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County schools: Spending more, but results are less

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of August 9, 2012)

Is more spending on public schools needed to produce better educated kids?

It would not appear so, according to state statistics.

Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Education ranked all 67 school districts and Indian River County landed in 30th place.  But the top two school districts in the state spent less than Indian River County taxpayers on a per student basis.

Reports filed with the state for the 2010-11 school year (the most recent audited numbers available) show Indian River County spent $7,301 per student for instructional and administrative purposes, with the School Board seeking to raise more money via the so-called “critical needs” tax referendum it has placed on next week’s ballot.

But number one ranked St. Johns County – home to St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach, where the cost of living is virtually the same as Indian River County – spent $7,154 per student, or $147 less per pupil.  St. Johns County charges taxpayers $7.97 per $1,000 of taxable value to fund its needs. Indian River charged taxpayers $8.24 per $1,000 of taxable value in property taxes last school year.

Number two on the performance ranking list was Santa Rosa County, just east of Pensacola. Santa Rosa County, ironically, spends the least per student of all of Florida’s school districts, at $6,925 per student for the 2010-11 school year. Santa Rosa property owners paid a total of $7.91 per $1,000 in taxable value to support the schools during the same year.

The total school district expenditures per pupil are much higher than the numbers reported above – about $18,000 per student in Indian River County when capital projects, spending for food service, contributions for employee health premiums and other expenditures are counted in (see accompanying story at bottom of page). But those expenses, for various reasons, are not counted in the number all school districts report to the state.

Not all of the 29 school districts that had better performing schools than Indian River County achieved that while spending less per pupil than Indian River County.  Some, like Martin County, spent considerably more – but got the payback they were seeking, coming in third in the state’s rankings.

But the state data would seem to prove that raising and spending more per pupil on education is not the answer to – or required for – improving local school performance.

Rankings were based on FCAT scores, with districts being awarded points not only for having a high percentage of students scoring a 3 or above on a 1 to 5 scale, but also for making gains in math, reading,  writing and science.

Points were also tacked on to reward school districts showing gains in those subjects among the lowest 25th percentile of the students – the kids who could fall through the proverbial cracks in the system and wind up dropping out, or graduating high school without basic skills to get a job or go to college.

The St. John’s County school district received 594 points on the state’s ranking scale, with a perfect score being 600.  The top 15 districts earned 550 points or more. Indian River County’s score in 30th place was 529.

Dr. Fran Adams, Indian River County superintendent of schools, did not respond to requests for comment about whether or not she thought the number 30 ranking accurately reflects achievement in the Indian River County School District. She also did not respond to the question, “What do you intend to do to try to bring that ranking up next year?”

January 2012 was the first time Gov. Rick Scott published a ranked list of school districts. Previously students, parents and taxpayers would have only known that Indian River was an “A” school district. They would not have known that the county’s schools was the lowest-performing “A” school district, with the next one down on the list, Jackson County, earning+ 522 points and a grade of B.

Critics may deride the FCAT and the school and district grading system, but the FCAT only tests the basic fundamentals of the education students should be receiving. The FCAT does not test anything extraordinary or advanced.

Still, only 70 percent of Indian River County public school students scored a 3 on a 1 to 5 ascending scale – essentially a letter C grade – in reading; only 72 percent scored a 3 in math; and 54 percent scored a 3 in science. Indian River County did slightly better in writing, with 85 percent meeting the minimum writing standard.

And like it or not, the FCAT is not going anywhere.  In fact, it’s getting harder. This school year, Florida will begin to phase out the old Sunshine State Standards on which the FCAT is based and usher in a new curriculum, with ramped up assessment criteria.

The new standards will be implemented first in kindergarten and first grade, then worked into elementary school, middle school and finally into high school lesson plans. By the 2014-15 school year, all of Florida’s public schools will be teaching and testing to the Common Core curriculum which is being used in 25 states, including New York, Massachusetts and Illinois.

The Common Core Standards, as they are termed, will call on teachers to focus more on the basic core of knowledge, including classic literature which is an endangered species in most of today’s Florida classrooms.

