State releases school spending comparisons
On March 25, the state Department of Education released the 2009-10 school districts’ expenditure comparisons made possible by the new Uniform Chart of Accounts.
UCOA is an accounting system, which began development in 2006 and is intended to account for each expenditure, in every school district, using the same code.
Jamestown’s 2009-10 expenses are displayed in 80 pages of data and each category of expense is compared to minimum, maximum and average numbers for the district category—which is suburban for Jamestown—and to the number of districts statewide.
For one example, Jamestown’s total expense for 2009-10, excluding debt and capital expenditures, is $11.9 million. The suburban minimums, maximums and average were $3.7 million, $73.4 mil- lion and $32.5 million, respectively. The same numbers for the state are $749,000, $380.5 million and $41.9 million.
The numbers lack context and meaning without a district’s corresponding student numbers, which are listed as either the “student count” or “average daily membership” at the top of each page of the documents. Jamestown’s student count is 467.33 and the average daily membership is 458.4.
Making district-wide expense comparisons to Jamestown schools is currently complicated by the way that the site handles the town’s relationship with North Kingstown High School.
The $2.4 million listed as “other schools” expenses, nearly 20 percent of Jamestown’s total district expenses, is the tuition paid by the town for 225 Jamestowners to attend North Kingstown last year.
The state’s calculation includes tuition cost but not the students. Therefore, any central office calculation based on total expenditure for the year is somewhat skewed.
As an illustration, the “other schools” per-pupil expense—$2.4 million divided by the student count of 467—is a cost of $5,195, compared to the “other schools” average expenditure of $588 per pupil in suburban districts.
The following warning appeared in the UCOA executive summary: “Users of the UCOA must take care not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions. If there is an apparent discrepancy— especially high or low district expenditure in any area—school offi cials can provide clarification.”
Jamestown School District’s director of finance, Jane Littlefi eld, said that the state went “back and forth” on the issue, agreeing to place a footnote on the page but confirmed that the 225 North Kingstown High School students could not be counted twice: once in Jamestown where their tuition expenses are paid and once at North Kingstown where they contribute to the student count and the average daily membership.
Littlefield explained that the Little Compton School District is in the same situation, sending its high school students to Portsmouth High School.
Using the “other schools” number of $2.4 million and dividing it by the 225 Jamestowners who attended North Kingstown yields a more accurate accounting of the “other schools” expense.
The resulting cost of $10,790 per high school student compares favorably to both the suburban average of $12,364 and the state average of $12,906. It is important to note that the $10,790 per-pupil cost does not contain all costs represented in the suburban and state averages for per-pupil high school expenses. For example, transportation to and from North Kingstown is paid for by Jamestown at an approximate cost of $700 per student.
The vast majority of the state’s districts include schools at all three levels so there are few districts in the state whose total district expenses are affected by significant tuition payments out of the district.
Noted as “unprecedented financial reform” by the Department of Education’s Web site, UCOA creates a statewide database that attempts to offer a level of transparency and access to comparative numbers between school districts that did not previously exist. The data is quite comprehensive and the site is easily navigated.
Comparative analysis of district expenditures is done to provide districts with tools to improve student learning outcomes, according to the Department of Education.
In contrast to district-wide categories, those that are specific to costs associated with Jamestown’s elementary or middle school students include only expenses incurred at that level and can be easily compared to other districts, according to Littlefield.
Per-pupil costs of $15,891 for Melrose Avenue School can be compared to $11,456 average perpupil expense in suburban schools and $11,624, which is the average for the state. Lawn Avenue School’s per-pupil expenditure of $16,589 compares to $11,250 for suburban middle schools and $12,296 statewide.
The UCOA executive summary states, “We can use the UCOA to identify effective practices by linking investments in education with increases in student achievement.”
Barrington elementary and middle schools, like Jamestown, achieves the highest scores in the state. The Barrington per-pupil expenditure is $11,482 at the elementary level and $10,996 at the middle school level.
While the comparison appears to be straightforward, the numbers must be considered in the context of school size. While Jamestown has a student count of 467 in Melrose and Lawn, Barrington hosts more than 2,000 in its elementary and middle schools. A higher student count can provide for a better economy of scale and increased fiscal efficiency. In other words, a teacher for 10 students costs the same as a teacher for 20.
Little Compton, which has 300 students between two schools, spends $13,773 per pupil at the elementary level and $17,106 at the middle school. Narragansett’s 964 students yield a per-pupil cost of $15,229 and $15,233 at the elementary and middle school levels, respectively. Foster School District, which only operates an elementary school for 237 students, has a per-pupil cost of $13,887.
The data is expansive. Categories include instructional functions such as face-to-face teaching, classroom materials, and non-instructional student services. Salaries, benefits, maintenance and capital expenditures are all broken out by district and in the comparative categories of minimum, maximum and average for the district and the state.
According to the UCOA Web site, data will go into the Department of Education’s data warehouse, becoming a part of the Comprehensive Education Information System and will likely provide important data analysis opportunities as the data is collected and managed.
Questions regarding the local data are best addressed to the Jamestown School District.