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VA: ‘Instructional’ spending shortchanged in school districts

By   /   September 27, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

FREDERICKSBURG — Barely six dollars in 10 trickles down to classrooms in Virginia’s public schools, according to a new state report card. And that grade may be overly generous.

Teachers and books are part of instructional spending, but that’s not all.

Of more than $12 billion spent on K-12 education in fiscal 2011, only $7.7 billion was earmarked for “instruction,” the Department of Education found.

But the statewide average of 64.8 percent for instructional spending doesn’t hold true in every district. Some school divisions fell far short of that figure by paying out far larger shares for non-instructional overhead, ranging from six-figure administrative salaries to bus service.

Five districts — Brunswick, Charles City, Grayson, King and Queen and Northampton — each allocated less than 55 percent of their budgets for instruction, according to a state document obtained by Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.

Janet Crawley, superintendent of the 1,000-pupil Charles City district, explained, “We’re a small division, so we don’t get the economies of scale.”

“It looks like we may spend less (on instruction), but in reality we are not spending less. We’re smaller and spread out geographically. We don’t have the benefit of larger student populations, which builds up the instructional component,” Crawley offered.

Still, the state’s definition of instructional spending — a new category on its annual report card of districts — is a liberal interpretation.

In addition to counting expenses for textbooks, as well as pay and benefits for classroom teachers and teacher aides, the “instructional” category rolls in salaries for principals (who can earn six-figure pay), assistant principals, librarians and guidance counselors.

By incorporating non-classroom positions, the state’s “instructional spending” surpasses that calculated by the U.S. Census. The Census report for fiscal 2011 showed the U.S. and Virginia average at 60.7 percent — four points below the state DOE figure.

Officials for Brunswick, Grayson, King and Queen and Northampton did not respond to inquiries from Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.

But Dave Papenfuse, interim finance director of Charles City schools, said the three-campus district suffers from “diseconomies of small scale.”

“We have a significant amount of overhead costs, regardless of size,” he said.

Papenfuse questioned the state’s decision to pull technological costs out of the instructional category.

“Since every classroom uses computers for instruction, I have a hard time understanding that,” he said.

In Northampton, there may be a correlation between instructional spending and student performance. DOE confirmed Monday that one of the district’s schools — Kiptopeke Elementary — has been on the state’s “warning list” for academic under-achievement and is under orders to “reconstitute” its campus management team.

Larger districts tended to dedicate a larger percentage of their outlays to instruction. Arlington (65 percent), Chesterfield (66.3) and the state’s biggest, Fairfax (66.5), all exceeded the state average.

But Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, questioned the DOE’s parameters and called for a harder look at administrative overhead. In an email to Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau, he stated:

“Until we can be sure of the effectiveness of the instructional programs implemented by school districts, and how many of those programs have been implemented by administrators who have an interest in future consulting work (with the companies they solicit the programs from) or other fringe benefits, we will never know the true administrative overhead.

“Assessing human resource numbers, payroll, etc., is just one variable in true administrative overhead. Most public school systems are in desperate need of an external program audit. The taxpayer’s money should be used efficiently, and focused on the real needs of the students and teachers, not to make administrators look progressive,” Greenburg concluded.

Contact Ward at [email protected] or (571) 319-9824


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.