PHOENIX - The share of tax dollars that actually wind up in Arizona classrooms declined again last year, to the lowest level in the 11 years the state has been monitoring.
New figures Thursday from the Auditor General's Office found less than 55 cents of every dollar schools received went to "classroom spending."
That includes salaries and benefits for teachers, aides and coaches. It also covers supplies such as pencils and paper, athletics and activities like band or choir.
But that 54.7 percent figure tells only part of the story.
Total per-pupil spending fell for the second straight year in 2011, to $7,485. That means $4,094 went into the classroom.
In 2009, total spending was $7,908. The 56.9 percent going to classroom spending equaled $4,500.
For most students in Tucson, the amount spent in the classroom was even more depressed.
Just 50.4 cents of every dollar of school spending went to instruction in the Tucson Unified School District in 2011. TUSD ranked lowest among 10 districts across Arizona that are said to be similar in terms of size.
TUSD's peer districts, which include Mesa Unified School District, spent an average of 57.3 cents of every dollar on instruction, putting them above the state average.
Other local school districts that were below their peer districts and state averages in classroom spending include Catalina Foothills (53.1 percent), Flowing Wells (53.2) and Sunnyside (51.5).
Tucson-area school districts that spent more than the state average in the classroom are Amphitheater (56.3 percent), Marana (56.), Sahuarita (57.7), Tanque Verde (57.5), and Vail (57.6).
TUSD's Chief Financial Officer Yousef Awwad was not surprised by the report findings, considering declining enrollment and continuous state reductions in funding.
Though the number of TUSD students is dropping, the report found that the district's administrative costs are considered to be "very high." Administration includes principals, assistant principals and office managers.
"Even when you have declining enrollment, those administrative costs remain intact because the schools still need a principal, an assistant principal and the office manager," Awwad said.
If administrative costs are to be reduced, it will have to be done by increasing enrollment - which Awwad said is not likely in the near future - or by decreasing the number of schools in the district.
"It is really important that we reduce the number of sites if we are to increase our instructional dollars in the classroom," Awwad said. "We have to make a decision about how many school sites we really need to serve the community efficiently, effectively and focus our resources where they need to go."
Awwad pointed out that while Mesa Unified serves about 10,000 more students than TUSD, it has about 20 fewer school sites, allowing it to spend more on instruction.
Auditor General Debra Davenport said the culprit is not administrative costs, which include superintendents, principals, business managers, clerical staffing and human resources. Those costs rose slightly, to 9.7 percent, but are still below the national average of 10 percent.
Davenport said other factors are at work in keeping classroom spending below the 61 percent national average.
One, she said, is classroom size. "Compared to the most recent national average, Arizona has a larger student-to-teacher ratio," Davenport said. Using 2009 figures - the most recent available on a national level - the national average was 15.3 students per teacher; it was 17.1 in Arizona.
And by last year, she said, Arizona class size grew to 18.1 students per teacher.
Arizona school districts also spent more on plant operations than the national average, Davenport said, mostly for energy.
And Davenport said Arizona districts spend more on student support than the national average. That includes counselors, audiologists, speech pathologists, nurses, social workers and attendance services.
"The higher spending may be related to the states' higher poverty rate" than the national average, she said. "Students living in poverty are more likely to use such support services."
Davenport said money is not everything when it comes to student achievement, but it does matter.
There is a "statistically significant relationship" between the percentage school districts spend in the classroom and achievement, as shown by Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, the AIMS tests.
Davenport cautioned, though, this correlation could reflect something else: Districts with leaders who are efficient in controlling their non-classroom operating costs may also be efficient in promoting effective instruction.
Andrew LeFevre, press aide to schools superintendent John Huppenthal, said his boss believes classroom spending comparisons between Arizona and other states are not valid. LeFevre said Arizona has "special challenges," including a large number of students with special needs as well as extremes of heat and cold that result in high utility bills.
LeFevre acknowledged that, even just considering Arizona-only numbers, the trend in classroom spending has been negative. But he said Huppenthal believes that is linked to the economy.
"We've been in tough economic times," LeFevre said. "Arizona has been hit harder than other states."
How districts spent their money
Service 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007
Classroom instruction 54.7% 55.9% 56.9% 57.3% 57.9%
Plant operation, maintenance 12.4% 12.0% 11.6% 11.3% 11.3%
Administration 9.7% 9.5% 9.2% 9.2% 9.5%
Student support 7.7% 7.6% 7.5% 7.4% 7.3%
Instruction support 5.8% 5.7% 5.5% 5.4% 4.8%
Food service 5.0% 4.8% 4.8% 4.8% 4.7%
Transportation 4.7% 4.5% 4.3% 4.4% 4.3%
Other 0.0% 0.0% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2%
Source: Auditor General's Office