School districts vary widely in many ways, including graduation rates, enrollment, and the wealthy of the local tax base. But they also vary in another important way: How much money they spend per pupil on various functions.
The Legislative Division of Post Audit recently completed a report on 121 school districts in the state. It looks only at non-instructional expenses: district-level administration, school-level administration, instructional support services, operations and maintenance and food and transportation services.
Among the findings:
- “Although spending per student primarily was driven by enrollment, we saw significant differences among similar-sized districts.”
- School district administrators complained about being audited(!) The squeaky wheel gets the grease? Indeed. As a result of the complaints, the LPA “changed the audit question and limited our work.”
- “We didn’t fully address the reliability of the school district data,” which obviously leaves open some questions.
- Districts with more school buildings tend to spend more on operations and maintenance per pupil. [On the other hand, other research shows that smaller schools tend to do better academically than bigger ones.]
The report put the students into five peer groups depending on the following factors:
A. How many students are enrolled, and are they in a rural or suburban?
B. Is there a lot of poverty in the population? Many bilingual students?
C. Are property values low, moderate, or high?
The largest district (USD 232 DeSoto) included had only 5,527 students. You might defend that decision, since once you get above that level the sample size gets rather small. Still, the bulk of the money is spent on larger districts, meaning that any attempt to look at efficiency cannot avoid them.