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Flawed audit raises valid questions about TUSD

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What the Devil won't tell you

Flawed audit raises valid questions about TUSD

Report ignores teacher pay but still worthwhile in finding $30 million in district 'over-spending'

  • Paul Hayton

I hate math sometimes.

Last week I previewed the annual state audit of the public school system. This is the audit that declares the schools unable to prioritize classrooms in their budgeting and we know this because somehow Arizona districts only managed to devote 53.6 percent of their total budgets to instruction paling in comparison to the national average of 60.8 percent.

The problem with staring at numbers is missing the obvious. So I used 1,800 words to explain what I could have done in four: We don't pay teachers.

The rest of the country beats Arizona because districts in other states pay teachers $2,315 more per-student in salary and benefits, not because they hold the line on non-classroom dollars. Arizona kicks the rest of the country's collective ass in holding the line on overhead like administration and building maintenance.

Change nothing else about Arizona school spending but start paying teachers the national average, and Arizona suddenly devotes 64.3 percent of its money to the classroom. Problem solved. It's easy math. Arizona can't afford to do that because here we spend $3,000 less per pupil than the rest of the country but still must pay for bus service, school lunches and and schools themselves.

Suggesting Arizona find the extra money for classrooms by gouging it out of the heat bill or cafeteria taco prices is a dandy way to ignorantly allow the governor and Legislature to run on a never-ending pledge of tax cuts. The rest of the country takes a novel approach of simply paying teachers more.

Selling out the future for tax cuts today is not “a tough choice.” It's the easiest call a politician can make. The state auditor's report provides a great platform for justifying that hedonistic choice.

There you go – last week's column summarized in about 200 words.

Low teacher pay and little money available to cut the checks account for Arizona's classroom funding gap. Those who are sick of comparing Arizona schools to the national average should keep quiet about the audit's national comparison. So let's instead focus on what the audit does well – comparing the school districts to each other. And boy does one local district seem either on fire, or about to respond to one. Or … y'know … not.

911 TUSD

Yes, I've been known to go all 1st Amendment on school funding in the statewide sense but that doesn't mean local gadflies, activists and rabble-rousers bird-dogging local governments should stop. Hell no, keep at it. Just because Arizona doesn't get the money it needs for schools shouldn't justify all school board decisions about how to spend money.

The audit found most of the districts serving Tucson-area kids were doing OK except for some issues at the margins. Color-coded charts detailing Amphitheater, Vail and Sunnyside and the rest lit up green, blue and yellow showing their costs were low, comparable or very low to “peer” districts. They are mostly out of the red.

I'm trying to figure out if Tucson Unified School District's chart is mostly candy-apple or fire-engine. Maybe it's maroon. Whatever the case, it's not good news. TUSD dramatically outspends its nine peer districts up in the Phoenix area on non-classroom expenses. The overages add up to $30 million a year and leave the district with just 48.3 percent for the classroom.

Classroom spending isn't the be-all and end-all. The state audits it because of a political decision made in 2000, when the Legislature approved and Gov. Jane Dee Hull signed a law requiring the audit of “non-classroom” monies. In recent years, state auditors graded school districts and handed out plenty of A's to districts that spent less than 60 percent in the classroom. TUSD wasn't one of them.

TUSD's test scores are also left wanting. Devoting half the budget to the classroom, though, would be pretty good place to start in getting better returns.

Finding $30 million

Here's how it breaks down:

Administrative costs run TUSD $897 per pupil. The district's peer group averages $641. The disparity works out to $11.8 million a year.

That's nothing compared to transportation costs where TUSD spends $1,946 per rider as opposed to $1,392 for the peer group. So assuming TUSD's budget is correct and 12,015 students ride school buses, that's $6.5 million more than other large urban school districts in the state.

The district spends 10 percent more per meal ($3.03) than its peer groups on food. There's no need to shovel gruel on the kid's trays but there are savings that could be achieved. I cannot find how many meals the district serves, so the total cost remains as mysterious as whatever the hell is in the school meatloaf.

