Website Spotlight: Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending

John Mooney | May 23, 2011 | Education
The education department puts new math to work determining district per-student costs

What it is: The state Department of Education (DOE) has issued a new breakdown of school expenditures, changing the way it reports education spending to the public by factoring virtually all school costs into its per-pupil numbers.

What it means: The new method significantly boosts per-pupil totals. The average cost in this year’s guide is $17,836 for 2009-2010, compared to just under $13,600 in last year’s Comparative Spending Guide.

What’s the difference: The new numbers include items like pensions, transportation, legal judgments, out-of-district tuitions and debt service (among others) that were left out of earlier guides because they were often unique to a district and made valid comparisons problematic.

The politics in the math: Gov. Chris Christie’s administration announced the release on Friday, nearly a month later than usual, and on the eve of a new Abbott v. Burke school equity ruling. In the press release, the department specifically cited the high spending in the 31 high-poverty Abbott districts.

What the press release didn’t say: While the Abbott districts do come in above state averages — not surprising given the additional costs of serving at-risk kids — the big spenders come from a wide range of districts. At the very top are special-service districts for children with disabilities; the seven highest spending all come in at $43,000 or more. Rounding out the Top 20 is a mixture of vocational districts, elementary districts and regional high schools, as well as one former Abbott district, Asbury Park. All told, 86 districts spend more than $20,896 per student, the Abbott average that Christie decries. The very highest-spending traditional district is tiny Avalon, at $40,152, followed by Long Beach Island at $28,819.

For the lawyers: The new guide has a few new features that let users dig deeper into specific costs. One is a breakout of legal expenses in every district — an eye-opener that should get citizens asking questions. For instance, while the state averages $38 per pupil, 30 districts spend three times that. Again, the biggest spenders are special-service districts, as might be expected. But after that comes Sea Isles, Atlantic City, Port Republic, Lawnside and Englewood Cliffs.

For the insurers: Another new feature is a breakdown of fringe benefits for employees, a hot topic since Christie tried to tame these costs as part of his so-called toolkit. It includes everything from health insurance to tuition subsidies. (Pension contributions are not included, since they are borne by the state.) The average is 31 percent of payroll statewide, but more than two-dozen districts spent more than 40 percent of their overall salaries on benefits. Trenton was tops among traditional districts at 48 percent. Far smaller Maurice River and Washington Township in Warren County.

Less is more for charters: Charter spending as a whole looks pretty good under the new math, something Christie has long maintained about the alternative schools that now may be the most contentious piece of his education reform plan. On average, 63 charters last year spent $14,968, well below the statewide average. Still, there were a couple of high flyers: six charter schools spent more than $18,00 and one topped $22,000 — Camden’s Promise.