Between fiscal years 2001 and 2009, Arizona’s total operational spending per pupil increased 47 percent before decreasing 5 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2013. Despite this overall increase, Arizona’s per pupil spending continued to trail the national average by about $3,000. Arizona districts also allocated resources differently than the national averages, spending lower percentages of available operating dollars on instruction and administration, and higher percentages on all other nonclassroom areas, particularly plant operations and student support services.
Arizona’s state-wide classroom dollar percentage in fiscal year 2013 was 53.8 percent, the lowest point since we began monitoring it in fiscal year 2001. Each year since fiscal year 2004, districts have decreased the percentage of their resources they allocated to the classroom. At the same time, the percentages allocated to administration, plant operations, food service, transportation, student support, and instruction support have all increased. The importance of the declining classroom dollar percentage varies by district depending on the cause of the decline.
Although factors outside a district’s control—such as district size, type, and location—can affect its efficiency, some districts operate efficiently and have lower costs despite these factors, while others do not. As a result, there are wide ranges of costs within peer groups of similar districts. Performance audits of school districts have identified practices used by efficient districts, such as minimizing staffing levels, conserving energy, and effectively managing vendor contracts. Audits have also identified practices that make other districts less efficient, such as having costly benefits packages, operating schools far below designed capacity, and paying employees for time not spent working.
In a financial stress assessment for Arizona school districts, 69 percent of the districts assessed were found to have an overall low financial stress level based on six district-level measures. However, the other 31 percent of districts were found to have overall moderate or high levels of financial stress based on those measures. District decision-makers can use the details of this assessment in conjunction with other information, such as operating efficiency, to determine possible actions to reduce financial stress.