Anyone who's been following TUSD's budget problems over the years knows that the district has a lot of schools and administrators have sought to close some of them right before parents affected go ballistic. Here's what the auditor says: The district has 1.4 million square feet more than its peer districts, which is a trick because the district has just 8 million square feet total. TUSD spends 51 cents more per-square-foot than its peers on facilities.

TUSD teaches 45,970 students and runs 86 schools. Peer districts like serves 60,374 students with 75 schools. Chandler Unified School District runs 41 schools serving 41,028. It goes on like that.

Running 86 schools affects every other bit of overhead.

Each school needs someone in charge, someone to take attendance, cafeteria workers to serve lunch and someone available to fix what breaks. Administration, food service, facilities management and even transportation are effected by school districts having to keep individual schools running. Of course, shutting down schools drives parents apoplectic.

Total cost: $12 million beyond what the average peer district spends but likely affects all the rest of the non-classrooms.

Beyond the district's control

The auditor doesn't even judge the other two non-classroom categories of spending because student and instructional support services aren't frivolous. However they don't count as “instructional spending.” Don't blame the auditors for this. Blame the U.S. Census. Auditors follow the Census study that gives a 60.8 percent national average, and that report doesn't count these vital support services toward the classroom. 

The cost-driver on student support services is which population the district serves, said the 2015 audit:

“... districts with the highest poverty rates spent $854 per pupil on student support services, $320 more per pupil than districts with the lowest poverty rates, and districts with the highest percentage of students with special needs spent $709 per pupil on student support services, $117 more per pupil than districts with the lowest percentage of special needs students.”

TUSD serves a population with a 28 percent poverty rate, which is six points higher than their nine peers. One of those districts, Gilbert Unified School District, has a 9 percent poverty rate and spends $816 per student on instructional and student support. TUSD's total is $1,303. Convert the difference to classrooms and the district beats the state average.

Reading, Writing, Renoir ...

The state audit of all districts paints TUSD in broader than broad strokes. Actually, impressionistic strokes may be a better way to put it because it's like Renoir with detox tremors dabbing out a blurry image.

In every area, the district spends more than its peers. The only other districts that typically compare are found on tribal reservations, where costs can run really high simply because those districts must pay a premium for professionals to relocate to places like Tuba City and San Carlos.

Meanwhile, the district always seems to stumble over how, when and who should audit it more thoroughly.

One of the reasons governments struggle to change with the times is the raw power behind the statement “we've always done it this way.” School districts may use the terms “unified” and “central” but they are by far the most decentralized local government in the pantheon. Each school is an interest group. Every parent-teacher organization flexes muscle. All principals know what's best for their school. Hell, every head custodian probably knows what's best.

TUSD chews up superintendents like a pack of wolves on rawhide. In the 21st century, seven superintendents have lead the district. In the 15 years prior to that, two held that post.

Stuff happens because it has always happened and there are a dozen PowerPoint presentations by smartly dressed professionals to explain why anything else would be the road to ruinous disaster.

Tucson Unified sure as hell looks like they are trying to defend the idea that change is dangerous.

The Governing Board has punted on audits and been precious about who can edit them internally.

The district's audit committee isn't supposed to include school employees but the board changed that rule to allow for the inclusion of family members of employees   in that group — just not in those in district leadership. But everyone in the institution is vulnerable to the sort of bureaucratic inertia an audit is supposed to expose and not justify. Someone please tell me why, to this end, the district finance director gets a vote on the committee? TUSD needs a fresh set of eyes to figure out why it spends so much compared to other districts.

Audits are tools that can be used for good or ill. Arizona's K-12 funding out of the Legislature is bad. It's acid-bleeding-alien-asleep-in-the-escape-pod bad. It's we're-going-to-need-a-bigger-boat bad. The funding issue leaves Arizona kids ripe for predation in the knowledge economy and the degree to which the annual audit apologizes for that — it's a bullshit study.

