The report found that statewide, just 53.5 cents out of every dollar spent in 2015 went for instruction.

Avelynn Brown, a kindergartner at Horizon Community Learning Center, wanted everyone to have a peek during play time at the Ahwatukee Foothills charter school last week.

The two school districts that serve Ahwatukee are bucking a trend, spending more in the classroom than the state average, according to a new report released last week by the Auditor General’s Office.

But Kyrene and Tempe Union High School district officials agree with the Arizona School Board Association, which said the auditor general is out of step in the way it calculates classroom spending.

The report found that statewide, just 53.5 cents out of every dollar spent in 2015 went for instruction. That includes everything from teachers, aides and even coaches to supplies like pencils and papers and some activities like band or choir.

What it doesn’t include are various services needed to help kids succeed.

“We continue to stand by the fact that the "dollars in the classroom" measure is an outmoded way of benchmarking how Arizona supports student success. It does not describe effective use of dollars dedicated to teaching, learning and graduating students that are equipped with the skills to succeed in the real world,” said Timothy Ogle, the association’s executive director.

Six of eight East Valley districts spent more than the average, ranging from 54.1 cents per dollar in the Tempe Union High School District to 60.1 cents in the Chandler Unified School District, according to the auditor general. Only Queen Creek Unified and Tempe Elementary fell below the average.

Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely cited the school board association’s reaction to the audit even though it was highly favorable to the district.

It should that Kyrene’s classroom spending was well above the statewide average.

Tempe Union High School District’s classroom spending figures are a bit misleading, district spokeswoman Jill Hanks said.

While its classroom spending increased slightly over the statewide average, Tempe Union far outpaced the average spent by those districts that have only high schools, Hanks pointed out.

When compared to other high-school-only districts, Tempe spent an average $4,088 last year, compared to the statewide high school district spending of $3,809.

“Comparing TUHSD with unified districts is not apples to apples,” Hanks said. “Operating high schools is much more costly than middle or elementary schools due to size, programs and administrators.”

The school boards group said, “The real issue should be student achievement – not how resources are allocated to get there.”

It also noted that even the governor and the Legislature acknowledged last year that the term “classroom…should be redefined as instruction, instructional support and student support.”

This definition includes physical and occupational therapists, reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists/librarians, counselors and social workers, the group said.

Based on its own definition of classroom spending, the auditor general’s report said Arizona schools spent less of the money they received last year in the classroom than in any of the 16 years the state has been keeping track.

Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the decline should come as no surprise.

He said the state cut $114 million from one of the state aid formulas last budget year. And Essigs estimated that schools have lost out on $2 billion in capital funding since 2009.

What that means, Essigs said, is schools have had to use a larger percentage of their funds fixing the things that the state should have paid to replace, like an air conditioning system or a new roof.

“They're repairing buses they shouldn't be repairing,” he said. “They ought to be replacing them.”

That leaves only a couple of areas to cut.

One is administrative, everything from the salaries of superintendents and principals to clerical staff.

But Davenport said Arizona schools, as a whole, were slightly more efficient than the national average, spending just 10.4 percent of their dollars on administration versus 10.9 percent nationally.

What that largely leaves schools to adjust, Essigs said, is classroom spending. The net effect, according to Davenport, has been lower teacher salaries and larger class sizes.

Davenport said that between 2004 and 2016, the average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, decreased 9 percent. And just between 2011 and 2016, she said, statewide average teacher pay dropped from $49,185 to $46,384 after inflation.

The flip side of all that, though, is that there may finally be an end to the downward trend in the percentage of dollars spent in the classroom.

Schools will be getting more than $300 million this budget year in new Proposition 123 dollars.

But Essigs cautioned it will take time to make a real difference.

“You have to remember that since the Great Recession, school districts have about the same amount of money in form of per-pupil (aid) now that they had in 2008,” he said.

– AFN staff contributed to this article.

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