Consultant looks to special ed and staffing for potential savings
By Dana Trumbull
A central piece of the Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board work session on Sept. 26, 2017, was a presentation by Bill Maas, Valley Schools Management Group board member and financial consultant. AJUSD Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson had requested Maas’ assistance in identifying areas of inefficiencies within the existing budget that could possibly allow monies to be shifted.
Maas, who previously served as the Chief Financial Officer for both the Peoria Unified School District and the Deer Valley Unified School District, compared AJUSD with five districts that are similar in size, grades served and socio-economic demographics. His study reviewed the 2015-16 annual budgets, Annual Financial Reports, the Average Daily Membership (student enrollment as calculated by the ADE), the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) Budget 25 reports and the ADE Annual Reports for Prescott, Sierra Vista, Humboldt, Payson and Coolidge Unified School Districts. Maas introduced his findings stating, “I think you’re going to find a couple of items here that are kind of glaring; different from what others are doing. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong – just different.”
Maas’ analysis showed that the district spent 84.34% of the 2015-16 budget on salaries and benefits. This is slightly higher than the average for the five comparable districts, amounting to a difference of approximately $350,000. The total includes classroom support staff such as counselors and teachers’ aides as well as classroom teachers.
“You are above the average in classroom dollars spent. That’s good!” commented Maas. “That is where your budget should be focused. But when we look at how those classroom dollars are allocated, a couple of things jump out.
“The average amount other comparable districts spend on special education is 16.73%, and your average is 22.25%. You’re spending about $1,215,000 more in SPED than other districts like you.” Maas explained, “The government doesn’t give schools enough money to cover what you need to spend. But when we had 10% of our population identified as special needs and we were spending 12% of the budget, I would always complain that, ‘Hey, you’re taking away from the regular classroom by identifying these students, and we’re spending 12% of the money for 10% of the kids. That’s not right.”
Maas recommended evaluating the special education placement process. “You have to have a principal or a teacher who is strong about saying, ‘This student needs help. In our evaluation, this is what he needs, and we’re going to make sure he gets it. But this other stuff beyond that, he doesn’t need, because there’s nothing wrong with him in those areas.’”
The second topic addressed as a “glaring” exception was staffing. “Every district runs different, and you need to staff as you need to staff, but it’s good to look at,” Maas stated. After applying a presumptive equal enrollment total to each of the five comparison districts, Maas calculated how many administrators, teachers and support staff districts would have if they maintained their current student to employee ratios. With this formula, Maas concluded that AJUSD employs 39 more people than comparable districts, with 30 of those employees being classified (non-teaching) staff.
AJUSD employs two less administrators than the average comparable district.
“You are above the state average in the amount of money you are spending in the classroom; however, you’re spending it the wrong way,” declared Maas. “The key is that, when you do your budget, you have to decide: do you want to have higher salaries or more people?
On reviewing your salary schedules, they’re about as low as any salary schedule I’ve seen. If I had to make a recommendation, I think increasing the salaries would be a top priority. You need to attract and retain qualified and top notch teachers. Right now, you’re spending about $1.6 million on those 39 additional people.”
Commenting via email after the work session, Superintendent Dr. Anderson clarified, “This is just one of several steps we are taking to examine our budgets. We also plan to create staffing standards for schools and departments based on data we collect from our neighboring districts and national standards. We are systematically looking at each department to determine if there are cost savings to be found.”