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RI Schools Spend $2 Billion—Only Half Goes to the Classroom

Thursday, November 15, 2012


School districts in Rhode Island spend more than $2 billion annually, but barely half that money has made it into the classroom, state data shows.

For fiscal year 2009—the most recent year for which detailed data is available—52.1 percent of the $2,135,367,785 spent on local education went towards instruction. The remaining 48 percent was for instructional support, operations, administrative costs, and expenses for other commitments, according to data available from the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). (See below charts.)

“Only 52 percent is going into the classroom,” said Jim McGwin, the president of the North Kingstown Taxpayers Organization. “That seems small.”

McGwin, who has 30 years of experience in the business world evaluating balance sheets and operations, said school districts on average should be spending a minimum of 60 percent of their funds on their core function: teaching children in the classroom.

Other New England states in the same year devoted more resources to instruction. New Hampshire school districts spent 61.9 percent of their total funding on teacher salaries, textbooks, and other expenses directly related to the classroom. Connecticut came in at 58.4 percent. Vermont was the closest to Rhode Island but still had a higher ratio, at approximately 54.2 percent. (Vermont actually claims it spends 60.1 percent on instruction but that excludes a number of other expenses that lower the number when they are added in.)

Lisa Blais, a spokeswoman for the Ocean State Tea Party in Action who has a background in education consulting, agreed with McGwin.

“This comes as no surprise,” Blais said. “Historically, school districts’ budgets revealed that anywhere from 60 to 85 percent of spending has been on salaries and benefits. Consider this in context of arts, music, AP and other programs being slashed or failing to update text books or providing appropriate technology for teaching and learning. The larger goal should be to reallocate the revenue to those areas that best serve students’ needs.”

What goes into classroom spending?

But some in the education world yesterday said that the amount spent on instructional support should be included when evaluating how much money is spent on education.

Instructional support accounted for 17.1 percent of school district spending in Rhode Island and included guidance and counseling, library, media services, extracurricular activities, therapists, and psychologists.

“Money for classroom instruction has been fairly consistent over the last three years, hovering around 70 percent when you combine instruction and instructional support categories,” said James Parisi, a lobbyist for the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“I don’t know how you separate library and media and teaching. To me they are the same thing,” added John Pini, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association. “I think there are some things that are critical to the day-to-day functioning of a classroom that aren’t under the category of direct instruction.”

But Parisi expressed concern that rising costs in other areas could encroach upon instructional spending in the future. So far, he said Rhode Island has not spent an “inordinate amount” on school administration, but he worries that those costs may increase in order for districts to implement the “complex” state teacher evaluation system.

“I am also concerned that the category ‘other commitments’ will rise as districts pass more money on to privately operated charter schools,” Parisi added. “Both trends will mean there may be less money available to spend on instruction and student support in Rhode Island public schools, a situation that should concern all Rhode Islanders.”

How critical is non-classroom spending?

Focusing on classroom versus non-classroom spending changes the debate on how to cut costs and improve efficiency in school budgets, McGwin said. He said that every time there’s a budget discussion, the first thing usually brought up as an explanation for high spending is teacher salaries. But those salaries account for something less than 52 percent of overall spending.

“It sort of puts it in a different perspective, doesn’t it?” McGwin said.

He said a business-minded approach to education spending would cut costs in non-essential areas, and add value to essential areas, like classroom education. “Anything that does not add value is waste and the value in education is the results,” McGwin said.

The non-essential areas are the 48 percent that doesn’t go directly into the classroom, he added. “There’s the opportunity—the opportunity not only for savings but for putting more money into the classroom,” he said.

The greatest opportunity for savings, according to McGwin, is in operational and overhead costs. “My thing is they’re doing things not in their core competencies and they’re not doing them well,” he said.

Non-essential areas where school districts are not performing well are budget management, information technology, and maintenance, McGwin said. He noted that three districts in 2012 ended up with surprise deficits. “Woonsocket, North Providence, and West Warwick went through the fiscal year and oops at the end they said they have a multimillion-dollar deficit,” McGwin said.

He pointed to his local school district for examples of failures on IT and maintenance. Last spring, the district IT department had a backlog of over one hundred help requests that were 300 days old or older. That’s in contrast to the town, where two days wait time is the exception, according to McGwin. He also has accused the school district of being slow to address persistent and widespread leaks in the roof at the Quidnessett Elementary School while seeking a bond for repairs at another school.

