Audit outlines amount spent in state’s classrooms

Two out of every three dollars funneled to school districts last year in Washington went directly into classrooms for teachers, textbooks and other teaching costs, according to a state auditor’s report released earlier this month.

That leaves a large chunk that paid for everything else, including administration, school lunches and transportation.

The review is one of the most complete snapshots of how dollars are spent at school districts around the state and Snohomish County. The performance audit on K-12 education spending also shows that most school districts in Snohomish and Island counties spend between $8,000 and $10,000 per student.

Everett mirrors the statewide trend with nearly 62 percent of all dollars from federal, state and local sources going directly into classrooms. The school district spends $10,005 per student, according to the numbers compiled from the 2010-11 school year. Of that, $6,168 went directly into the classroom.

Everyone agrees that a larger amount of the total should be spent inside the classroom, but how to get that percentage higher is something that still needs to be resolved.

“We were doing this before, trying to look at what we do compared to other districts and trying to be fair between teachers, paraprofessionals and custodians,” said Larry Nyland, Marysville School District superintendent. “The audit does give us more fine-tuned detail in terms of how many teachers, classified staff, administrators or custodians we have compared to a state formula.”

The state has made deep cuts in education for years, and school districts throughout the state have been forced to react, said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“School districts have been evaluating their budget priorities for a long time now,” he said. “Districts have had to take a hard look at cutting costs.”

The numbers and information in the audit are not surprising, Wood said. He feels it doesn’t provide a lot of new insight into how schools are funded.

The audit does show that some school districts should increase the amount they put into teaching, said Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center based in Seattle.

“It makes me upset to hear these officials say this doesn’t help,” she said. “There’s room for improvement.”

Since 2005, the State Auditor’s Office has had authority to conduct performance audits of state and local governments and their agencies.

From the beginning, the auditor’s office did surveys and town-hall-style meetings and found that people “wanted to see audits of school districts and how dollars were being used in classrooms,” said Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the State Auditor’s Office.

“We did an audit on school district expenses several years ago, and this builds on it,” she said. “We have been discussing this dollars-in-the-classroom for a very long time, and it’s been a priority of Brian Sonntag, the state auditor, for a very long time.”

The audit grouped school districts based on their enrollment, income level, location and whether they had a high school, and compared how they spent money. It also offered suggestions on how some districts are saving money outside the classroom. The office used state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data to make comparisons among the state’s 295 school districts.

The report included two primary recommendations, Chambers said. The first is for school districts to look at the dollars they spend outside classrooms compared to other districts to see if they can save money to be used in the classroom. The other is for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to consider maintaining and updating the database of the district profiles used to create the audit report.

“We don’t have any kind of enforcement authority,” Chambers said. “We can’t make them do anything. I always tell people the best result of an audit is if people look at the report and the results we found and consider how they might use the recommendations.”

Washington and 11 other states spent about 60 percent of school dollars in the classroom, according to a 2009 comparison by the National Center for Education Statistics. The 2009 comparison is the most recent available. It also shows that 18 states spent more than Washington in the classroom and 20 states spent less. According to the audit, moving 1 percent of the dollars spent on administrative offices to classrooms would be enough to pay for more than 1,000 teachers across the state.

The Everett School District knows that the amount it spends in classrooms is looked at critically.

“We do get calls that say, ‘You only spend 62 cents of every dollar on kids; what are you doing to waste the other 39 cents of every dollar?’ ” said Terry Edwards, chief academic officer. “That’s because people take it as too simple an answer.”

The audit gives one view of how districts spend money, Edwards said. He noted that the audit criticizes state school officials for adding a second number it classifies as teaching support to the total amount of funds spent on teaching. The category includes the cost of developing curriculum, student safety, counselors and nurses.

The district values those services for students and does not want to see them cut, Edwards said.

