With some new money coming into the system, classroom spending in Arizona has increased for the second year in a row.
New figures Friday from the Auditor General’s Office showed that 54 cents of every education dollar spent in the last school year went toward instruction. That largely includes salaries and benefits for teachers and aides, as well as instructional supplies like pencils and paper, instructional software, athletics, band and choir.
That compared with 53.8 cents for the prior year and 53.5 cents the year before that.
But 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.
Perry said the additional dollars did boost the average teacher pay in Arizona from $48,372 to $48,951. And she said overall school districts employed 101 additional teachers, which resulted in a slight reduction in the state’s students-per-teacher ratio.
Still, she said, a gap remains between Arizona and the rest of the country.
Even with the boost in teacher pay, salaries here remain close to $11,300 below the national average.
“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 with the national average of 16.
The bottom line, she said, is that Arizona spends less than $8,300 per student, 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 the national average of 60.9 percent.
But Perry said this isn’t due to high administration costs, pointing out that these costs in the average Arizona school district eat up 10.4 percent of dollars, versus 11.2 percent nationally.
What is making a difference, she said, are other costs.
One of those falls into the category of “plant operations,” primarily what districts spend on energy costs.
She said some districts have worked to identify the potential for improved efficiency and cost savings. But, overall, Arizona schools spend 11.9 percent of their budgets on plant operations versus 9.2 percent in the rest of the country.
Arizona, on average, also spends more on food services, transportation and instructional support. That last category includes things like salaries for curriculum directors.
The real gap, however, is in the category of student support, everything from attendance clerks and social workers to counselors, nurses, audiologists and speech pathologists.
Perry said some of that could be due to the number of school districts serving a large percentage of students living in poverty or those with special needs, all of whom need additional services.
She said, though, there are things that districts can do to cut down on nonclassroom expenses.
One thing Perry said her auditors identified are districts that build new schools when they already have low-capacity usage rates at existing facilities.
There also were those that built new schools or added on to an existing one in anticipation of enrollment growth that did not materialize.
“Although decisions to close schools can be difficult and painful, these decisions are important because school district funding is based primarily on the number of students enrolled and not at all on the amount of square footage maintained,” Perry said.
And Perry said the record shows that there are other areas where fixed costs can be cut.
For example, she said, the districts her auditors found as being more efficient do things like monitor food prices and maximize the use of commodities provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
She also said they limit overtime and unproductive time by having employees perform other duties. And Perry said the most efficient districts plan bus routes to ensure, where possible, that buses are filled to at least 75 percent capacity.
At the other end of the spectrum, she said, the less-efficient districts have costly benefits packages and higher non-instructional staffing levels, spend more on meals and conference travel for employees and governing board members, and lack preventative maintenance plans to maintain buildings and buses.