Oregon To Spend $2.9 Million To Track District Spending

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Oregonians will soon have an unusually detailed accounting of how individual schools spend their money and whether that makes a difference.

Lawmakers approved a plan last November to spend $2.9 million over the next two years for a project that will collect consistent, detailed information from schools in 16 districts about their expenditures, educational practices, and achievement results.

The Database Initiative Project grew out of legislation introduced in 1997 by freshman Rep. Mark Simmons, a Republican who became frustrated that lawmakers didn't know what they were getting for the state's roughly $4.35 billion biennial investment in education.

"At one time in Oregon, schools were funded 70 percent by local funds, and now they're funded 70 percent by state funds," Mr. Simmons said recently. "As a state legislator, I feel like I need to be able to respond to questions like, 'Where's the money going?' and 'Is it being used efficiently?'"

Gov. John Kitzhaber also requested $300,000 from the legislature last fall to help identify what it costs to provide a high-quality education in Oregon, but he was turned down.

The Democratic governor had hoped to identify educational priorities along the lines of a similar plan that ranked health-care services in the state according to their costs and benefits.

"We need to have more data to allow us to make some inferences and comparisons," said Jean Thorne, the governor's education aide, "but it will probably be a period of years before we can start making the kinds of connections that we'd like to make."

The new law requires the state to create a detailed, uniform database of spending in all schools that will include such nonfinancial information as student demographics, class sizes, test scores, and curriculum offerings. All the information will be available on the Internet so that parents and others can use it.

Breaking Ground

Mary F. Fulton, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said the project is breaking ground in its attempt to connect educational spending and practices to student performance.

"This is the beginning of tracking what we've all been wondering and whispering about in the back room," she said. "What is the connection between the levels of funding and student performance, and how does our use of resources affect student achievement?"

The 16 districts participating in the pilot program reflect a diversity of sizes, demographics, program costs, and geography. They range from the urban Portland schools, with about 60,000 students, to the tiny Mitchell district, in eastern Oregon, with only 100.

Officials from the state education department have been working with the districts to revise the chart of accounts used to report school spending and to provide instructions that would ensure consistency across sites.

Right now, for example, districts report their average spending per student but do not provide the figures for individual schools.

The department also is holding meetings this winter with the pilot districts and other stakeholders to determine the kind of nonfinancial information that should be included in the database.

KPMG Peat Marwick, an international accounting and consulting company with offices across the United States, has a $1.2 million contract to help build the database and put it on the Internet. The goal is to have the system up and running a year from now. A report on the database's capabilities is due to the legislature by March 1 of next year.

Appetite for Comparisons

Howard W. Ottman, the superintendent of the 1,100-student Lakeview School District #7, near the state's southern border, said the project has led his district to begin splitting out the costs of its instructional programs in language arts, mathematics, and science at the school level.

"Prior to this, we just had a category called 'teacher salaries,' and we didn't know how much of those salaries and related benefits went to reading versus music versus art," he said. "It's going to give us some better tools to make decisions."

But he added that the tough part will be the extra work required of districts to compile such information once the data system is up and running.

Homer H. Kearns, the superintendent of the 33,000-student Salem-Keizer district, the second-largest in the state, said the project won't help his district internally because it already collects detailed school-by-school information.

But, he added, "I think there's an appetite in all school districts in the state to be able to compare expenditures. So we need a common chart of accounts that would allow us to make those comparisons."

In addition, Mr. Kearns said, "many districts, right now, budget in a way that it's almost impossible to isolate the specific costs of teaching reading or teaching 3rd grade. This will give us data that's arrayed in a way that will make those comparisons easier."

Nancy C. Heiligman, the project's manager, said that over time the system could be used to increase accountability in education and to help draw connections between spending, programs, and results. But first, she added, state officials have to convince educators that it will be useful to them.

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  • The Oregon Department of Education maintains an area on its Web site about technology that includes information about how many of the state's schools have Internet connections.
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