The Tucson Unified School District overpays its administrators, wastes money on empty buildings and underenrolled schools, and spends more on student transportation than its peers — all while getting worse academic results for its students, a 2018 performance audit found.
The Arizona Auditor General’s Office audit of Tucson’s largest school district found that TUSD spends more on every level of administrative spending than its peers, leaving less for classroom spending.
But the audit noted that some of that spending is out of the district’s control, as it is mandated by the courts in the district’s longstanding desegregation case.
While two other peer districts also levied taxes for desegregation programs, neither used those funds for administrative purposes “likely because their desegregation agreements were not as complex, did not span across as many operational areas, and did not require the hiring of administrative staff as is mandated by (TUSD’s) court order,” the report stated.
The audit found that overall the district spends $929 per pupil in administration, or 38 percent more on administrative costs than similarly large urban districts, such as the Chandler, Mesa and Phoenix unified school districts.
And while part of that increased spending was due to the court requirement that the district provide additional administrative staff to support its efforts to eliminate the vestiges of racism, that wasn’t the biggest problem.
The district’s higher administrative costs were primarily due to having more administrators who are paid much better than those at other districts.
While some administrative positions — like assistant superintendents, principals and assistant principals — are paid on parity with other districts, middle level administrators are paid much more than in peer districts.
For example, general administration support staff like executive assistants, administrative assistants and legal secretaries were paid 68 percent higher than those at other similar districts. Central service support staff, like payroll and purchasing analysts, procurement specialists and warehouse staff were paid 29 percent more than at other districts. And central services manager level positions, like business and accounts managers, were paid 13 percent more than other districts.
And overall, the district simply employed more administrators than other districts. While its peer districts employed one administrative position for every 124 students, the ratio at TUSD was one for every 113 students.
The report, which was based on fiscal year 2016 data, also dinged the district for paying its former superintendent 30 percent more than superintendents of peer districts.
The district, however, was quick to point out that Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo is paid about $70,000 less in base salary than former Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, “which is more in line with other school districts of similar size,” Trujillo wrote in his response to the auditors.
Trujillo noted that he agreed with the report’s findings and recommendations, and will conduct a review of the district’s administrative costs with the aim of reducing them while sustaining school-level support. The district plans to review average salaries of business managers, payroll and purchasing and procurement analysts, and review certain administrative positions, Trujillo wrote.
But he also noted that beyond the additional costs mandated by the desegregation order, TUSD has some unique factors affecting administrative pay, including many long-term employees who were granted pay raises in the past that continue today.
He also noted that TUSD does all of its accounting in house, which “warrants hiring higher qualified staff and higher salaries.”
The cost of maintaining old and underutilized facilities and schools was also a major drain on the cash-strapped district’s ability to make ends meet, the report found.
The district’s cost of operating its facilities was 31 percent higher on a per-pupil basis than other districts.
Declining enrollment districtwide was a major contributing factor, and the report noted that the district’s 11 high schools were on average at just 52 percent of total capacity, leading to energy and maintenance inefficiencies
The report credited TUSD with closing 14 schools in six years but noted that due to its continually shrinking population, that hasn’t gone far enough to solve the district’s excess space issues.
While falling short of specifically recommending that the district close schools, the report noted that it could “potentially operate fewer schools, which may allow it to reduce administrative staffing and costs.”
Auditors who visited five high schools found “classrooms, and in some cases even entire buildings of classrooms, that were not being used.” And the report noted that while TUSD served 24 percent more students than those in its peer group, it had twice the number of schools.
That led to high energy costs, with TUSD spending about 35 percent more per pupil on energy costs than similar districts. And the district’s buildings were about twice as old as similar districts, creating higher maintenance and energy costs that are “outside the district’s control.”
Auditors credited the district with doing preventative maintenance, but noted that its energy management systems were outdated, incompatible to each other, and lacked the ability to control lighting and temperatures in individual classrooms. Auditors found 10 schools where unused or infrequently used rooms and classrooms were being heated and cooled at the same rates as frequently used rooms.
The report noted that the district has taken some steps to improve its energy efficiency, but more is needed. In 2014, the district underwent an energy audit, and made some improvements. But the report recommended that the district develop a comprehensive energy conservation plan that would reduce energy costs by establishing room temperature and lighting guidelines. The report also suggested smaller conservation efforts, such as keeping doors, windows and blinds closed, and “not allowing teachers to keep mini-refrigerators, microwave ovens and coffee makers in their classrooms.”
Trujillo, in his response to auditors, said the district is implementing a master facilities plan to make better use of its space, and noted that the district is implementing the third phase of its solar plan, which will make TUSD one of the largest energy conservation school districts and reduce energy costs.
But he argued that the district’s solution to the underenrollment problem was not to sell off buildings, but to “increase enrollment, or at a minimum reduce declines.”
TRANSPORTATION, DESEGREGATION, TECHNOLOGY
Auditors also found TUSD had “much higher” transportation costs than its peers in both per-mile and per-pupil transportation costs, though the report noted that was largely due to the district’s desegregation order, which requires the district to bus students to magnet schools and racially concentrated schools to achieve racial balance.
“If the district did not have to comply with these desegregation requirements, its transportation costs likely would have been similar or lower than the peer districts’ averages,” auditors wrote, adding that despite the high costs, TUSD’s bus system employs efficient practices, like monitoring fuel usage and preventative maintenance.
The audit stated TUSD spent $63 million on court-ordered desegregation programs in fiscal 2016, roughly a quarter of which was spent directly on improving the quality of education for African-American and Latino students, including by funding advanced-placement and honors courses, and implementing multicultural curriculum and culturally relevant courses. The district spent 19 percent of its desegregation funding on student assignment issues, including implementing magnet schools and programs. Transportation accounted for 17 percent of its desegregation funding, while compliance issues, including legal fees, accounted for 14 percent of its spending.
A recent audit of the Roosevelt Elementary School District found the Phoenix-area district spent much of its desegregation funds on nondesegregation programs, but the Auditor General’s Office found no such issues in TUSD.
The report also concluded that the district lacked adequate computer controls that exposed the district to an increased risk of hacking or data loss. Auditors recommended the district enforce stronger password requirements for its computer network and accounting system, develop a formal process to ensure terminated employees have access to computer systems promptly revoked, and create a formal IT contingency plan.