By John LaPlante, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy.
Do some school districts spend your dollars more efficiently than others, and if so, how can the others catch up? An auditing office in Kansas state government started to look at these questions. But what it did not ask — and in some cases, was not allowed to ask — is just as interesting, if not troubling.
After being ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court to send more state aid to schools, the Legislature started ramping it up. It started with $145 million for the 2005-06 school year. It also created the 2010 Commission and directed it to work with the Legislative Division of Post Audit, to “monitor school district funding” and to “ensure that the Kansas system is efficient and effective.”
The Legislature suggested 11 topics that the Commission might review. For example, how accurate are the financial reports that districts submit to the state? Do district managers spend money efficiently? Since Kansas schools spend over $5 billion each year, these are reasonable questions.
A few weeks ago the office released a report describing the spending habits of five different types of districts. It lumped the state’s 296 districts into clusters with similar characteristics. One cluster, for example, consisted of small, rural districts with little poverty, few bilingual students, and moderate property values.
The audit team decided to look at seven different kinds of spending that are not directly related to classroom learning. These included administrators in the central office and in school offices. These are the people you think of when you say “school administrators.” It also looked at spending on instructional support (curriculum directors, training staff, and librarians), student support (counselors, social workers, and nurses), operations and maintenance (the physical plant), student transportation and food service.
For each cluster, the team calculated averages and determined patterns for the seven different types of spending. It found some interesting patterns. In some cases, the most efficient districts contracted out services. In other cases, they did the work in house. Larger districts were often, though not always, more efficient than smaller ones. (Districts can grow so large that they become monuments to inefficient bureaucracy, but the report did not look at the 15 or so largest districts in the state.) The report also suggested ways for districts to economize in each category of spending.
The report identified several outliers, or districts that spent disproportionately more than their peers. You might wonder whether these out-of-the-ordinary expenses were justified. Good question. But we can’t tell, for it’s here where the report begins to falls short.
Don’t blame the Legislative Division of Post Audit, whose people call things as they see them. Their work was limited by what the 2010 Commission allowed. The commission is an 11-person study group whose members include people appointed by legislative leaders, as well as the leaders of the legislative committees on education. All but one person is either employed by or retired from public schools or state government.
The audit team had designed the report to have two phases. The first involved everything I’ve mentioned above, which involved taking official reports and then crunching some numbers. The second phase required going out to districts to ask questions. In the words of the report, the team planned to analyze the outliers “to determine if there were ways they could reduce costs.”
But to quote the report, “Several members of the 2010 Commission indicated they had received complaints from school superintendents about having an efficiency audit conducted at a time when they were trying to address funding cuts from the State.”
The 2010 commissioners then directed the LPA to “suspend the second phase of the audit,” since “it wasn’t their intention to create stress among school districts.”
Do you think that would work with the IRS? “Sorry, but the thought of filing my return this year causes me stress, and I’m being furloughed for 14 days this year. Do you think we could … just forget about that 1040 business?”
I don’t think so.
It’s inexcusable that the 2010 Commission has stonewalled the people’s auditors. Taxpayers have increased K-12 funding by $1.3 billion over the last five years and they have a right to know if their money is being spent efficiently.
John R. LaPlante is an Education Policy Fellow with the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. He has a Masters of Art in Political Science from The Ohio State University, where he studied the politics of economic development, social movements, and international relations. Mr. LaPlante has worked in the field of public policy since 1998, assisting lawmakers across the country in promoting consumer-driven, cost-effective solutions to the public issues of the day, particularly in regards to education. His commentaries have been widely published online and in publications such as the The Wichita Eagle, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Detroit News, the Hutchinson News, and the Salina Journal.