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Study Details How Districts, Schools Divvy Up Money

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WASHINGTON--A study released here last week has provided the first detailed statistical analysis of how school districts spend their money.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of the eight-district study, issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is its evidence of wide disparities in spending on individual schools within districts.

Tackling an increasingly important political issue for many districts, the study also documents levels of spending for central offices and administration. The research found that between 80 percent and 95 percent of the districts' operating budgets was reaching local schools.

Architects of the study said the results have taught local administrators and educators new lessons about their own districts, while giving the public its first good look at how tax dollars are spent locally.

The study examined a range of urban, suburban, and small-city districts: Alameda, Calif.; Bartlesville, Okla.; Cambridge, Mass.; Charlotte/Mecklenburg, N.C.; Great Falls, Mont.; Jefferson County, Colo.; Nashville; and Spartanburg, S.C.

Study authors emphasized that the districts, which were chosen from among 240 applicants, were considered to be well-managed systems and had volunteered for the detailed financial analysis.

"We now can break through the facade and come up with the information that is needed to make the decisions that are going to have to be made at the local level,'' said Robert L. Martin, who guided the Chamber study until last month.

"We've never asked these questions before,'' added Mr. Martin, who currently serves as the director of adult-business development for the Jostens Learning Corporation.

The study breaks down local spending into the categories of administration; operations; teacher support, including professional development; student support, including extracurricular activities and counseling; and instruction. Each of those categories shows spending at the school level and central office.

Among the study's findings:

  • Central-office spending ranged from 20.4 percent of the local operating budget in Alameda to 5.9 percent in Great Falls.
  • Administrative spending in both schools and central offices ranged from 17 percent in Alameda to 8 percent in Nashville. Instructional spending held more constant, varying between 58 percent in Alameda and 63 percent in Great Falls.
  • Teacher support, the smallest category, ranged from 0.9 percent of the overall budget in Nashville to 5 percent in Alameda.

In addition to the cost breakdowns, which present spending profiles for all 422 schools in the eight districts studied, the study also compares patterns of spending on elementary, middle, and high schools.

In Bartlesville, for example, where the overall per-pupil spending average was $3,024, the study found that $2,439 was spent on elementary pupils, $2,626 on middle school students, and $3,338 on high school students.

The study also examines spending disparities within the different types of schools in each district. While one Bartlesville elementary school spent $3,125 per student, another spent only $2,121.

Leaders of the project said their goal was less to provide comparisons among districts than to give local education leaders new information about their schools and encourage educators and parents to become involved in management decisions.

"This is not about pointing fingers,'' Mr. Martin said. "What is important is that people start to look at the variables and analyze the costs. When local administrators have the ability to know the high and low costs, they can start making better decisions.''

The Information It Needs'

The study was based on a cost-analysis formula developed by Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational administration and urban policy at Fordham University. It for the first time simplifies local school spending into an easily understandable format, he said.

"The nature of the way districts report to the state doesn't give the country the information it needs,'' argued Mr. Cooper, who so far has examined 30 districts. "The state just cares that no one is putting the money in their own pockets.''

The first version of the model was used to track central-office and school-site expenses in the New York City schools. The current model, funded through the Chamber by the Lilly Endowment, follows money into much more specific areas.

School costs for instruction, for example, are made up of teacher salaries and benefits, classroom equipment and supplies, and partial teacher salaries for instructors who spend only a portion of their time at a given school. The school-level-operations category, which includes maintenance and building costs, is sensitive enough to show variations for buildings that depend on electrical rather than gas or oil heat.

"If you like averages and the kind of information education departments produce, you're not going to like this study,'' Mr. Martin said. "This is going to tell you how much money really gets there.''

Bond-Issue Support

Jefferson County, the largest district included in the study, spent an average of $4,074 per pupil.

Of that amount, administrative spending accounted for $441, with more than two-thirds of the total devoted to school-level administration tied to the principal's office. Operations took $470, and teacher support cost $62, with both categories being spent entirely from the central office.

Student support was $542, with most of the money being spent in school buildings. Classroom instruction, which accounted for 63 percent of the overall budget, cost $2,559 per child. All but $69 of that amount went for expenses at the school.

District officials said that while the study echoed much of their own information about spending, the independent verification has helped win greater community support.

"Your really hard-line critics would discount any study, but the general public and business community were very impressed by this,'' said Lew Finch, the superintendent of the 76,000-student district. "This helped to dispel some of the rumors about how the money gets garnered at the central office.''

Local officials said the analysis was a key factor in the victory last fall of a $325 million bond referendum, the largest ever in Colorado.

"I don't think it unmasked anything we weren't generally aware of,'' Mr. Finch said, noting that since the Jefferson County study a number of Colorado districts have volunteered to go under Mr. Cooper's microscope.

Intradistrict Differences

Most startling to school officials was the study's finding of wide inequalities among local schools. In Jefferson County, for example, where average elementary school spending was $3,606, the district's highest-spending school received $5,352 per student, compared with $2,328 for the lowest.

Mr. Finch said the seniority of each school's teaching staff, which largely determines salary levels, made a big difference in the figures.

The Chamber study concludes over all that the age and experience of teachers had a powerful impact on the spending level of local schools. Other factors that commonly caused variations included the age, condition, and location of school buildings; the concentration of special-education students; specialized programs within certain schools; and the number of students attending classes in the building. Small schools, the report notes, bring higher costs.

Beyond the intradistrict-equity issue, the findings also raise questions about spending at different grade levels.

At a time when many education reformers and experts are calling for a focus on the early grades, the study suggests that school administrators could do more to build up services for the youngest students.

"Elementary schools are getting systematically and, in some cases, dramatically less money,'' Mr. Cooper said. "We found tremendous differences.''

Except for Charlotte/Mecklenburg, where per-pupil spending showed only slight differences between elementary and secondary schools, the more common experience was that of Spartanburg, where elementary schools averaged $4,016 per pupil, compared with $5,530 for high schools.

'We Wanted To Know'

Spartanburg officials said they would use the document in drafting a new strategic plan.

"We went into this thinking that if the study pointed out we were doing something drastically wrong, we wanted to know it,'' said Wayne M. Chamblee, the director of finance for the Spartanburg County School District # 7.

The information will not only help the district as it considers a school-based-management plan, he said, but may also force administrators to work toward greater parity among schools.

In Nashville, local school officials held their own press conference last week to release the results of the study. Noting that their central-office expenses were ranked the lowest among the districts studied, they said the report should help them move beyond past debates to turn attention to program reforms and greater efficiency.

"We needed a hook to hang our hat onto, something that would show the public what we were doing,'' said Edward M. Taylor, the assistant superintendent for business and personnel services.

Despite a previous efficiency study by local business leaders that praised the district's management, many residents had called for more concrete data.

Nashville officials said the report's finding that the district spent 25 percent of its budget on building operations--twice as much as most of the other districts--will spur greater efforts at preventive-maintenance projects and physical improvements.

Officials said they hope to push even more money to the classroom by repeating the analysis every year.

"We're beginning to build a school system based on goals of equity and excellence,'' Mr. Taylor said. "Decisions have to be made by those people that are affected by them, and this study has given us the data to analyze and determine exactly what course of action we might want to take.''

Further information is available from the Center for Workforce Preparation and Quality Education at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1615 H St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20062-2000; (202) 463-5525.

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