Cantrell: Reveal True School Costs

Give Taxpayers Accurate, Complete Accounting of Budget

Jerry Cantrell | Asbury Park Press
11/29/11

 Every year, New Jerseyans get to vote directly on one and only one spending plan — their local school budget. Research developed by the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey details how voters are confused, promised too much and outright misled before they walk into the voting booth.

Years of legislative and gubernatorial decisions as to how best compare the spending of school districts have been overly generous in their attempts to be fair to the districts, and as a result have lessened the level of honesty with the taxpayers footing the bill. A solution is relatively easy and cheap, if our elected leaders have the political will.

Prior to school budget votes, districts are required to publish a user-friendly budget. The statistical sleight of hand comes in the form of “per-pupil expenditure,” which is the amount a district claims it will spend to educate the “average” student.

The trouble is that the user-friendly budget does not include all spending items, only those spent by virtually every district. For example, because all districts do not have transportation expenses, no districts must include those costs in their per-pupil cost line item that is advertised to the public. It may not be fair to compare a district without busing to one with busing when looking at per-pupil costs, but how does that make it right to hide those costs from taxpayers before they vote on a school budget?

Gov. Chris Christie and the state Department of Education improved the situation earlier this year with the introduction of the Taxpayers’ Guide to Educational Spending, which includes more spending categories. Districts spend an average of $3,500 more per student according to the taxpayers’ guide than the user-friendly budget, and large differences exist in districts of different size, socioeconomic status and location, which should alert taxpayers as to the widespread nature of the problem.

However, even this improved measure is not all-encompassing. For example, the taxpayers guide reports that Asbury Park spent $29,819 per student in 2010, compared with the $26,782 proclaimed by the revised user-friendly budget, but the 2010 audit of Asbury Park revealed spending to be more than $39,000 per student. This is not just a problem in our urban districts, as evidenced by the fact Sea Isle City spent $40,000 per student in 2010, according to its audit. That is more than $14,000 greater than the taxpayers’ guide and $7,400 more per student than in the district’s revised user-friendly budget.

 

Taxpayers cannot be blamed for not being able to give an accurate answer when asked how much their school system spends to educate a child. And the school districts do not deserve all the blame; they are merely abiding by the laws and regulations put forth by the Legislature and Department of Education. However, districts should be held responsible when they fail to meet per-pupil projections, which is a near certainty in the upcoming year.

In 2010, just 146 school districts (27 percent of those studied) identified an actual per-pupil cost reduction. However, 451 districts (82 percent) told the public they expect to reduce per-pupil costs this coming year. Contracts protecting teachers’ jobs and declining enrollment in districts make this highly unlikely, but taxpayers will have long forgotten the promise by the time the actual numbers come in next spring and they’re asked to vote on yet another misleading budget.

Taxpayers deserve better. As a former school board president, I know firsthand how boards can be influenced by politics, which is part of the reason New Jerseyans need greater transparency from their local school boards. We should mandate statements from independent auditors that next year’s spending projections are reasonable, include all expenses in a school district’s per-pupil expenditure figure and develop a certified productivity measure that integrates outcomes data and is included on all education reports and in your local property tax bill. All of this information should be online and easily searched.

All of this is affordable and necessary to ensure local governments are functioning properly. It is simply a matter of reorienting Trenton’s policy to hold transparency to the taxpayer as the highest maxim, and plain common sense.

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