Focus on Students Keeps Utah School Spending Low

Published September 28, 2012

Utah is home to seven of the 10 lowest-spending school districts in the country, according to a recent study by efficiency research nonprofit Govistics. Those seven districts spend less than $8,000 per student per year, compared with the $29,409 annual per-pupil spending in Washington DC, which was ranked the highest-spending district.

State and school district representatives cited low administrative costs, strong families, and a classroom focus as central contributors to Utah’s financial and academic successes.

Demographic Benefits
Utah’s demographics put the state in a unique situation: 20 percent of Utahns are public school students, said Mark Peterson, a spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education. Per capita or per taxable household, Utah has lots of kids.

As a consequence, the state has the largest pupil-teacher ratio in the country at 23 students per teacher.

“We do tend to have higher class sizes, but we have very dedicated teachers and we have strong parental support, so we tend to get a lot more volunteers assisting in our classrooms,” said Ben Horsley, spokesman for Granite School District.

The state’s average teacher salary is relatively low. Peterson attributes this partly to lower-than-average salaries across the state and partly to the number of women teachers who leave the field within five years to raise families. The average salary in Utah is $40,950, compared to the U.S. average at $45,230.

Nebo School District hired 270 teachers this year, said Lana Hiskey, its public relations director. Some were new positions, she said, but much was turnover. Starting salary in the district is $31,512.

Core Curriculum Focus
Washington County School District, one of the seven, aims for a tight core curriculum, said business administrator Brent Bills.

“Where we do put our money, it’s directed in the classroom—it’s toward literacy, math, and science,” he said.

The district has few electives such as art and music in elementary schools, he said. Some schools offer a choir program during “zero hour” before school. The director receives a small stipend instead of a teacher’s salary.

A team of 14 oversees finances for Washington schools, where just over 27,000 students are enrolled.

“We really do keep our overhead as low as we possibly can. If a body’s not required, then we don’t have that body… to make sure we’re spending the money inside the classroom,” Bills said.

Over the past three years, Granite schools managed $58 million in cuts.

“We focused the cuts to make sure they impacted the classrooms least of all,” Horsley said.

Low Admin Costs
Less than half a percent of Granite schools’ budget goes toward administration, which he said was “probably similar” to other Utah districts.

“First priority is always student learning,” said Tim Leffel, finance director for Davis School District. “If we see a need or a shortfall in the achievement gap, we’ll focus our resources there.”

Second priority, he said, is caring for employees, including joining teachers in contributing to their retirement plans.

Giving kids good instruction the first time is a priority in Washington, Bills said. Teachers give frequent tests to assess student knowledge and try to patch holes early. This minimizes costly intervention. 

“We have to concentrate more on catching them the first time around, then being very careful about how we spend our dollars in those areas to make sure the [remediation efforts] we’re offering are very effective,” he said.

Bringing students back up to speed is a “very expensive way of teaching,” he said.

Strong Families, Smart Buildings
Strong families are key in helping students succeed, Bills and Horsley both said. Davis’s parent volunteers save schools money, Leffel noted.

“Usually, both parents are educated, at least up through bachelor’s degree, in our area,” Hiskey said. “Students are living in homes where they deem education as important.”

That focus extends beyond the family, she said. Four large universities and several community colleges reside within an hour and a half of the district.

While Nebo is large, with about 30,000 students this year and adding an average of 700 each year, each of its seven major communities is a small town.

“Honestly, the recreation and activities and things that families do are based around our schools. Almost all of my nights are taken up with school activities, and not because of my job, necessarily. It’s because of my own children,” she said.

Even the school buildings help conserve costs in Washington, Bills said. The ground-source heating and cooling system pumps fluid 200 feet into the ground and back up, using the earth’s year-round stable temperature at that level to heat and cool the building, instead of costly electricity.

“We’ve been able to dramatically reduce our heating and cooling costs,” Bills said.

Nation’s ‘Most Efficient’
Lower costs have not reduced Utah’s education quality. Utah ACT scores, which indicate college readiness, have held within a few points of the national average over the past five years.

On Advanced Placement exams, 20.7 percent of Utah students, compared with 18.1 percent of students nationwide, scored a 3 or higher.

“Utah is one of the most efficient school systems in the country, if not the most efficient,” Peterson wrote. “This we attribute to the hard work of dedicated classroom teachers, their assistants, and administrators.”


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