Originally Published: March 2, 2016 6 a.m.
PHOENIX - Arizona schools spent less of the money they received last year in the classroom than in any of the 15 years the state has been keeping track.
The new report from the Auditor General's Office found that just 53.6 cents out of every dollar spent to educate Arizona youngsters in 2015 went for instruction. That includes everything from teachers, aides and even coaches to supplies like pencils and papers and some activities like band or choir.
Aside from being at the lowest point since the agency started looking at the issue in 2001, it also is 7.2 cents below the national average.
But Auditor General Debbie Davenport said the blame can't necessarily be laid at the feet of individual district administrators. She said it's also reflective of the fact that there are fewer dollars going to schools overall.
Between 2004 and 2015, the state's total per pupil spending actually decreased $424 when inflation is taken into account. That includes the years where the governor and Legislature illegally ignored a 2000 voter mandate to boost state aid annually to account for inflation.
What happened during that same time, Davenport said, is classroom spending decreased by an even larger amount at $629 per pupil, as spending in other operational areas increased or remained relatively steady.
"Therefore, on a statewide basis, it does not appear that the decline in classroom spending was due to an increase in monies earmarked for use outside the classroom, but rather represents a shift in how school districts directed resources," Davenport said.
Humboldt Unified School District Superintendent Dan Streeter agreed. He said since 2009, the combination of the economic recession and budget cuts at the state level meant the district was getting fewer dollars per student, but fixed costs like transportation and student support services remained near constant.
From a shrinking pie, the same dollar amount meant those services gobbled up a greater percentage.
Streeter was quick to point out HUSD spends 8.6 percent of its budget on administration - far lower than neighboring districts.
He said another factor contributing to the district spending less in classrooms is the district's teacher shortage, leaving more classes covered by teachers on overload contracts and substitute teachers. Teachers on overload contracts teach more classes per day than their counterparts. Both overloads and substitutes cost the district less per student, but they aren't considered best practices.
Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard said the district had the added challenge of losing more than 600 students to charter schools.
"We've had eight years of declining enrollment and cuts," he said.
Howard noted that the report does not reflect the district's decision to close two elementary schools, eliminating the overhead for operating them.
And like Streeter, he noted that the state does not consider student support services or instructional support as dollars spent in the classroom. Those two spending categories include library staff, social workers, counselors and other specialists who provide students with support services.
"It allows our people to have support in the classroom," Howard said.
What schools have done to compensate for that is reduce teacher pay and create larger classes.
Davenport said between 2004 and 2015, the average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, decreased 8 percent despite the average years of experience staying about the same.
Between 2010 and 2015, she said the statewide annual teacher salary decreased from $47,077 to $46,008 despite a 4 percent increase in average years of teacher experience. And during the same time, the average number of students per teacher increased from 17.9 to 18.6.
Streeter and Howard pointed to the statewide vote in May on Proposition 123, which - if approved - will temporarily divert money from the state trust land permanent fund into school budgets.
"If those dollars come to schools, a lot of it's going to that instructional box," Streeter said.
Howard said the funds will help offset the cuts the district made as Prescott schools lost enrollment.
Both schools stand to gain roughly $1 million each under the proposal.
Daily Courier reporter Les Bowen contributed to this report.