Chapter 5: Non-class costs weigh heavy on schools
It's a common refrain among education critics: More money needs to stay in the classroom and less spent outside.
And they have the numbers to point to.
Over a decade, most of the 94 districts in the Daily Herald coverage area consistently spent more money outside the classroom than they did on instruction.
From the 1996-97 school year through 2005-06, the imbalance was worse in some districts than others:
• 82 area districts spent more than half their revenue outside their classrooms.
• 20 districts spent more than two-thirds of their total revenues outside the class.
• Two districts spent all of their revenue outside the classroom.
Actually, Huntley Unit District 158 and Big Hollow Elementary District 38 both spent more on busing and building, heating and cooling, lawyers, a laundry list of support staff and other costs than they collected from local, state and federal sources.
Then they had to worry about paying teachers and buying textbooks.
Technically, the districts borrowed money to build and covered their instruction costs with annual revenue, but the effect is the same -- the schools spent more outside classrooms than inside.
The twist is that the money they borrowed is not counted as revenue by the state. If it were, the percentage of what they spent outside the classroom would not seem so dramatic.
But even if bond proceeds were counted as revenue, Huntley and Big Hollow still would have spent less on teaching than they did outside the classroom.
The state as a whole in 2005-06 did the same.
Illinois' 873 districts collectively spent 49.1 percent of all revenue in the classroom, and 53.7 percent outside.
That adds up to more than 100 percent mostly because sometimes the districts spent more money than they took in. Again, bond funds were not counted as revenue.
Still, education officials say a flat comparison of instructional versus non-instructional spending doesn't always factually determine whether a district needs to change how much it devotes to its classrooms.
There's a wide range of needs -- from transportation to building schools -- that make instruction possible, and they vary from district to district and year to year.
Let's look at those needs and where school districts spend their money.
The big four
The state divides school expenditures into four large categories: instruction, support services, general administration and other.
Last week, we tackled instruction. This week, we focus on the other three areas.
General administration may be the most popular target for critics who say districts should spend more on their students.
This category includes salaries and benefits for top administrators, including superintendents, associate superintendents, principals and assistant principals.
Support services, just as it sounds, includes all of the specialized staff that handles student and school needs outside the classroom -- guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists and financial officials, to name just a few.
This category also includes transportation -- the cost of buying or leasing buses, bus driver salaries, fuel and fleet maintenance.
Lastly, there's the vaguely named "other" category. The biggest chunk of these dollars goes toward capital expenses -- buying land and building new schools.
In 2005-066, Big Hollow District 38 spent more than twice as much as it took in.
The Lake County elementary district had collected $11.9 million from local, state and federal sources.
Big Hollow then paid out $27 million. Why? Not because of instruction costs. The district spent less on instruction per student than any other area district.
Which means the root of its spending imbalance had to be non-instructional.
Of the three categories that go into this pot, District 38 actually spent below average on administration and support services.
Where it made up the difference, and where it ranked first among all suburban districts, was its spending in the "other" category. The district spent 166 percent of its revenue in this category alone.
This is a dramatic increase from the previous nine years, when Big Hollow spent only a third of its revenue, on average, in the "other" category.
During the same time, however, District 38 was one of only three suburban districts that more than doubled its student population, from fewer than 500 students in the first year to more than 1,000 students in 2005-06.
To accommodate this triple-digit growth, Big Hollow built a new elementary school and middle school in 2006, using money from a bond issue voters approved the previous year.
District 38 spent more than $16 million on construction in 2005-06 -- $4 million more than the total it brought in.
If the construction costs weren't counted, as the bond proceeds aren't counted, Big Hollow's numbers wouldn't seem so out of kilter.
Remove the $16 million tab paid by bond funds, and Big Hollow winds up with a surplus. And instead of reporting that it spent 194 percent of its revenue on non-instructional costs, they would have reported spending 58 percent outside the classroom.
The percentage of revenue suburban districts spent on general administration also varied widely during the 10-year period.
At the top of the list was Rondout School District 72, which spent 8.3 percent of its revenue on administration from 1996-07 to 2005-06, a higher percentage than any other district in the suburbs.
Rondout also was the smallest district in the suburbs, with only 123 students in 2005-06.
What's the connection?
Small districts like Rondout have to spread out their administrative expenses over a small student population.
In 1996-97, District 72 spent $263,508 on administration, less than all but 17 other districts.
But with only 88 students that year, administration gobbled up nearly 14 percent of the district's revenue.
While Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 spent a comparable dollar amount on administrators, this represented only 2 percent of its revenue in 1996-97.
But Prospect Heights had more than 1,500 students that year -- and nearly seven times Rondout's revenue.
Even though small districts have fewer students, they may not have a correspondingly smaller group of administrators.
Prospect Heights has 11 administrators. Rondout has two. So it isn't that Rondout pays its administrators more or has too many top-level officials.
It's just that Rondout has fewer students, so even with only four administrators, their salaries and benefits make up a much larger slice of the district's revenue.
Each year, districts pay thousands of vendors and contractors for everything ranging from school pictures to pizza.
The number of vendors who were paid at least $2,500 in 2005-06 by any suburban district ranged from 54 in Grass Lake Elementary District 36, one of the smallest districts, to almost 650 in Indian Prairie School District 204, one of the largest.
Among the highest payments went to First Student, formerly Laidlaw, a company that transports students and leases buses. First Student received more than $31.4 million from suburban school districts in 2005-06.
Suburban taxi companies, which transport special education students, took more than $5 million to the bank in 2005-06.
Even the Daily Herald got in on the action. All districts are required to publish certain legal notices in the local paper. Payments to Paddock Publications, the Daily Herald's publisher, totaled at least $122,575 in 2005-06.
Most districts publish a list of vendors and payments made each month, and annually report a summary to the state.
Among the biggest payments reported are those made to health insurance companies and pension funds -- only part of any district's most substantial costs.
Next week: Teacher and administrator pay.