There is considerable talk of our dire budget situation and a March 23rd override going around across town. But as a parent with three kids in the elementary schools and a member of the School Committee, I believe my responsibility is to make sure the schools are using whatever money we have in the wisest way possible (whether we have lots of money or not so much money in a given year). As my blog readers know, I find looking at comparisons to other districts very useful in thinking about how we do education (e.g., what courses we offer/require in a given discipline). I also think such comparisons are very useful in thinking about finances.
So, I examined, using public records (http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/statistics/) comparisons between the Amherst Regional Schools and Northampton. Note that Amherst is very similar to Northampton in multiple ways -- they serve just about the same number of kids (2,800 compared to our 3,086) in the same number of schools (6), and the populations are quite similar (except they have a higher percentage of low income kids -- we have 17.3 and they have 26.4 -- and a higher percentage of special ed kids -- we have 18.6 and they have 21.8). Yet they spend almost $1,000 less than the state average per pupil ($11,613.94 compared to the state average of 12,448.78) and we (Regional Schools) spend $3,500 more than the state average ($16,131.11). So, you have to ask do kids in Amherst get a better education for this considerable extra money?
And I don't think so. In the Northampton middle and high schools, class sizes are the same as ours, except they have no mandatory study halls throughout high school (our kids have 2 right now per year, meaning 8 over the course of high school, and may well have 3 next year, meaning 12 over the course of high school). They also have more AP course offerings than we have (AP chemistry and AP statistics). So, I don't see how we are spending so much more, and our kids are getting so much less.
That led me to look at the detailed charts to see where we are high versus Northampton. Here are all the areas in which you can see a real difference (again, you can go to that link I posted above to see the numbers for yourself):
1. We spend more on administration than Northampton (and both spend more than the state average) -- this is particularly true for Human Resources (114.15 in Amherst-Pelham, 31.74 in Northampton, 32.69 state average), and IT (218.19 in Amherst-Pelham, 146.43 in Northampton, 65.40 state).
2. We spend more on instructional leadership (1,237.41 versus 738.57 in Northampton, state average is 800.14) -- that includes more on curriculum directors, and school-building leadership (e.g., principals). Northampton is at the state average on principals -- we are much higher (now, this number may be slightly off since this is only our middle and high school principals, who get paid better than elementary school principals, and the Northampton and state numbers include elementary school principals - so those means will be lower because of that).
3. We spend about the state average on classroom teachers, which includes actual classroom teachers as well as any teaching in a group setting (e.g., art, music, PE, etc.). But we spend way more on specialist teachers -- this is teachers who provide individual specialized attention to one or more students (academic support, intervention, special ed, reading recovery, ELL, etc.). I don't see why Northampton spends $214.50 on these services (with more special ed and low income kids than we have) and the state average is 472.34 and we spend $1,140.47.
4. We spend more than the state average on "other teaching services" but so does Northampton (these are substitutes, medical/therapeutic services, librarians, paraprofessionals).
5. We spend more on professional development than the state average -- Northampton spends less.
6. We spend more on instructional materials than the state average. Northampton spends less.
7. We spend more on guidance, counseling and testing. Northampton spends just about the state average. So, we spend $448.22 on guidance and adjustment counselors -- Northampton spends 275.06. The state average is 232.84.
8. We spend more on pupil services (e.g., athletics, transportation) than the state average -- Northampton spends less.
9. We spend more than the state average AND more than Northampton on operations and maintenance.
10. We spend way more on insurance and retirement programs than the state average -- Northampton spends less. So, we spend $3,112.46 on retirement programs and insurance for employees -- Northampton spends $1,905.06 and the state average is 2,069.27.
11. We spend MORE than Northampton and MORE than the state average on payments to out of district schools. We pay 23,809.73 in this category -- Northampton spends 15,438.42 and the state average is 20.497.51.
So, what do I conclude? We spend a lot more money than the state average (which includes many expensive Boston areas in which salaries would have to be higher) in virtually all categories, and we spend way more money in per pupil expenses than all other area districts. It is not clear to me that this money is being well spent. If we are spending so much more than other districts, why do our kids spend more time in study halls and have fewer course offerings than kids in other schools? And although I certainly believe that we need to spend extra resources on kids who need services (intervention, ELL, special ed), I don't see why it costs us more to provide these services than it costs in other districts, nor do I see any evidence that we provide better services than those in other districts.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.