Mesa Public Schools spent more money in the classroom last year but not as much as the state’s largest district did five years ago – partly because of above-average transportation costs.
That assessment in the state Auditor General’s annual review of Arizona public school spending falls in line with a similar trend in most school districts statewide.
Overall, the data presented by the AG shows MPS compares favorably with the majority of districts in most measures of school spending.
The report showed that while school districts statewide also are grappling with accelerating costs of building maintenance and utilities as well as food service, MPS was able to keep that spending in check.
On average, districts statewide spent 54.7 percent of their budget on instruction – the third consecutive year with an increase in the past 15 years.
Mesa’s instructional spending last year was 56.2 percent of its total budget, exceeding the statewide average as well as the 55.4 percent MPS spent last year.
Districts that compare in size to Mesa and the percentage of their instructional spending include Gilbert (61.2), Chandler (60.9), Deer Valley (59.5), Paradise Valley (58.6), Peoria (57.5), Dysart (57.2), Scottsdale (56) Phoenix High School District (54.3) and Tucson (52.1)
In terms of per-pupil spending for instruction, MPS’ $5,017 average also was higher than the average $4,901 spent by districts with more than 20,000 students and the state average of $4,869.
Instructional spending includes money for teachers and related classroom personnel like aides, supplies, textbooks and software and extracurricular activities such as athletics, student clubs and field trips.
When it added money spent on other instructional and student support, Mesa devoted 71.5 percent of its operational budget on classroom spending.
The remainder of the district’s budget went to administration (8.1 percent), utilities and other building maintenance (10.4 percent), food service (4.8 percent) and transportation (5.2 percent.)
Food service in Mesa cost $429 per pupil – lower than the state average of $438 but higher than the $341 spent by districts its size and higher than the $421 Mesa spent the previous year.
Auditor General Lindsey Perry said some districts cited the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which took effect in 2013.
She said that established more stringent nutritional requirements that include an increase in fruits, vegetables and whole grains in meals.
Perry said statewide data overall reflect a 7.1 percent increase in the average teacher salary between the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years, bringing the figure to $52,441.
But Perry said the percentage of total dollars spent in the classroom statewide is still 3.9 percentage points less than it was in 2004.
Mesa’s high mark for the percentage of money spent on instruction was 62.7 percent, which it hit in the 2001-02 and 2006-07 school years.
Perry said some districts have shown to be more efficient, even when factors like the size and location are considered.
Though she didn’t mention MPS by name, the data suggest Mesa falls into that category.
MPS’ administrative cost of $719 per pupil was far below the $903 state average and the $746 spent by districts its size.
Even Mesa’s per-pupil cost of food service and building maintenance were lower than the state average.
The problem area involves transportation, which cost Mesa $4.83 per mile and $1,594 per rider. The state average for all districts was $4.29 per mile and $1,424 per rider.
Perry said the 30 districts with the highest spending on transportation costs average out at $684 per student. By contrast, the 30 at the bottom end were spending just $405.
“Rural district buses likely travel on roads with higher speed limits and travel greater distances between stops, thereby traveling more miles in less time,’’ the report says. “This would result in lower salary and benefit costs per mile.’’
Location also matters.
On one hand, a rural school is more likely to have longer bus routes. But Perry said that when the number of miles is factored out, urban districts were spending more per rider than their rural counterparts.
The report also found that Arizona schools overall spend less per pupil than the national average by a wide margin.
Perry pegged total per pupil spending at $10,928 in Arizona, compared with $14,009 for the rest of the nation. And that national figure is two years old.
Mesa’s per pupil spending last school year was $9,970, according to the AG report.
Even with less money for instruction, though, Perry found that Arizona schools on average spend a lower percentage of their available resources on instruction than the national figure.
“Many factors may account for Arizona’s lower percentage of instructional spending, one of which is average teacher salary,’’ Perry wrote.
Using the most recent national data available, she found teacher salaries here averaging about $11,500 less than nationally.
“Another factor that may account for Arizona’s lower percentage of instructional spending is class size,’’ she reported. In Arizona, there are an average of 18.4 students per teacher, compared with 16 in the rest of the country.
Mesa’s class size last year was 18.6 – lower than it has been the previous two years.
Perry said it’s not administrative expenses that are cutting into available funds for classrooms.
She put the latest average figure here at $903 per student versus the national average for 2017 at $1,383. There is no data for later years.
By contrast, she said, schools statewide in Arizona spend a larger percentage of the cash they get on plant operations, including utilities, equipment repair and security, than schools elsewhere in the country.
The share of dollars spent on food services also is higher than the national average, as are transportation costs.
Perry also found Arizona schools spend a higher percentage than their national counterparts on student support – a category that includes counselors, audiologists, nurses, social workers and speech pathologists.
But this isn’t just a percentage issue. Student support was the lone area where Arizona schools, on average, spend more in actual dollars than the national average.
Perry said that some of this may be a direct relation to needs in certain districts.
“For example, increases in a district’s poverty rate or the percentage of students with special needs could increase student support costs because many of these services are directed toward these student populations,” she said.
The report said that in 2018-19, 15 percent of MPS’s 59,613 students had special needs, 6 percent were English learners, 18 percent were from households below the poverty line and 56 percent qualified for free and reduced-price meals because of household income below or barely above the poverty rate.
Mesa’s graduation rate was 79 percent – which city and school officials are trying to address in a broad new initiative announced last year.
Paul Maryniak is executive editor of the Mesa Tribune. Howard Fischer heads Capitol Media Services.