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Auditor report reveals Gilbert, Higley costs

Spending in the classroom during fiscal 2010-11 has decreased "significantly" since 2006 in the Gilbert and Higley school districts, that despite an increase in per-pupil spending by 6 and 7 percent, respectively, according to the Arizona auditor general.

Gilbert Public Schools' per-pupil administrative costs, however, not only were the lowest among comparably-sized districts but among the lowest in Arizona overall, the auditor general said. GPS also had low costs in plant operations, food service and transportation, auditors found.

On the other hand, Higley Unified School District had high administration costs compared with like-size districts, very high costs in food service and transportation, and very low costs in plant operations, the auditor general said.

The information is included in the auditor general's annual report on Arizona school-district spending, which by law is prepared to determine the percentage of every dollar state districts spend in the classroom. The latest report looks at spending from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011.

GPS classroom spending during fiscal 2011 dropped to 59.9 percent of its total expenditures, from 63.3 percent five years prior. Higley's classroom spending during the same period dropped to 54.2 percent, from 58.6 percent in fiscal 2006.

Lower classroom spending could be found throughout the state. Arizona's average classroom-dollar percentage in fiscal 2011 was a record-low 54.7 percent, the lowest since the auditor general began monitoring classroom dollars 11 years ago, according to the report.

"The decline in the instructional percentage indicates that many districts are shifting monies previously spent in the classroom to other operational areas," the report said.

The state's total operational spending per pupil increased 47 percent between fiscal 2001 and 2009, before decreasing 5 percent between fiscal 2009 and 2011, according to the report. Arizona's per-pupil spending continued to fall behind the national average by nearly $2,700, the report states.

The auditor general's also found that in 2010-11:

• Higley, which had 9,502 students in fiscal 2011, showed $652 in administration costs per pupil -- higher than similar-size districts but lower than the state average of $728. Gilbert, which had 36,599 students in 2011, recorded $501 in administration costs per pupil.

• Higley's average per-mile transportation cost of $4.54 was well above the $3.34 average spent by similar districts and the state average of $3.39. GPS recorded a per-mile cost of $3.68, lower than the average $3.96 spent by similar districts.

Higley spent an average $2.98 per meal in 2010-11, compared with the $2.59 average by districts of its size and a $2.45 average for all districts in the state. Gilbert spent an average $2.30 per meal, compared with with an average $2.42 in like-sized districts.

The classroom-spending drop in Gilbert is "disappointing" and "distressing," said Clyde Dangerfield, GPS' assistant superintendent of business services.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that we're as high as possible," Dangerfield said. "I'm sure we'll be able to gain back in that category" as the economy improves.

He said the lower classroom spending is because of a reduction in sales-tax revenue from Prop. 301, which covers performance-based pay and a portion of teacher's base pay. Class sizes are also getting larger, which affects the percentage, he said.

"We've had to make adjustments to with the recession," Dangerfield said. "The district has lost $21 million in budget capacity in the last four years from the state."

Mike Quinlan, audit manager with the auditor general, said that while he does understand the explanations for the lower classroom spending, "tough" choices can be made outside the classroom to bring that percentage up.

"First, districts should be good stewards of taxpayer monies," Quinland said. "Further, while many factors influence student achievement, available evidence supports a positive link between classroom spending and student achievement. In other words, districts that were efficient and able to direct more of their resources to instruction had better student achievement."

Gilbert's low costs in administration, plant operations, food service and transportation are targets the district strives for, Dangerfield said. "We're trying to be as efficient as possible," Dangerfield said. "We take our fiduciary responsibility to the community very seriously."

Higley's high cost in administration in 2011 came before Superintendent Denise Birdwell was awarded a raise this month. Her annual salary will rise to $146,863, from $139,900, and include an additional $7,000 car allowance, starting July 1.

GPS Superintendent Dave Allison, whose district is four times larger than Higley's, earns $155,000 a year and gets an extra $4,800 annually for using his personal vehicle for business.

While Birdwell's nearly 5 percent raise is in line with what teachers received, Allison said he will not seek a pay raise in the upcoming school year, even if GPS teachers receive one.

Higley is reviewing its high costs in food service and transportation, said Jim Lockwood, the district's chief financial officer.

Higley's small geographic area requires buses to make shorter runs and district officials are looking at computerized routing systems to find "additional efficiencies," Lockwood said. Sometimes, special-needs students also compound the "efficiencies" because of their driving needs, he added.

In food service, Higley uses a hybrid model by contracting with Sodexo and food in cooperation with the firm, Lockwood said, adding that he plans to review the contracts to find out if this is the "best way to go."

"One of my goals is to continually take a look at the operations of the school district and make them more efficient as possible in with the needs of the student population," Lockwood said. "It's our responsibility to be good stewards and I think we will continue to do that."

QC, Combs school spending

Queen Creek Unified School District

The district, which recorded 5,151 students in fiscal 2010-11, showed total per-pupil spending decreased over five years, according to the state auditor general. Spending in the classroom decreased overall from 57.8 percent to 56.3 percent.

Administration costs were low, and costs were comparable to like-size district in plant operations, food service and transportation.

J.O. Combs Unified School District

The San Tan Valley-area district, which recorded 3,922 students in 2010-11, increased per-pupil spending by 16 percent over the past five years, according to the state auditor general. Spending in the classroom was "very inconsistent" year to year, decreasing "significantly" overall from 59.8 percent to 51.2 percent, the audit said. Administration and plant operations costs were comparable, and food-service costs were very low and transportation costs were high when compared to like-sized districts.

Learn more: To view the Arizona auditor general's district reports on classroom spending, visit

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