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11:39 PM Fri, Nov. 16th

Annual report breaks down school districts' operations

The percentage of available money in the Mayer Unified School District that goes toward teacher salaries, classroom supplies, textbooks and activities decreased this year to 47.7 percent of its operational costs. This corresponds with a decrease in the statewide average for classroom dollar expenditures, as monitored by the Arizona Auditor General's Office.

The Auditor's report, released Feb. 29, breaks down each school district's operational spending to two categories: classroom dollars and nonclassroom dollars. The latter designation includes spending for administration, plant operations, food service, transportation, and student and instruction support.

The average classroom dollar percentage for the state in fiscal 2011 hit a record low of 54.7 percent. These dollars include teacher/staff/substitute salaries, classroom supplies, textbooks and activities such as field trips, athletics, choir and band. The decrease in Mayer's classroom percentage of costs over the past five years from 53.9 percent to 47.7 percent has several factors, said MUSD Supt. Dean Slaga.

According to the Auditor's report, MUSD student enrollment decreased 24 percent during the same period of time. Slaga said, because the district lost students, it cut some teaching positions.

"Support services increased as a rise in special education populations occurred. The district currently sits at 30 percent special education identified students," he said.

Total per pupil spending increased slightly from last year, from $10,073 to $10, 266. The classroom dollars portion increased from $4,476 to $4,894 per student.

"The increase in classroom spending occurred with the hiring of replacement teachers who came in with much greater experience than in the past," Slaga said. The more experience a teacher brings, the higher the salary, he added.

Some of MUSD's costs were in the low range, as compared to other schools of similar size, including administration and transportation. Plant operations were in the high range and food service, at $3.62 per meal, was "very high" when compared to the peer average of $3.04 and state average of $2.45.

Slaga said the district's percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced meals is 94 percent. The cafeterias do not provide ala carte items for sale, which other districts have and which offset food revenues, he said.

Arizona Auditor General Debbie Davenport stated in the report that some factors that affect districts' efficiency are outside their control. Some less effective practices might include costly benefits packages, operating schools far below designed capacity, and providing generous stipends such as vehicle allowances. Efficient districts may have reduced staffing levels, employed staff that wear "multiple hats," put into place energy conservation measures, and purchased office supplies in bulk.

Some factors beyond districts' control include increased costs for transporting and feeding students, and rising utility costs. Yet state funding for these expenses continues to slide downward.

Some essential support services such as librarians, nurses, counselors, speech pathologists, food service workers, bus drivers, principals, secretaries and attendance clerks are not included in the classroom spending category, but rather listed under non-classroom dollars.

Administration costs in Arizona average 9.7 percent of costs, the national average is 10.8 percent, and MUSD is at 12.1 percent. It spends $1,241 per student toward administration expenses. This is less than the peer average for smaller districts, which is $1,488 per pupil.

Other audit topics indicate attendance rate for MUSD students is 90 percent (state average 95 percent), 2010 graduation rate is 78 percent (same as state average), 2010 poverty rate is 29 percent (state average is 22 percent), and 14.5 students per teacher (state is 18.1).

The average teacher salary in the district is $36,969 per year as compared to the state average of $45,637. The percent of MUSD teachers in their first three years is 31 percent, compared to the state average of 16 percent.

Dollars spent in the classroom is an outmoded way of thinking about supporting student success, Davenport wrote in the report.

"Money is not everything when it comes to student achievement," Davenport stated. Other factors include curriculum, teacher quality, parental involvement, school and class size, student use of technology, and poverty rate.