June 10, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: Education audit shows power of small steps

 

Washington residents finally have a snapshot of their school districts and how they spend money. In fact, they have a photo album.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag last week released probably the broadest performance audit ever of the 295 districts responsible for K-12 education. To say the least, no two are alike, so part of the audit’s value was the breakdown of the districts into 37 groups in part according to enrollment, income levels and location; Seattle and Spokane, for example, or – shades of B Basketball – Willapa Valley and Dayton.

Bottom line: Washington is pushing more education dollars down to the classroom, but it remained below the national average for 2009. The difference is less than 1percent – 60.2 percent compared with Idaho’s 61 percent – but, as Sonntag notes, 1 percent of general fund spending on education amounts to $100 million, enough to hire more than 1,000 teachers.

Teachers and the classroom are the priority of parents and voters alike. Spokane Public Schools parents should be encouraged by Sonntag’s determination that more goes into teaching than the average for comparable districts, $6,413 per student compared with $6,398, and far less into central administration, $49 compared with $89.

Sonntag recommends that like-size districts share cost-saving ideas and measures or combine purchasing and other functions. Small things can yield big savings.

Prosser, for example, saved $261,000 by putting librarians with teaching certificates in the classroom and putting paraprofessionals in the libraries. The North Thurston District staggered school start times and eliminated 19 bus routes, a change worth $1 million.

Much of this may be old news to administrators who will try anything to maintain the level of education. Some seem trivial: swapping laser for ink-jet printers, for example.

As much as anything, what Sonntag adds to the evaluation is his credibility. His office scrubbed the numbers, explained where they came from, in the process challenging the way Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn concludes that 70 percent of education dollars end up in the classroom, a share that includes classroom support services like counseling.

Districts and parents can decide for themselves whether that distinction is meaningful.

What is important is maintenance of the database Sonntag’s office put together as it compiled the audit. He asks that Dorn’s office take the responsibility. Dorn says he may not have the resources to do so. The Legislature should see to it that somebody does.

Lawmakers will get their first opportunity to discuss and take public comment on the school district audit at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee on June 20 in Olympia. With the Washington Supreme Court demanding the state put more money into education, and the pending loss of federal stimulus money, Sonntag’s work deserves particular attention.

The audit is available at www.sao.wa.gov/AuditReports/ AuditReportFiles/ar1007826.pdf.

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