When Arizona school administrators and teachers went on strike earlier this year, observers may have thought school districts had done everything they could to find more money for teacher salaries.
According to Arizona auditor general reports, many school districts have wasteful budgeting practices and routinely misuse funds that could be used for teacher pay. A new Goldwater Institute report explains the auditor consistently found districts overspent, misallocated, or otherwise wasted money in the areas of administrator pay, transportation and food service, underused district buildings, and desegregation expenses billed in the absence of desegregation orders.
For example, the superintendent of Sunnyside Unified School District makes more than six times what the average teacher in the district earns. In Tucson, it’s more than five times the average teacher pay. The numbers are similar for many other districts, from Paradise Valley to Buckeye.
Yuma Union High School District spent approximately 20 percent more on administrative expenses than similar districts because of the number of school-level and central office positions. In Piñon Unified, the district’s administrative expenses were nearly 60 percent higher than districts similar in size. Had the district brought costs down to the average for comparable districts, teachers could have seen pay increases of nearly $12,000.
In Eloy Elementary School District, between Phoenix and Tucson, the district produced some 21,000 more meals than were needed for students. In 2015, the district wasted $73,000 on this food—money that could have added $1,600 to each teacher’s salary. The district could have provided even larger raises if it chose to reward the most effective teachers in district schools.
Underused or vacant school buildings are another problem the auditor regularly finds in Arizona districts. In Tuba City, schools are only using one-third of the district’s available building space. The auditor explains that the district has a high school, junior high school, and a new school under construction “located within two miles of each other” and could combine these facilities.
Finally, desegregation spending without desegregation orders is a problem that has persisted for many years across more than a dozen Arizona districts. Since the late 1970s, the federal Office of Civil Rights has investigated Arizona districts based on discrimination complaints. As part of the settlements of the investigations, district officials agreed to engage in certain activities, such as changing the way students are assigned to district schools.
As of 2016, only one Arizona school district (Tucson) remained under a desegregation order. But 17 other districts are levying taxes on local residents to pay for desegregation activities. For example, Roosevelt Elementary School District, which neither has a desegregation plan nor operates any desegregation-related activities, “levied $13.5 million in local property taxes for desegregation purposes.” Yet “the District could not demonstrate that these monies were spent to directly address the violations previously discussed due to its lack of a formal desegregation plan or related programs.”
Phoenix Union High School District’s desegregation order expired in 2005, but the district taxed local residents $55.8 million for desegregation efforts as recently as 2015. Years earlier, in 2009, the state auditor said the district’s desegregation spending had “lost its clear link with the District’s original desegregation court order.”
Arizona’s auditor general completes 10-15 school district performance audits annually, and Arizona has more than 200 school districts, so there are likely dozens more examples such as these that the auditor hasn’t uncovered yet.
Before lawmakers and voters consider tax increases now or in the future — and if administrators and teachers march on the state Capitol again — parents and taxpayers should point to the spending patterns in state auditor reports. Evidence demonstrates school district offices could already be paying teachers more.
Jonathan Butcher is a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute and the author of the new Goldwater Institute report “Arizona School Districts Can Eliminate Wasteful Spending to Increase Teacher Pay.”