He added that some ways school districts spend money are also out of their control. One example could help to explain why the Everett School District’s transportation spending is slightly higher than its peer group average and the state average, Edwards said. The district, like others across the state, must comply with the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which requires school districts to transport homeless students to their original schools regardless of whether they’ve found emergency shelter outside their district. The Everett School District applied for and received a $55,000 state grant to help with the cost of transporting homeless students for the 2010-11 school year from as far away as Snoqualmie, Seattle, Sultan and Stanwood, but was still left to fund about another $626,000 for the program.

“That’s a variable that’s not really transparent when you look at this document,” Edwards said.

He agrees districts that find ways to make their operations more efficient can then transfer the dollars saved into services that benefit students. Those services should include lunches, transportation, counselors, nurses playground assistants and similar expenses, he said.

“That’s been the culture in this district ever since I came here, and I’m sure before that,” Edwards said.

As part of the audit, 28 school districts identified by the state Auditor’s Office as spending less outside the classroom than similar districts that were interviewed. Districts in Snohomish and Island counties that were interviewed were Arlington and Mukilteo.

The Arlington School District had 65.6 percent of its budget go into teaching in the 2010-11 school year. The district has reduced costs in different ways that include consolidating bus routes, installing energy-efficient windows, insulation and other equipment, and reducing or eliminating positions when a non-instructional employee resigns, said spokeswoman Andrea Conley. The district’s food services department is also looking to buy more local products to save money, Conley added.

“As with every school district, we continue to look for ways to protect the classroom during these challenging budget times,” she said.

The Mukilteo School District told state representatives that many of its administrators do multiple jobs, and it tries to remain focused on a limited number of goals, spokesman Andy Muntz said. One of those goals is maintaining class size.

“We’ve been very focused on maintaining class sizes where they were before all the cuts started taking place,” he said. “Our focus has been to have it impact as little as possible what goes on in the classroom.”

Keeping district class sizes between 23 and 25 students can be tricky, especially with growing enrollment, Muntz said. The district has added portables to the school campuses and has hired nine teachers since 2009 to handle increasing enrollment.

Suggestions in the audit weren’t helpful for the Index School District, said superintendent Martin Boyle. The district, at 29 students for the 2010-11 school year, spent $20,617 per student. Of that, 44.6 percent, or $9,193, was spent on teaching. The district operates with three multi-age classrooms and three full-time teachers, and everyone already does a multitude of different jobs to keep the district functioning, Boyle said. For example, he is the superintendent and principal, while the head of food services is also the director of transportation, and classroom teachers also take on the roles of librarian and physical education instructor.

“We’re bare-bones now,” he said.

His seven-day-a-month paid position means he’s often volunteering his time, Boyle said. The leadership role increasingly involves doing more and more paperwork that has to do with unfunded mandates, he added.

“Each legislative session adds more to everyone’s plate but removes resources to accomplishing the goals,” Boyle said. “Someone has to do the work. Everyone can’t be in the classroom.”

The auditor’s office is to be commended for the report, said Finne, who spoke Wednesday in Olympia at a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee hearing.

“The auditor’s office is doing exactly what it was intended to under Initiative 900,” she said. “This auditor report shows that within the public sector, existing resources can be better allocated to achieve results.”

Officials in the Edmonds School District reviewed the information in the audit, spokeswoman DJ Jakala said. It didn’t provide any new clues on how to move money into classrooms, though.

“We appreciate reviewing the information and are always looking for ways to improve, but have not found anything new in this latest data,” she said.

The audit is a rule of thumb for the Marysville School District, said Nyland. It gives the district a rough indication of areas to focus on or avoid for future budget cuts.

The district directed 60.2 percent of its spending to teaching last school year, and that number will climb as it plans to reduce teaching by 1 percent and all other areas by 4 percent to 7 percent, Nyland said.

“I don’t know if it’s a whole lot different than we would be doing in any other year,” Nyland said. “When we have to make cuts, we want to have administration be a proportionate part of those cuts.”

The audit isn’t driving the Everett School District to change how it plans to spend money in the next school year, said Jeff Moore, executive director of finance and operations.

“It provided a sort of sample set, a checklist, if you will,” he said. “I would suggest we evaluate numerous more strands of resource use than what has occurred within this report.”

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491;

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