Critics of K-12 funding have won battle after battle to make sure it isn't funded at the national average. They can't then have it both ways by demanding the state spend less on schools, hold the line on teacher pay and then gripe about how little money makes it into the classroom.

Looking at who is doing what well and what absolutely does not work, can help us all hold local government accountable. It's our job to make sure they do theirs. In Arizona, that job is especially hard and fantastically important.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

By the numbers

The Auditor General's annual audit of how school districts spend their money this year is long on judgment and short on solutions. Of course, I would never suggest that its report to the Legislature would be an effort to please its audience full of avowed critics of “government” schools with mounting political pressure to spend more on schools. Oh, heavens no, there were no politics involved whatsoever.

Last year, before the state's political universe discovered there was a problem with K-12 spending, the auditors provided a more complete report that repeatedly hit on how Arizona schools had experienced budget cuts. More important, it outlined best and worst practices found among the schools.

IT makes for crappy prose, so let's just lay those practices out:


More efficient districts: 

• Monitor performance measures to identify areas for improvement (see textbox).
• Use staffing formulas to calculate the appropriate level of staffing needed.
• Employ staff who “wear multiple hats” to work in more than one operational area.
• Effectively use county services for legal guidance and accounting support.
• Purchase office supplies in bulk.
• Limit the use of outside consultants and contractors.

Less efficient districts: 

  • Have higher staffing levels than peers.
  • Have more costly benefit packages and retirement programs.
  • Provide very generous stipends, such as vehicle allowances and tax-sheltered annuities.
  • Spend more than peers on meals and conference travel for employees and governing board members.
  • Allow employees to individually purchase office supplies instead of purchasing items in bulk quantities.
  • Close schools but do not fully reduce the related administrative positions.

Food service

More efficient districts: 

  • Monitor performance measures to identify areas for improvement (see textbox).
  • Monitor food prices and modify menus appropriately.
  • Maximize use of free commodities provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Limit waste by using student input and daily production and usage information to determine meal production.

Less efficient districts: 

  • Have poorly written contracts with food service vendors. 
  • Fail to monitor contracted vendors’ performance.
  • Set meal prices too low to ensure program self-sufficiency.
  • Fail to identify best food prices, including failing to use or ineffectively using purchasing consortiums.
  • Have excessive waste due to poor inventory rotation and monitoring.
  • Operate universal free programs without a sufficient number of students eligible for federally reimbursed free and reduced-price meals.

Plant operations

More efficient districts:

  • Monitor performance measures to identify areas for improvement (see textbox).
  • Implement an energy conservation plan and educate students and staff about energy conservation.
  • When cost-beneficial, update old equipment with more energy-efficient models, such as lighting and heating and cooling systems.
  • Employ staff who can serve multiple roles, such as perform custodial work and drive buses. 

Less efficient districts:  

  • Do not monitor or try to reduce energy consumption.
  • Lack a preventative maintenance program to maintain buildings.
  • Fail to evaluate and adjust staffing and salary levels based on similar districts and market surveys.
  • Operate schools far below their designed capacity and fail to reduce excess space.


More efficient districts: 

  • Monitor performance measures to identify areas for improvement (see textbox).
  • Limit overtime and unproductive time by having employees perform other duties.
  • Plan routes to ensure, where possible, that buses are filled to at least 75 percent of capacity.
  • Evaluate bus barn locations to reduce excessive miles driven without riders.
  • Partner with other local governments for bus maintenance and fuel.
  • Ensure fuel pumps are secure and limit bus idling to lower costs.

Less efficient districts: 

  • Pay drivers for time not spent working between routes.
  • Rely on gas stations for fuel and do not negotiate discounts.
  • Use full-sized buses on routes with small numbers of riders.
  • Do not monitor or adjust routes for efficiency.
  • Fail to monitor vendors for accurate billing and effective performance.

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