide average of $58,366.
• The student-teacher ratio declined to 5.3 to 1, compared to 6.7 to 1 in 2017.
• The average years of teacher experience in Pine rose from 14 in 2017 to 20 in 2022.
• The district has 19 students per administrator – compared to 63 statewide.
• The school spends $2.83 per meal, compared to $3.25 statewide and $6.52 in similar rural schools
• The district has 537 square feet of space per student compared to 167 statewide.
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