What RI School Districts Spend on Kids vs. Admin Costs
Thursday, September 05, 2013
On the lower end is a district like East Providence, which spent 47 percent of its $77.2 million budget on classroom instruction in the 2012 fiscal year, the most recently available. Topping the list is Coventry, which dedicated 64 percent of $67.6 million in total spending to that purpose.
Officials: more money should go to classrooms
“It’s ultimately our goal to put as much resources in the classroom as possible,” said Tim Ryan, executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association and himself a former superintendent in North Providence.
His counterpart at the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Tim Duffy, agrees.
“I think every district need to take a closer look at where they’re allocating resources,” Duffy said.
But some districts are more successful than others in reaching that goal.
Statewide, the average school district invests 54 percent of its budget in classroom instruction, a category that includes the cost of salaries and benefits for teachers, aides, substitutes, classroom materials, and technology used by students.
But on a district-to-district level, a pattern emerges. Suburban districts spend the most on classroom teaching—an average of 56 percent. For the urban districts like Central Falls and Pawtucket, on the other hand, the average is 52 percent. There is also an intermediate group of districts that the state classifies as being in the "urban ring." They are: Cranston, East Providence, Johnston, Newport, North Providence, Warwick and West Warwick. For them, classroom spending averages out to 55 percent.
What doesn’t make into it the classroom is split among four areas, according to the state data.
Some goes to operational costs like busing, maintenance, and food services. Some is set aside for the salaries and benefits for administrators, principals, and their staff. Then there are “other commitments” such as debt, retirement benefits, and legal claims and settlements. And finally, the fourth area is “instructional support,” a catch-all for everything from extracurricular programs and guidance counselors to staff development and sabbaticals.
Why urban districts lag
State Rep. Joseph McNamara said students from the cities have fewer resources of their own to help them succeed. “I think it’s difficult to compare costs,” he said. Instead, districts should be compared on the basis of their needs, according to McNamara, a Warwick Democrat who recently retired as the director of the alternative high school in Pawtucket.
Some of the differences may be reflected in how much is spent on instructional support, which includes academic interventions for failing students, social services, student health services, therapists, and social workers. Central Falls spends 23 percent of its budget on instructional support. East Greenwich spends 15 percent, according to the state education data, known as the Uniform Chart of Accounts.
“As you can see from your review of the UCOA data, one of the functions of UCOA is to highlight trends and patterns, either among groups of districts or within individual districts. We encourage people using UCOA to ask questions of local districts about these patterns, particularly if there is an unusual anomaly,” said Elliot Krieger, spokesman for state education commissioner Deborah Gist.
Suburban district spending all over the map
But the urban-suburban divide alone does not explain all the differences in classroom spending.
Narragansett, South Kingstown, and Westerly are all South County districts that are classified as suburban. But spending on classroom instruction varies widely among them. Westerly is near the bottom, with 49 percent of its budget for classroom instruction. Narragansett spends 54 percent while South Kingstown spends 47 percent.
Yet another factor that might explain why some districts seem to spend more in the classroom than others: the demographics of the teaching body. Districts with a veteran workforce of teachers who have reached the top step on the pay scale will spend more on classroom instruction than a district with younger teachers, Seitsinger said.
Asked to describe his view of the district’s level of spending on classroom instruction, Seitsinger replied: “It’s a good solid investment in education.” But, he added, other key priorities include constantly looking for efficient and effective ways of suppressing costs and providing other support for students to be successful.
An example of cost-saving measures: the district shares a finance director with the town, Seitsinger said. “It’s indicative and representative of how we think about the ways to get things done,” he said.
“Commissioner Gist has often noted that high per-pupil spending is not necessarily good nor is low per-pupil spending necessarily bad. Results and outcomes are what truly matters. Some districts may be attaining excellent results with modest spending; they are investing taxpayer dollars wisely, and others may look to these districts for examples of best practices,” Krieger noted.
In Westerly, there are also demographic realities that are sometimes at odds with its reputation.
Smallest districts at a disadvantage too
Some smaller districts face challenges of their own that limit what can be spent on classroom spending. In fact, the two districts that spend the least, both 46 percent, on classroom instruction are both classified as suburban: Jamestown and Little Compton.
Because the districts are so small, the fixed costs of having a superintendent may skew the spending ratios, according to Duffy. Plus, he said, smaller districts don’t have the economies of scale that keep non-classroom expenses down in larger districts.
Both Jamestown and Little Compton also pay tuition to send their students to high schools in other districts and those tuition payments are not included in the amount they report for classroom instruction, which also lower their percentages, according to Ryan.
UPDATE: Calls to Jamestown and Little Compton superintendents went unreturned yesterday, but Jamestown Superintendent Marcia Lukon tells GoLocalProv today that excluding high school tuition, the district spends $9.9 million and 56 percent of that goes to the classroom.
Overall, statewide, the biggest gap in classroom spending remains between the urban and suburban districts. But that could change as the new education funding formula is gradually implemented.
“RIDE is also aware that some districts, including a number of urban districts, have been underfunded historically. The Funding Formula for state aid to education, which went into effect 3 years ago, is designed to allocate aid to all districts based on district capacity and student need. We are entering year three of a 7-year phase-in of the formula, so some districts will anticipate increases in aid over the next 5 years (including this year),” Krieger wrote in an e-mail.
But some think there is still more the state can do.
“We have to really look at ensuring that all children are prepared early on to be successful in school,” McNamara said, referring to early childhood education and preschools.
Stephen Beale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bealenews
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