Washington state school districts could do a better job getting more of the $12 billion spent each year on education into classrooms, where it will make the most difference, a new state audit said.
The performance audit released Wednesday included detailed comparisons among school districts of similar size, as well as suggestions about how some are spending more money in the classroom than others.
Spokane Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, is doing better than many of its peers by spending less on administration than the state’s average – 0.5 percent compared to the state’s 1 percent.
“That’s pretty much what we’ve been saying as we’ve gone through budget cuts, throughout the years,” said Mark Anderson, Spokane Public Schools associate superintendent. “We have been cutting administration to preserve the classroom.”
Tacoma and Vancouver school districts ranked the same as Spokane in percentage of budget used for central administrators, while Seattle was 0.9 percent above the state average.
Central Valley and Mead also ranked below the state average in central office costs. Meanwhile, East Valley and West Valley school districts were slightly higher than other schools in that category.
“I question those numbers because we have historically had an administrative rate less than our peer group,” said East Valley School District Superintendent John Glenewinkel.
Spokane Public Schools, Central Valley, East Valley and West Valley were above the state average in building administration, according to the report. Anderson said that is done on purpose to allow school leaders to focus on education, not maintenance.
“We want the principals to be instructional leaders rather than building managers,” he said.
Said Glenewinkel, “After the classroom teacher, principals are the second most important factor to student learning. The idea that we can run effective schools without effective administration is ridiculous.”
The audit noted that moving just 1 percent of school spending from administrative offices to the classroom would be enough to pay for more than 1,000 teachers statewide.
Among cost-saving suggestions included in the audit were: Buy fuel for school buses in bulk, use more USDA surplus food in the lunchroom, and look at having some services provided by the private sector.
It also suggests cutting staffing dollars by making such changes as hiring licensed practical nurses instead of registered nurses for school infirmaries, sharing costs with neighboring districts and contracting with the state or education service districts for some things.
But while many of the cost differences among districts involve choices, some are out of their control, such as how many special education students they serve.
Spokane Public Schools, which includes the state’s two poorest ZIP codes, said the income level of student families can also be a contributing factor. The district’s food costs are nearly 1 percent higher than the state average.
“The reason the food costs are higher is because we feed so many kids because of poverty level,” Anderson said.
The state auditor decided to do this performance review because taking a closer look at education spending has been repeatedly identified by citizens and lawmakers as a high priority, said department spokeswoman Mindy Chambers. About 43 percent of the state budget is spent on K-12 education.
Auditor Brian Sonntag wanted the report to be practical for school districts and informative for lawmakers, not trying to offer a one-size-fits-all approach, Chambers said.
The audit dings state school officials for overstating how much money is spent on classroom instruction by adding in a second number called teaching support.
The approach implies Washington spends 70 percent of school dollars in the classroom, which would be more than any other state in the nation. The federal government paints a different picture.
Washington and 11 other states spent about 60 percent of school dollars in classrooms, according to a 2009 comparison by the National Center for Education Statistics. Another 18 states spent more and 20 spent less. Washington’s numbers have improved slightly since then, but no more recent national comparisons are available.
The rest of the money goes to transportation, food, nursing, counseling, outside help for special education students, administration and a variety of central district office functions.
The audit recommends the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction take the federal approach and use just the dollars that pay for teaching when it reports expenditures for classroom instruction.
The audit also urged the office to maintain the database the auditor’s office created for the purpose of the study, saying it would help districts save more money, if they could continue to see their operations compared to those of their peers.