This year, the writing exams were toughened, causing pandemonium when the scores came back and the bulk of the students had flunked the test. The state Board of Education called an emergency meeting and mollified the schools by lowering the standards to save schools the embarrassment of having their grades plummet.

Was it a surprise to most parents and local employers that students don’t know how to write? Out of the 978 students who received a diploma from one of the two county high schools, only 286 graduated with honors.

On the other end of the spectrum, historically, more than one-third of students graduating from Indian River County public high schools must enroll in remedial classes and earn a passing score on a very basic college entrance exam, called the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test, before they can begin taking classes for college credit. This test replaced the commonly known College Placement Test or CPT used up until the fall of 2011.

If that number sounds high, a look at this summer’s course offerings at the Vero Beach Mueller Campus of Indian River State College is enlightening.

Mixed in with the usual English, history and science classes on the summer schedule are three preparatory English courses, six preparatory mathematics courses and three preparatory reading courses.

The fall course offering at IRSC’s Mueller Campus is even more depressing: eight preparatory English classes, 17 preparatory mathematics classes and eight preparatory reading classes.

If pupils learn nothing else in their 13 years of K through 12 public school in Indian River County, expecting them to read well enough to take a freshman-level college course at IRSC would seem a very low bar to set.

The new Common Core Standards will test how ready students are, at their appropriate grade level, to someday either attend college or be a productive and successful member of the workforce.

Superintendent Adams, meanwhile, has released a document entitled “Superintendent’s High Impact Goals 2012-13,” available on the school district website, which begins to address the problems in graduation rates, test scores and reading proficiency.  It sets timelines of up to three years for benchmarks to be achieved, such as getting 90 percent of third graders to read at grade level.

Gene Waddell, chairman of the Indian River Charter High School Board of Directors, said lackluster academic performance in traditional public schools has been a major factor in the growth of the charter high school from 80 students 14 years ago to more than 700 who will start classes there later this month.

He said parents seek out the high standards and the accountability charter schools provide, and they’re not willing to wait for the school district to take two, three or four years to implement its next plan or its next new curriculum.

“Generally, the charter school population is genuinely concerned about their education,” Waddell said. “It’s a safe, drug-free environment and there are no other distractions such as sports, but we emphasize the visual and performing arts because we know firsthand that students who participate in music, drama, visual and performing arts do better in their studies.”

Waddell said “part of Fran’s plan needs to be to kick parents in the butt” so they work with teachers and administrators and not against them.

Increasing parental involvement shouldn’t cost millions of dollars, Waddell said, but it would be a game-changer in raising student achievement.

School spending: Where does rest of the budget go?

While the Indian River County School District spent $7,301 per pupil in the last year it reported numbers to the state, the total local school budget for the year was $305 million – or about $18,000 per student. So what gives?

In comparing spending across different school districts, officials said it would only be fair to look at the $7,301 figure and not the whole $18,000. But the nagging question – what the other $12,699 is being spent on – lingers.

At an average cost of $18,000 per student, county residents (theoretically) could afford to scrap the whole public school system, send all high-school kids to St. Edward’s and all elementary and middle school kids to St. Helen’s, and save big on their taxes.

That, of course, is an impossibility. But since the charter schools have to pay all expenses associated with building and operating them out of the $6,359 per pupil they get from the county School District, where does the rest of the hundreds of millions Indian River County residents pay in school taxes go?

A surprisingly high $61 per child goes to pay for the salaries of the five elected school board members, their support staff, their travel and training, and their expensive legal counsel. Costs for school board operations

Another surprising fact is despite taxpayers’ perceptions that school dollars primarily go to pay teachers, only about 52 percent of the school district’s nearly 2,200 employees are “instructional staff.” The rest are administrators, support staff, and maintenance, food service and transportation workers.

That leaves $175 million in the budget that does not get reported in the spending per student figure.

Some of the money is for capital improvements – brick and mortar projects. An additional $43 million in assets includes funds set aside to pay $8.8 million in banked sick and vacation pay and $14.5 million in other post-employment benefits.