Consolidation—with some twists

For McGwin, the answer is in consolidation of services. He said maintenance and IT could be picked up by towns, which already do those things for other departments. Towns could also pick up administrative duties, like management of the budget and other financial operations. That would save money by reducing duplication of services and by eliminating some of the higher-salaried positions on the school side, according to McGwin.

Statewide, superintendents on average make approximately $40,000 more than their municipal counterparts.

McGwin said the issue of high school salaries goes beyond superintendents. As a specific example, he pointed to the North Kingstown school controller, who, despite being the second in command in the district’s finance department, earns slightly more than the head of finance for the town—a difference of $84,518 to $82,442, according to documents obtained by GoLocalProv.

“She’s got more responsibility,” McGwin said, referring to the town finance director. “Now you’ve got a woman who’s making less than the man who’s less qualified.”

Some consolidation advocates have called for regionalized school districts. Some have even suggested wrapping districts into one statewide district, noting that the statewide district would be comparable to ones in some of the largest U.S. cities. What McGwin envisions is more nuanced and, in some ways, bolder than the traditional model of consolidation and regionalization.

In addition to shifting over many functions—like IT, finance, and maintenance—over to cities and towns, he says that RIDE could absorb many operations of local school districts, such as purchasing, supplies, and software licenses. The leaner districts he envisions would be small enough on the administrative side that a school principal could do double duty as a superintendent.

“We don’t focus on schools,” McGwin said. “We focus on districts.”

Superintendent: I don’t have to apologize for my salary

North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Auger disputed McGwin’s examples in an interview yesterday.

He expressed shock and disbelief that at the same time that he had been advocating for a bond to make repairs at another school he was being publicly criticized for maintenance issues at the Quidnessett Elementary School. He said he did not become aware of the issues at Quidnessett until last spring. As soon as he was made aware of it, he said he took action to have all the leaks patched over. Now, all those issues have been resolved, he said, noting that just yesterday he received a report that the last of the leaks had been fixed.

He said the salary for the school district controller was increased after the district went through a reorganization of payroll. The controller was assigned additional responsibilities and his salary was changed accordingly, according to Auger. “He’s … a controller and a half,” Auger said.

“There’s [been] a lot of cutting back on spending on the administrative level,” Auger added.

When it comes to his salary—which, at $140,000, is about $30,000 more than the town manager’s—Auger said it falls within the market range for his position. Plus, he said he is the 17th highest paid superintendent while his district is the seventh largest in the state. “I don’t think … I have to apologize to anybody for the amount of money that I make,” Auger said. (GoLocalProv’s own recent ranking actually put him lower on the list—at 19th in the state.)

As far as IT goes, Auger said he was not aware of the lengthy backlogs cited by GoLocalProv but suggested that the school IT department may have greater responsibilities than their town counterparts because of the sheer number of employees in the district—including 600 teachers—and extensive reporting requirements to RIDE.

A consultant did recommend consolidating town and school IT departments, but that recommendation would have saved the equivalent of just one person’s salary, according to Auger. The consultant also recommended that the town manager and superintendent together decide who would have headed up the combined IT department.

Neither recommendation sat well with Auger.

“I have fewer people to respond to district issues and I don’t know if that person [the IT manager] works for me. You know what I mean?” Auger said. “So that makes me worry.”

‘They’re building fiefdoms’

For McGwin, that might just the whole point. He says that school officials should be concerned with educating children—not other things like IT services. “They’re resisting it tooth and nail,” McGwin said. “They’re building fiefdoms.”

State law gives school committees a legal right to resist any efforts to consolidate services, McGwin said. As it now stands, Rhode Island General Law 16-2-9 states that school committees are entrusted with the “entire care, control, and management of all public school interests.”

“What are school interests? Where does it end?” McGwin said. “If they wanted a water department would it include that?”

Earlier this year, a bill introduced by Republican state Senator Dawson Hodgson, whose district encompasses North Kingstown, would have restricted the purview of school committees to “educational” interests. But the bill never made it out of the state Senate Education Committee.

RIDE spokesman: ‘focused on outcomes’

Asked to comment on this report, RIDE spokesman Elliot Krieger said Commissioner Deborah Gist is “more focused on outcomes than on inputs.”

“Rather than set a target amount for what districts should spend in different categories, we are interested in the results districts achieve,” Krieger said in e-mail. “We are developing an online tool to analyze results and outcomes in comparison with expenditures, and this tool will help provide information about wise investments of taxpayer dollars.”

That new tool might be available by the end of the year, although Krieger said he was unsure of the exact timeline.

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