Schools: No fat left to cut on administrative costs

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 29, 2015.

PHOENIX —As Arizona continues to a face a $1 billion deficit, Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal calls for cutting school administrative costs in order to spend more in the classroom, but school officials insist there is little fat left to cut there.

Ducey proposed earlier this month to cut 5 percent from non-classroom spending for the next fiscal year, which totals $113.5 million. K-12 education is already the largest slice of Arizona’s budget, which comprises more than 40 percent of state spending. The Auditor General’s office further breaks down school expenses as classroom and non-classroom spending.

“Right now we spend far too much on administrative costs – on overhead – and that’s got to change,” Ducey said during his State of the State Address.

Ducey’s executive budget summary recommends that school administrators certify that cuts to administrative costs will not affect the classroom. Though, school officials argue that several aspects of school budgets that fall under the category of non-classroom spending do bear a direct impact on students.

Arizona ranks last among the 50 states in spending on school administration, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2012, and the state ranks near the bottom for other administrative costs.

The state does, however, spend less in the classroom as a percentage of schools’ budget than other states.

The national average for spending in the classroom is about 61 percent, while Arizona spends less than 54 percent of its education budget there, according to the Auditor General’s report. That percentage has been steadily declining since 2006.

Administration accounts for 10 percent of schools’ budget, according to the Auditor General’s report. Plant operations, food services, transportation, student support and instruction support make up the other 36 percent. These costs include fuel, water, energy and food for schools.

Ducey refers to non-classroom spending as administrative costs, which is a matter of semantics, said Heidi Vega, communications director for the Arizona School Boards Association.

“When administrative cuts are discussed, what come to mind are superintendents’ and directors’ pay,” Vega said. “The average taxpayer or parent would say yes, they think it’s the higher paid people. The administrative costs comprise much more than that.”

In the Auditor General’s report, classroom spending includes the cost of teachers, pencils, textbooks, athletics and field trips.

In addition to salaries for school administrators, non-classroom spending includes costs for school buses, nurses, security, special education directors, librarians and counselors, which Vega says affect classrooms and students.

Vega said at her district, Deer Valley Unified, which the Auditor General considers a “very large” school district, buses weren’t air conditioned until last year. This would fall under the category of non-classroom spending.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said should these cuts go through, many of these non-classroom positions would be eliminated. He added that the way the Auditor General’s report chooses to define classroom and non-classroom spending is faulty.

“At the same time the state cut our funding, it added more and more requirements such as a third grade literacy rate,” Morrill said. “That takes administrative oversight to implement.”

Ducey wants to make sure the portion of K-12 spending going into the classroom goes up, according to Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the governor.

“The governor doesn’t think that’s acceptable, that we should be that far below the national average and that little money is getting into the classroom,” Scarpinato said. “What [Ducey’s] Classrooms First Initiative is about and what his budget reflects is getting more money into the classroom.”

He added that the governor wants to work with schools to find savings as they set their budget and find ways to streamline services, such as janitorial and maintenance departments between Arizona’s more than 200 public school districts.

Ducey also announced during his State of the State Address that he had signed an executive order to assemble “ a team of education and finance professionals” to find ways to get more money into the classroom. This is the first part of his “Classrooms First Initiative” and the team will provide a final report by no later than Dec. 1, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Morrill said how the money will shift and what would get cut in non-classroom spending will vary district by district should the Legislature approve Ducey’s 5 percent cut.

The percentage of classroom spending and non-classroom spending varies greatly by each district throughout the state. For example, Cedar Unified School District in Navajo County spends just 34.6 percent in the classroom, while 63.5 percent of Safford Unified School District’s spending counts as in the classroom.

“It’s important to remember this is coming after five years of deep cuts, where districts already cut a lot administrative functions,” Morrill said. “You can only cut for so long before you impact directly education and support services for our students.”

The cuts to charter schools are less than what is being proposed for the public district schools. The proposal calls for 3.5 percent cuts to charter schools additional assistance, which amounts to about $10.3 million.

Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said charter schools do not have access to the same kind of funding options, which she calls “buckets,” that public district schools have, such as asking local property taxpayers for bonds and overrides.

“There are different buckets and different ways districts can access other sources of funding other than the general fund,” she said.

Sigmund added that she supports Ducey’s efforts to divert more money into the classroom.

K-12 schools’ lawsuit against the state for underfunding them during the recent recession years is another matter that is yet to be settled and could see more money into schools. Ducey, in his budget proposal, allots the Legislature’s $74 million settlement offer, which is much lower than the court-ordered $336 million.

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