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Sun, Feb. 23

Classroom dollars sinking, students rising
Money spent in classrooms lowest level in 11 years

COTTONWOOD - The number of dollars going into Arizona classrooms has dropped while the student-to-teacher ratio has climbed.

The Arizona Auditor General's Office has released an analysis of how tax dollars are spent by school districts in the state. The Auditor General's Office has been tracking how the money is spent for 11 years. In 2011, less than 55 cents of every dollar schools received actually went into classrooms.

In Arizona, 54.7 percent of spending went into classrooms in 2011. The national average for classroom spending during the same period was 61 percent.

Locally, Clarkdale-Jerome Elementary maintained the highest percentage of dollars going into the classroom at 57 percent. Mingus Union High School was able to put 55 percent of its dollars into the classroom. And Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District managed to put only 47.8 percent of its funds into the classroom.

These figures, however, do not tell the entire dollars-in-the-classroom story.

This week, the Arizona School Boards Association released its own analysis of the Auditor General's report. For 2009, the most recent national data, Arizona's per-pupil spending of $7,908 was nearly $2,700 less than the national average. Funding for Arizona schools decreased 5 percent from 2009 to 2011.

The ASBA analysis points out that state funding has been dropping while fixed costs - such as transportation, food service, plant operation and utilities - have remained fixed or have been going up. The result is that fewer dollars are available for the classroom.

The analysis also noted that fewer dollars in the classroom means fewer teachers, causing the student-to-teacher ratio to rise.

In 2009, Arizona's student-to-teacher ratio was 17.1, compared to the national average of 15.3. In fiscal year 2011, the Arizona student-to-teacher ratio climbed to 18.1.

According to the ASBA's analysis, poverty in Arizona takes it tolls on how districts spend their available dollars.

"Among Arizona's greatest challenges is the fact that a higher percentage of Arizona's students live at or below the poverty level," the report states.

That means districts are required to devote a larger percentage of dollars to student support, such as counselors, speech pathologists, nurses and social workers. Those categories all fall outside of the Auditor General's classroom spending category.

Kathleen Fleenor, superintendent of Clarkdale-Jerome School, said that for her school budget cuts have mainly affected classroom dollars in the areas of textbooks and technology.

"We have maintained our budget for classroom supplies such as paper, pencils, classroom newspapers, necessary workbooks, hands-on materials and supplies for special projects," she said.

Fleenor points out that the cost of the above items has gone up during the past few years.

"Budget cuts have created a freeze in everyone's salaries in the district for the past three years in order to have the necessary supplies for classrooms and for all the other costs related to schools," Fleenor said.

Kirk Waddle, business manager at MUHS, said, "Funding has been cut drastically the last five years and it is no wonder the percent spent in the classroom dropped."

"Soft capital, which funds classroom supplies, was eliminated three years ago," Waddle said. He explained that when the loss of soft capital is added to the drop in Proposition 301 money, the total exceeds $500,000 at Mingus. "We still have to pay utilities, transportation and custodial," he said.

Waddle said the state had all districts running deficits due to short funding of Prop. 301.

"Operation costs do not drop," Waddle said. "Students First legislation from the late 1990s guaranteed a 2 percent inflator each year. The state eliminated that four or five years ago. Because the school's budget is based on student count, we've all had to cut spending."

David Snyder, business services director for Cottonwood-Oak Creek District, said the reduction in funding has affected the percentages for the district.

"In fiscal year 2010-2011, the district received $1.65 million less in grant funding than fiscal year 2009-2010," Snyder said.

He explained that the district uses almost 100 percent of grant funding in the classroom for teacher and teacher aide salaries and benefits.

"We also saw reductions in classroom site funding and soft capital of over $500,000," Snyder said. "Both of those funds are used exclusively in the classroom. The classroom site funds go to teacher compensation. The soft capital funds are used for classroom supplies, instructional materials, computers and classroom furniture and equipment."

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