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PHOENIX — Fueled by additional state dollars, Arizona schools are spending a greater percentage of their available dollars this year in the classroom than last year.

New figures Wednesday from the Auditor General's Office show that, on average, districts spent 54.7 percent of what they had on instruction. That's the third consecutive year with an increase in the past 15 years.

Auditor General Lindsey Perry said that also reflects a 7.1 percent increase in the average teacher salary between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 year, bringing the figure to $52,441. There are no figures yet for the current school year.

She also said school districts employed a total of 678 additional teachers.

But Perry said the percentage of total dollars spent in the classroom is still 3.9 percentage points less than it was in 2004. The difference, she said, is that spending on other operational expenses, ranging from utilities and transportation to food services, have increased faster, "meaning that districts shifted spending from instruction to other areas.''

Perry, in her annual report, said some districts have shown to be more efficient, even when factors like the size and location are considered.

The report also found that Arizona schools overall spend less than the national average, by a wide margin.

Perry pegged total per pupil spending at $10,928 in Arizona, compared with $14,009 for the rest of the nation. And that national figure is two years old.

That, in turn, reflects on how much there is to spend on instruction, a category that includes salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides, and supplies like pencils, paper and workbooks. It also includes instructional software, athletics and "cocurricular'' activities like band and choir.

The figure for Arizona was $4,869, more than $2,500 less than the two-year-old national average.

Even with less money for instruction, though, Perry found that Arizona schools, on average, spend a lower percentage of their available resources on instruction than the national figure.

"Many factors may account for Arizona's lower percentage of instructional spending, one of which is average teacher salary,'' Perry wrote. Using the most recent national data available, she found teacher salaries here averaging about $11,500 less than nationally.

But that's not all.

"Another factor that may account for Arizona's lower percentage of instructional spending is class size,'' she reported. In Arizona, there are an average of 18.4 students per teacher, compared with 16 in the rest of the country.

Perry said it's not administrative expenses that are cutting into available funds for classrooms. She put the latest average figure here at $903 per student versus the national average for 2017 — the most recent year available — at $1,383.

By contrast, she said, schools here spend a larger percentage of the cash they get on plant operations, including utilities, equipment repair and security, than schools elsewhere in the country. The share of dollars spent on food services also is higher than the national average, as are transportation costs.

Perry also found Arizona schools spend a higher percentage than their national counterparts on student support, a category that includes counselors, audiologists, nurses, social workers and speech pathologists.

But this isn't just a percentage issue. Student support was the lone area where Arizona schools, on average, spend more in actual dollars than the national average.

Perry said that some of this may be a direct relation to needs in certain districts.

"For example, increases in a district's poverty rate or the percentage of students with special needs could increase student support costs because many of these services are directed toward these student populations.

Food costs are driven by different factors.

Perry said some districts cited the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 which took effect in 2013. She said that established more stringent nutritional requirements that include an increase in the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in meals.

But Perry also said that she and her auditors believe that there are things within the control of districts. She said some district have higher staffing for administration, plant operations, food service or transportation, even when compared with similar districts.

That variance shows up in the report.

For example, she said the 30 districts with the highest spending on transportation costs average out at $684 per student, By contrast, the 30 at the bottom end were spending just $405.

Still, Perry acknowledged, there are certain differences in spending among districts that may be beyond their control.

Consider the issue of size.

"Larger districts tend to have lower administrative costs per pupil, primarily because of their economies of scale and abilities to spread some costs over more students,'' the report says.

Location also matters.

On one hand, a rural school is more likely to have longer bus routes. But Perry said that when the number of miles is factored out, urban districts were spending more per rider than their rural counterparts.

"Rural district buses likely travel on roads with higher speed limits and travel greater distances between stops, thereby traveling more miles in less time,'' the report says. "This would result in lower salary and benefit costs per mile.''

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