Female High School Teacher Taking Class

Fueled by additional state dollars, Scottsdale schools are spending a greater percentage of their available dollars this year in the classroom than last year, falling in line with a statewide trend.

New figures from the Auditor General’s Office show that, on average, districts across Arizona spent 54.7 percent of what they had on instruction. That’s the third consecutive year with an increase in the past 15 years.

That trend largely held true in Scottsdale.

The Scottsdale Unified School District is spent 56 percent of available funds on instruction in 2019, up 1.6 percent over 2018, and Cave Creek Unified saw a bump of 2.3 percent to 55.6 percent in 2019.

However, instructional spending remained relatively flat in Paradise Valley Unified School District, which spent 58.6 percent of funds on instruction in 2019, an increase of just 0.1 percent over the year prior.

Auditor General Lindsey Perry said increased spending reflects a 7.1 percent increase in the average teacher salary statewide between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 year, bringing the figure to $52,441. There are no figures yet for the current school year.

At SUSD, teacher salaries were slightly higher at $53,477 in 2019.

Salaries were below the state average at PVUSD ($51,500) and CCUSD ($48,126) in 2019.

But Perry said the percentage of total dollars spent in the classroom is still 3.9 percentage points less than it was in 2004. The difference, she said, is that spending on other operational expenses, ranging from utilities and transportation to food services, have increased faster, “meaning that districts shifted spending from instruction to other areas.’’

SUSD was actually one of the more efficient districts in the state when it came to food service, spending $2.54 per meal, well below the state average of $3.08

Still, the district’s instruction spending in 2019 was four percent lower than it was in 2006.

Perry, in her annual report, said some districts have shown to be more efficient, even when factors like the size and location are considered.

The report also found that Arizona schools overall spend less than the national average, by a wide margin.

Perry pegged total per pupil spending at $10,928 in Arizona, compared with $14,009 for the rest of the nation. And that national figure is two years old.

SUSD spent significantly more per pupil in 2019 at $11,574, due largely to operational costs.

The district spent $723 more per pupil on operational costs than the state average – and $1,207 more than average peer districts – due to inflated cost of land and buildings, equipment and interest payments.

That, in turn, reflect on how much there is to spend on instruction, a category that includes salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides, and supplies like pencils, paper and workbooks. It also includes instructional software, athletics and “cocurricular’’ activities like band and choir.

The figure for Arizona was $4,869, more than $2,500 less than the two-year-old national average.

Even with its inflated operational costs, SUSD spent $76 more per student on instruction than the state average and $44 more than peer districts.

Even with less money for instruction, though, Perry found that Arizona schools, on average, spend a lower percentage of their available resources on instruction than the national figure.

“Many factors may account for Arizona’s lower percentage of instructional spending, one of which is average teacher salary,’’ Perry wrote. Using the most recent national data available, she found teacher salaries here averaging about $11,500 less than nationally.

But that’s not all.

“Another factor that may account for Arizona’s lower percentage of instructional spending is class size,’’ she reported. In Arizona, there are an average of 18.4 students per teacher, compared with 16 in the rest of the country.

Class sizes in SUSD are lower than the state average at just over 17 students per teacher, though that is still higher than other districts nationwide.

Classes sizes were also smaller than average in PVUSD (17.6 students per teacher) but higher at CCUSD (19.4)

Perry said it’s not administrative expenses that are cutting into available funds for classrooms. She put the latest average figure here at $903 per student versus the national average for 2017 – the most recent year available – at $1,383.

SUSD’s per pupil administrative cost of $787 was lower than the state average, but was $40 higher than comparable districts despite having a similar student per administrator ratio.

Statewide, Perry said, schools here spend a larger percentage of the cash they get on plant operations, including utilities, equipment repair and security, than schools elsewhere in the country. 

The share of dollars spent on food services also is higher than the national average, as are transportation costs.

SUSD bucked that trend in some cases with exceptionally low food service and plant operations cost per square foot. Still, the audit noted, SUSD has a higher square footage per student than the state average.

SUSD also has transportation costs significantly higher than peer districts. The district, which has struggled to hire enough bus drivers in recent years, pays $4.59 per mile, well above the $4.02 paid, on average, by similar districts. SUSD’s cost per rider ($1,564) was also over $100 higher than peer districts.

Perry also found Arizona schools spend a higher percentage than their national counterparts on student support, a category that includes counselors, audiologists, nurses, social workers and speech pathologists.

But this isn’t just a percentage issue. Student support was the lone area where Arizona schools, on average, spend more in actual dollars than the national average.

Perry said that some of this may be a direct relation to needs in certain districts.

“For example, increases in a district’s poverty rate or the percentage of students with special needs could increase student support costs because many of these services are directed toward these student populations.

Food costs are driven by different factors.

Perry said some districts cited the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which took effect in 2013. She said that established more stringent nutritional requirements that include an increase in the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in meals.

But Perry also said that she and her auditors believe that there are things within the control of districts. She said some district have higher staffing for administration, plant operations, food service or transportation, even when compared with similar districts.

That variance shows up in the report.

For example, she said the 30 districts with the highest spending on transportation costs average out at $684 per student, By contrast, the 30 at the bottom end were spending just $405.

While SUSD has a higher-than-normal cost per rider, its total cost per student for transportation of $360 is actually $21 lower than peer districts.

Perry acknowledged, there are certain differences in spending among districts that may be beyond their control.

Consider the issue of size.

“Larger districts tend to have lower administrative costs per pupil, primarily because of their economies of scale and abilities to spread some costs over more students,’’ the report says.

This trend played out in Scottsdale, where SUSD, considered a very large district at just under 22,000 students, had per pupil administrative costs above peer districts but $16 below the state average.

Paradise Valley, another very large district with nearly 30,000 students, had per pupil spending on administration that was over $60 less than the state average and slightly less than peer schools.

Cave Creek, on the other hand, is a medium-sized district with over 5,000 students and spending on admin right in line with state averages at just over $900 per pupil.

Progress Managing Editor Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report