Audit: More money needs to reach Washington classrooms

Moving 1% of spending could pay for 1,000 teachers

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SEATTLE — Washington state school districts could do a better job getting more of the $12 billion spent each year on education into classrooms, where it will make the most difference, a new state audit said.

The performance audit released Wednesday included detailed comparisons among school districts of similar size, as well as suggestions about how some are spending more money in the classroom than others.

The audit noted that moving just one percent of school spending from administrative offices to the classroom would be enough to pay for more than 1,000 teachers statewide.

Among the cost-saving suggestions were: Buy fuel for school buses in bulk, use more USDA surplus food in the lunchroom, and look at having some services provided by the private sector.

It also suggests cutting staffing dollars by making such changes as hiring licensed practical nurses instead of

registered nurses for school infirmaries, sharing costs with neighboring districts, and contracting with the state or education service districts for some things.

Although many of the cost differences among districts involve choices, some are out of their control, such as how many special education students they serve.

The state auditor decided to do this performance review because taking a closer look at education spending has been repeatedly identified by citizens and lawmakers as a high priority, said department spokeswoman Mindy Chambers. About 43 percent of the state budget is spent on K-12 education.

Auditor Brian Sonntag wanted the report to be practical for school districts and informative for lawmakers, while not trying to offer a one-size-fits-all approach, Chambers said.

The audit dings state school officials for overstating how much money is spent on classroom instruction by adding in a second number called teaching support.

The approach implies Washington spends 70 percent of school dollars in the classroom, which would be more than any other state in the nation. The federal government paints a different picture.

Washington and 11 other states spent about 60 percent of school dollars in classrooms, according to a 2009 comparison by the National Center for Education Statistics. Another 18 states spent more and 20 spent less. Washington's numbers have improved slightly since then, but no more recent national comparisons are available.

The rest of the money goes to transportation, food, nursing, counseling, outside help for special education students, administration and a variety of central district office functions.

The audit recommends the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction improve its transparency by taking the federal approach and using just the dollars that pay for teaching when it reports expenditures for classroom instruction.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn responded to that section of the audit by saying the office was already doing this on some reports and would look into the possibility of changing others.

The audit also urged the office to maintain the database the auditor's office created for the purpose of the study, saying it would help districts save more money if they could continue to see their operations compared to their peers.

Dorn said he would discuss the idea with his department's data management committee and see if they think it would be worthwhile to find the money to keep track of this information in the future.

School reform advocate Liv Finne commended the auditor's report for its wealth of information and practical advice for school districts.

Digging a little deeper and reading between the pages can reveal a lot about the choices individual school districts are making, said Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center.

For example, she found it particularly interesting that Seattle Public Schools spends 59.7 percent on teaching, while many neighboring districts push a much higher percentage of their money toward the classroom.