Clarifications on Amherst School District Spending

A few months ago, as part of my school district budget analysis, I published some numbers on Amherst’s cost per student spending.  This cost per student number is a commonly used metric to understand spending efficiency as well as to draw comparisons between districts.  As this year’s Ways and Means committee chair for the district, I sought answers to the reasons behind the significant jump in this number.  On October 8th, Ways and Means met with members of the School Board and the SAU to discuss these, and other numbers dealing with our school district spending.

I really need to applaud the transparency of the school administration here.  Significant time and effort was put into their response to the questions I posed, and they worked very hard to provide real meaningful answers, and the numbers to back them up.  To the point of contacting other districts to clarify their numbers, and sometimes being told to go away.

A few interesting things came out of the discussion.  In reviewing our numbers and comparing them with other districts, it quickly became clear that making comparisons between districts is difficult because different districts will report numbers differently to the state, and that the state’s formulas for some derived metrics (i.e. cost per student) can omit some very important considerations that aren’t immediately apparent, but have some huge implications in the numbers that are the most visible to taxpayers.

Most importantly, in the state’s calculations, bond payments are not factored into the cost per student number.  This is huge.  Some districts with newer buildings (Bedford, for example) have some very significant (millions of dollars) costs to the taxpayer in their budgets, but these costs are subtracted before computing their cost per student, making the latter not as representative for comparison as you might imagine.    In FY 2012 Amherst had about $600k in debt service payments.  Bedford had $4.6 million, and Merrimack had $1.9 million.  So it would seem that if we want to draw more meaningful comparisons in spending per student, that we should take the actual bottom line budget and divide by the total enrollment.

I’ll take a second to point out that the growth of our education taxes for all education spending in Amherst (not just Amherst School District) has increased much more slowly than our neighboring towns, which I showed before.  That is to say, yes your school tax bill has gone up, but considerably more slowly than if you were in some of our neighboring towns.

Growth in the total locally raised education spending, referenced to FY 2011 for Amherst, Bedford, and Merrimack.

Growth in the total locally raised education spending, referenced to FY 2011 for Amherst, Bedford, and Merrimack.

Before I get to our spending per student numbers, I want to quickly touch on the special education spending issue that I had raised earlier this year.  Previously I pointed out the differences in the fractions of our budgets that Amherst, Bedford, and Merrimack spend on special education.  Now you might think that by comparing line item to line item in the various district budgets, that the numbers would be directly comparable.  I certainly did.  They aren’t.  Here’s the difference.  Amherst includes benefits in their special education budget section.  Bedford and Merrimack don’t.  So when we take benefits out of our special education budget, we get the following numbers which we can compare, and they paint a very different picture than before.

District Special Education % of Budget (without benefits)
Amherst 11.2
Bedford 15.7
Merrimack 15.1

Now, to get to our spike in per-student elementary education spending back in FY 2011.  The one where we jumped to $4533 over the state average in a year.  In that year we saw our elementary school enrollment drop from 710 to 629.  That’s 81 students, or an 11.4% drop.  Inconveniently, they didn’t all fall out of the same grade, so this has made it somewhat difficult to make rapid adjustments to staffing.  But we have been making staffing adjustments.  We just can’t make them as fast as the enrollment has changed.

And yes, this will hit the middle school shortly, but we are making adjustments.  Draft 1 of next year’s budget will be presented at next month’s school board meeting and we should know more then.

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