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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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Only in RI.

Comment #1 by Captain Blacksocks on 2012 11 15

Fiefdoms is right! Just look at the Superintendent in Central Falls. She makes +$120,000 for less than 3000 students, has an assistant Superintendent also making +$120,000, spends tens of thousands of dollars on her colleague Julia Steiny, etc. Yet, CF continues to have the worst NECAP scores in the state, the highest teacher absenteeism and she's not even responsible for the fiscal management of the district. What IS she doing?

Comment #2 by barnaby morse on 2012 11 15

39 superintendents, 39 assistant superintendents, 39 school committees, 39...39...39...

Comment #3 by Chris MacWilliams on 2012 11 15

No wonder my school ran out of lined paper and pens last February and it stayed that way for the remainder of the school year.

Comment #4 by Ed Jucation on 2012 11 15

nice business model lol

Comment #5 by anthony sionni on 2012 11 15

You know, for the past year I’ve been reading these stories. Every day we read, see and hear stories about how officials are misappropriating funds for this agency or that one. We read about how this govt official is corrupt. How this union is costing the state millions. How these loans aren’t getting paid back. How those pension plans aren’t being funded. Basically how every possible thing in the state that could go wrong, IS going wrong.
Yet on election day, when everyone had their ONE chance to possibly make a difference, stand up and do what’s right, either one of two things happened. One, all these stories, every day, fell on completely deaf ears. Or two, the ballot counting system is totally corrupt in this state.

Either way, after election day, NOTHING CHANGED. NOT ONE THING.

So please stop writing stories about all this crap, because the entire state just stood up and collectively said IT DOESN’T MATTER. NOBODY CARES.

Write about a boy scout helping someone across the street. Write about fund raising events for totally charitable causes. Write about the GOOD that some people actually do around here.
All this bull about corrupt this and corrupt that……..nobody cares. RIers want it, they love it, they can’t live without it. Don’t you ever think it will change because it won’t. The unions will never leave. Budgets will never get balanced. Cities and towns will never regionalize. Govt will never get smaller. Dems and reps will never work together for the greater cause of the citizens. Just stop it, I’m sick of it!!!!!!!

Comment #6 by pearl fanch on 2012 11 15

Pearl, that letter EXACTLY describes how I feel too. Either the voters in this state are complete and total morons or our voting system is totally and criminally corrupt!!!

Comment #7 by Patrick Boyd on 2012 11 15

Question: How many of the non-instructional expenses are mandated by state and/or federal law and regulation?

Also, I strongly object to having Guidance and Counseling classified as "non-instructional".

Likewise for Library and Media.

Comment #8 by Charles Beckers on 2012 11 15

Counter to some of the comments this is a very important article in content and on a very important subject, the education of our kids. Voters had little to do with education, other than elect school board member.
Take a look at your individual school district and you will find many in deep problems because of inadequate planning and management. Technology should be the corner stone of quality education and in most districts it is not even a factor.
Building and maintenance is terrible as it has been put off from the budgeting process and band aid fixes as you go (more expensive). We have seen the salary, benefits, pensions and healthcare cost increase every year (step increases, school committees giving away the ship on sick days, personal days and just about any days).
The bottom line, our kids are NOT getting the quality of education that will prepared them for their future, the world has only gotten harder to survive never mind compete for middle-class or above status. It’s about the kids and the jobs to teach them are not being managed to the fullest extent, otherwise we would be like MA a #1 in education state, not a bottom feeding RI.
Answer to the issue, develop a FIVE plan/budget so everyone really gets the picture of what and where we need to go to improve our educational systems (yes, consolidation is not an option, it is MANDATORY).

Comment #9 by Gary Arnold on 2012 11 15

keep voting democrat and this is what you get.........

Comment #10 by jon paycheck on 2012 11 15

As others have said, "fiefdoms" is the operative word. The more school districts there are, the more high-priced administrators and other jobs there are.

Consolidation is the key, but how do you get rid of lots of well-paid admin people for a leaner more efficient delivery system?

Comment #11 by Art West on 2012 11 15

Again, if we all have a five year plan/budget we will all see the need to consolidate (or evaporate), the trick is to get the school districts and towns/cities to do a 5 year plan. This is what we as individuals can sponsor for in the upcoming budgeting process in your town/city/district.

