It is the Legislative season so once again a bill will be pushed for consolidation of public school districts in Arizona. This time it is Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, with HB2139, a bill that will mandate all elementary and union high school districts become unified by 2024. As with all the other types of these bills, the main reason for the bill is the perceived tremendous amount of savings that will be achieved by this consolidation effort. The belief is that the savings will come from running schools like a business and the savings from the redundant and wasteful administrative spending. Although the political rhetoric sounds nice, what most people do not realize is that schools and school districts are operating in a manner that is not wasteful, the savings will not be as great as advertised, and there is a real hypocrisy about consolidation when charter schools are excluded from the discussion.
The recent Arizona Auditor General Report on how public school district spend their budgets, once again, demonstrated that public school districts in this state spend less than the national average on administrative costs. This lower spending is lower in terms of percentage of the budget as well as total dollars. Arizona public school districts spend 10.2 percent on administrative costs, while school districts in the country spend 11.2 percent. In terms of real dollars, Arizona public school districts spend $844 in per pupil spending on administration, while nationally $1,277 is spent in per pupil funding on administration. This statistic has been consistent for the past twenty years.
It is important for everyone to realize that this amount of money spent on administration is made up of money spent at the school level as well as at the district office level. The split of administrative costs is approximately 5 percent for schools and 5 percent for the district office. Any discussion of consolidation will most likely not impact the number of schools needed in the new school districts. This means that operational costs for schools will not change.
So any projected savings that will come from the consolidation of schools must come from 5 percent of the total cost to operate a school district. In short, the supposed “redundant” and “wasteful” spending from public schools is the result of school district utilizing 5 percent of their total budget for central administration. This demonstrates how efficiently school districts are run. In fact, many other businesses could take a lesson from school districts on how to run an effective and efficient business. In the private sector, annual operating administrative expenses for companies is approximately 20 percent.
The hypocrisy in the bill is that there is a consistent cry for consolidation of elementary and union high school districts, which make up a small percentage of the total number of school districts, yet there is no cry to consolidate public charter schools. There are more than 500 public charter schools, many small charters, and based on the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s annual report they spend on average 20 percent on administrative costs.
Where are the bills to consolidate charter schools? Where is the political action to reform charter schools and the spending of 20 percent on administration? Why is there not the political will for true charter school reform and the political will to stop charter operators who take millions in taxpayer money in salary and bonuses?
If the goal is to save money, operate schools like a business, and make sure schools are efficient then I would suggest that business leaders, politicians and charter school owners meet with the local school district superintendent to understand operational efficiency, maintaining low administrative cost and how to do more with less. Public school districts have been doing this for years. As a matter of fact, currently school districts are operating on funding levels that are at the level that was provided in 2007. Given that operational expenses have risen in the past decade and the fact that school district still provide all the services necessary for a quality education, our public school districts in Arizona should be celebrated for their efficiency. They should be held up as a standard for running efficient and effective businesses, instead of the subject of the annual exercise to consolidate school districts.
Dr. Gregory Wyman is the Superintendent for the Payson Unified School District.