SC students up 10%, but staffing up 50%? Study would scrutinize school spending

jself@thestate.comJune 11, 2013 

  • How S.C. public school districts spend their money Breakdown of spending by Midlands school districts during the 2010-’11 school year, the most recent year available from the state Department of Education:

    DistrictInstruction (1)Support (2)Operations (3)Leadership (4)
    Lexington 156%15%21%7%
    Lexington 259%12%21%8%
    Lexington 353%14%22%12%
    Lexington 450%18%23%9%
    Lexington 558%16%19%8%
    Richland 156%13%23%8%
    Richland 257%11%22%10%
    Kershaw59%11%19%11%
    S.C. average57%14%21% 9%


    (1) Face-to-face teaching, including substitutes, technology for students and classroom teaching materials (2) Support for students, including guidance and counseling, library, extracurricular activities and student health services, and teachers, including curriculum development and staff training (3) Transportation, food service, safety, facilities, business operations (4) Principals and assistants, school office staff, administrators, researchers, program evaluators, superintendent, school board, and legal staff

The number of children in S.C. schools increased by 10.3 percent from 1995 to 2011. But the number of teachers and school administrators increased by 48.1 percent.

That disparity has state schools Superintendent Mick Zais questioning whether S.C. public schools are spending taxpayers’ money wisely.

A $300,000 program analyzing school districts’ non-instructional spending habits, proposed as part of the state budget to take effect July 1, would help districts see how their spending compares to other districts and identify possible savings. The outcome, supporters say, could be more money reaching students and classrooms.

The state Education Oversight Committee, which makes policy recommendations for S.C. schools, has proposed to hire a private firm to evaluate at least three school districts, analyzing how efficiently they spend money on non-instructional expenses, including overhead, personnel, procurement, facilities, transportation and technology.

The program would “encourage school districts to ... find ways to save money,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who asked the Senate to include the program in the budget.

Sheheen said the idea comes from a similar program in Virginia. Even if state lawmakers approve the program, however, money for the study only will be available if the state’s revenues exceed expectations.

Originally adopted last year – but put on hold for a lack of money – the program faces opposition. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the program in last year’s budget in part because fellow Republican and schools chief Zais opposed it.

The program would require hiring a private contractor and would usurp the state Education Department’s authority, Haley wrote in her veto message. The Legislature overturned the veto but the budget surplus that would have been necessary to pay for the program never materialized.

‘Skin in the game’

Zais opposes the program because it would not require districts to carry out the study’s recommendations, spokesman Jay Ragley said, adding, “What is the purpose of the review?”

A better approach, Ragley said, would be to require school districts to help pay for the evaluation so they have “skin in the game” and require them to follow through with the recommendations. Zais also objects to requiring a private contractor to carry out the audit – the Education Oversight Committee does not have the staff to do it – and not also analyzing instructional costs, Ragley said.

Zais also faults the program because it would pay to analyze only a few school districts, when all should be scrutinized.

Districts have money they can use to evaluate their own performance and access to information through the state Education Department’s website showing them how their non-instructional spending compares to other districts. “The reality is most districts simply don’t look at it,” Ragley said.

Administration- heavy?

Zais has concerns about the growing number of teachers and administrators that S.C. schools employ, saying their numbers have increased far faster than the number of students attending public schools, he has said.

For every classroom of 21 additional students who entered the state’s public schools since the 1995-’96 school year, an additional seven teachers or administrators were hired, according to the state Department of Education.

From 1995 to 2011, the number of students in S.C. public schools grew to 703,486 from 637,519, a 10.3 percent increase. In that same period, the number of teachers and administrators grew to 67,363 from 45,489, a 48.1 percent increase.

Teachers and administrators, in Zais’s analysis, include teaching aides, guidance counselors, librarians, instructional coordinators, coaches and trainers, and health, psychology, speech, audiology, and other social service providers working in schools.

Scott Price, an attorney with the S.C. School Boards Association, says the debate over whether school districts spend too much on administration often includes “generalities” that mischaracterize instructional costs as administrative costs.

In some of those years, school districts also have made an effort to lower the student-to-teacher ratio, a move that requires more teachers.

Data collected by the state Department of Education break down school-district spending into instruction; instructional support, including librarians and guidance counselors; operations, including bus and food costs; and leadership, which includes principals, program evaluators, the superintendent and related offices.

In the 2010-’11 budget year, 57 percent of school-district spending went to instruction: face-to-face teaching, and classroom and instructional materials. Another 14 percent went to instructional support, and 21 percent was spent on operations. Nine percent was spent on leadership.

A broader analysis

Supporters of the spending-evaluation proposal say it would help districts cut costs.

“We always hear politicians talking about the need to save money, cut expenses” in education spending, said Sheheen, who ran unsuccessfully against Haley for governor in 2010 and is expected to oppose her again in 2014.

Outside auditors could help districts find “hundreds of way to save money,” including in heating and cooling, food service, and training costs, Sheheen said. “Then the school districts could implement those savings and use that money so they don’t have to raise taxes” to increase teacher pay and reduce class size, he added.

Last year, six school districts were interested in participating in the study, including Charleston County, said Melanie Barton, director of the Education Oversight Committee.

Mike Bobby, chief financial and operations officer of the Charleston school district, said that district saw the program as a chance to evaluate its performance “beyond what we already have in place.”

The district has its own internal audit process, and also regularly hires outside contractors to find savings in specific operations, such as food services or transportation, “but not to the extent of this overall high-level performance audit that we’re talking about here.”

The state-level program would give the district “an opportunity to examine what we’re doing beyond what we already have in place.”

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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