PHOENIX - Arizona schools spent less of the money they received last year in the classroom than in any of the 15 years the state has been keeping track.
The new report from the Auditor General's Office found that just 53.6 cents out of every dollar spent to educate Arizona youngsters in 2015 went for instruction. That includes everything from teachers, aides and even coaches to supplies such as pencils, paper and some activities, such as band or choir.
Aside from being at the lowest point since the agency started looking at the issue in 2001, it also is 7.2 cents below the national average.
But this is about more than percentages. The report also says there are fewer dollars going to schools overall.
Between 2004 and 2015, total per pupil spending actually decreased $424 when inflation is taken into account. That includes the years where the governor and Legislature illegally ignored a 2000 voter mandate to boost state aid annually to account for inflation.
What happened during that same time, the audit says, is classroom spending decreased by an even larger amount - $629 per pupil - as spending in other operational areas increased or remained relatively steady.
Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said it's not surprising that classroom spending as a share of all dollars continues to decline.
"If you're really low spending in your state, it still costs you money to fix your roofs," he said. "It costs you money to heat your buildings, cool your buildings, pay for the lights and everything, whether you're in a state that spends a lot of money on education or a very low amount."
Put simply, Essigs said if some costs remain fixed, the only place for schools to trim when state funding runs short is on the instructional side.
But Vicki Hanson, who manages the audit, said the numbers don't back that up.
"If costs were fixed, during the years where districts got more money, we would have seen the classroom dollar percentage go up," she said. "But it didn't."
Hanson acknowledged Arizona schools, on average, spend far less than the national average on all operational expenses. The figure here is $7,658 per pupil; the comparable average is $10,763.
"But the question is: Why does that lower spending need to come from the classroom?" she asked.
What it means
There is an impact when that section of the budget is squeezed.
Between 2004 and 2015, the average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, decreased 8 percent despite the average years of experience staying about the same. And just in the past five years, the statewide annual teacher salary decreased from $47,077 to $46,008 despite a 4 percent increase in average years of teacher experience.
And during the same time, the average number of students per teacher increased to 18.6, up from 17.9.
Essigs said that 53.6-cent figure on classroom spending is misleading. He said it's "very narrow," including only teacher salaries and supplies.
"It doesn't include counselors, it doesn't include nurses, it doesn't include teacher training," Essigs said. And he said those are equally a part of what schools need to do.
"If you're a district that has a lot of children at risk and you need counseling services, it makes you look like you're spending less (proportionately) on teaching kids," Essigs said.
Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said the trend in the report is not surprising. He said it is a direct result of inadequate state funding.
And Ogle said it shows the importance of voters approving Proposition 123 in May. If that passes, it clears the way for an extra $3.5 billion to be put into schools in the next decade.
"Our teachers are underpaid and our classrooms are too big," he said.
What that also leads to is a shortage of qualified teachers. Ogle said schools fill the gap with substitutes who are paid less than trained professionals, a move that in turn means fewer dollars spent in the classroom.
Daniel Scarpinato, press aide to Gov. Doug Ducey, said the report underscores "the very real need for more total dollars to our schools." He said that's exactly what parents, teachers and administrators told his boss when he visited schools last year.
"That's what the plan that was passed in the special session does," Scarpinato said, referring to what is going to voters in May. He also said the governor's Classrooms First Council is focused on the same goal.
"There's a need to increase the pie," Scarpinato said, rather than simply arguing over how limited funds should be used.
He said, though, Ducey wants to focus on more than just the amount of cash provided to schools.
"The governor's interest is really, as we're adding additional dollars, that parents have an expectation that they're going to see better performance for their kids and better academics for their kids," Scarpinato said.
"The interest is, how do we use the dollars going in to best achieve that? That might be different from school to school, based on their needs and their particular challenges."