School districts put less money into schools than rest of nation

By Eric Swedlund

Arizona school districts put an average of 58.6 percent of their budgets directly into the classroom in 2004, no different from the previous year and still less than the national average, according to a state auditor general's report.

The report, released this week, examines every district across the state and found nearly two-thirds to be within 5 percentage points of the state average for the fiscal year. The national average is 61.5 percent.
Classroom spending is defined nationally as money used for "instruction," including teacher salaries, books and other supplies, instructional aids, field trips, athletics and other co-curricular activities.
Two years ago, Gov. Janet Napolitano requested that school districts develop plans to move an additional 5 cents of every dollar into classrooms to improve education in Arizona.
Since that order, the state average has remained the same. However, districts with the greatest improvement had well-defined plans toward the goal, according to the report.
Among Tucson-area districts, the Tanque Verde Unified School District puts the highest percentage of money toward student instruction.
"We've cut administrative costs, and we're always trying to get more dollars in the classroom," said Marty O'Shea, associate superintendent of financial services. "Our whole approach is excellence. There's always a focus on the classroom."
Still, the district is essentially at its peak in terms of getting money into the classroom.
"You have to have that backbone of administration to service it all, so it's hard to say how much more we can improve," he said.
Most Tucson-area districts have made steady gains in classroom spending in the last several years. Leading the way is the Marana Unified School District, which has risen by nearly 7 points since 2001 to beat the state average with 59.2 percent.
Since 2001, the Tucson Unified School District's classroom spending has increased from 53.9 percent to 55 percent.
TUSD has been able to reduce class size in elementary schools in each of the last two years, said Pat Beatty, finance director. Officials also reviewed how personnel were coded to assure all instruction funding is reported correctly. "We should be doing better for '05-06," Beatty said.
The Sunnyside Unified School District dropped slightly from the previous year, when it peaked at 59 percent, but the district has risen overall in the past few years.
The Flowing Wells, Tanque Verde, Vail, Sahuarita and Indian Oasis-Baboquivari unified school districts all saw classroom spending go up in the past year and overall in recent years. Catalina Foothills went down from the previous year but is u[ overall since 2001. Amphitheater Public Schools dropped from the previous year and has been up and down in recent years.
Dan Contorno, chief financial officer for the Marana Unified School District, said the change might be due to a correction in how positions are classified than an organized effort to get more money into the classroom.
It's more appropriate to code at least some of the district librarians and counselors as teachers, because their work goes directly to student instruction, he said.
"Our district notoriously has always had a pretty lean administration," he said.
"We're taking a look at the whole budget and making sure we're spending money in the right place."
In general for the state, larger school districts put more money into classrooms, with districts that have enrollments greater than 20,000 averaging 61.1 percent. Districts with enrollments of between 5,000 and 19,999 spend an average of 58.2 percent in the classroom, while smaller districts average less.
The report also found that districts mostly used Proposition 301 money to boost teacher salaries. The report cited Arizona Department of Education data that said the state's average teacher salary rose by more than $1,300 to $38,534 from 2001 to 2004.
Contact reporter Eric Swedlund at 573-4115 or at