Comment #12 by Gary Arnold on 2012 11 15

I think "consolidation" is the recipe for success in basically all of our state run institutions and those that provide public service. A good portion of our schools, state departments, local government, chambers of commerce, non profit organizations right on up to our legislature are completely over-sized for the number of citizens in our state. Extra resources in these areas are sometimes nice but they are not giving us better service or outcomes for the extra money. We are heavily borrowing to run all of these departments and are going to get crushed by these deficits. Diet and exercise are the only way to lose the weight. Consolidate and cut to start. Once we have a leaner model creative and hardworking people should be drawn to serve instead of running away from a broken an inefficient system. This will mean hard work, tough choices and shared sacrifice but I think we are all up to the challenge.

Comment #13 by Steve Jones on 2012 11 15

Stephen you just dont get it thats how the economy works peopel spend money and it circulates ok ok so every month it goes into the hands of corrupt pols just live with it

Comment #14 by Howard Miller on 2012 11 15

How about focusing on your kids first? The status quo political system wants you to take your eye off the ball. Don't be distracted with "cost effective solutions" to ignorance, our kids already know that education is important, do you?

Comment #15 by Charles Marsh on 2012 11 15

Peeps, just think it through. Regionalization is the answer to more cost effective government and schools. THE ENTIRE STATE WILL BENEFIT FROM THIS!!!

Just think. Salaries can be reduced. Benefits can be reduced. Pensions can be reduced. Buildings and equipment can be sold off.

Do you realize how many union jobs will be lost through regionalization??
Do you really believe that the unions will allow the people that they HAND PICKED and PLACED INTO POLITICAL OFFICE to let that happen??
IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN. It doesn’t matter how loud you scream it. It doesn’t matter how often you scream it. It doesn’t matter how you scream it. It doesn’t matter who you scream it to. IT WON’T HAPPEN!!

This is the basis of my frustration. No matter what the public says, what they want, how they vote….IT WON’T CHANGE.

If you don’t think that the unions didn’t elect each and every government official we have, go ahead and name me ONE of the candidates that the unions backed, and didn’t win. None of this has ANYTHING to do with individual citizens.

It doesn’t matter what’s best for the children. It doesn’t matter what’s best for the taxpayer. All that matters is bigger government and more spending. There’s no reason in the world to have 39 city and town governements, school systems, police departments and fire departments in the smallest state in the country. We have 5 counties. That’s all we need.
Do you think the unions give a crap about what’s best for everyone? The unions were needed 50 years ago. Not now.

Comment #16 by pearl fanch on 2012 11 15

I think it is wrong that Guideance and Counseling are not included in the Education costs. But there's still a lot of problems to fix in how the taxpayer money is being spent, and the wastefulness of having 39 different school districts is just plain dumb. Still, RI unions will never agree to regionalization because - in truch - the kids never come first. The first consideration has always been teacher pay, seniority, job protection, benefits and early retirement. The kids always come in a distant second to all that. The democrats who run this state have been bought and paid for by the unions. The only solution is to move to another state, because its never going to change. It might change, but it would take a statewide economic collaspe like Central Falls before change could be mandated, perhaps by court receiver. It would also require a Governor with the fortitude to defend the taxpayers and go head to head with the unions. Not holding my breath....RI has the awful leadership it elected.

Comment #17 by Captain Blacksocks on 2012 11 15

I hope RI school districts are all forced to cut their athletic programs to $0. That will probably be the trigger that gets voters to pay attention. Fact is, people care way more about Johnny's right to play football than Johnny's right to know algebra.

Comment #18 by Captain Blacksocks on 2012 11 15


You're probably right. The status quo continues because it benefits those who are part of the system. They will cling to the system until the system collapses under its own weight. This is probably true of any system. The thing is, Greece can happen here, and it just might.

Comment #19 by Art West on 2012 11 15

It just doesn't matter. nothing will change. put more recipes or a comic section instead of this because it really doesn't matter, nothing will be done differently.

Comment #20 by Odd Job on 2012 11 17

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