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Column: How Much Are School Districts Really Spending?

The new Taxpayers' Guide to Education Spending is not the best place to find an answer.

Now it’s really on.

The Christie administration kicked its anti-education spending campaign into high gear last Friday with the release of the Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending.

This revised version of the Comparative Spending Guide that the state Department of Education has been releasing for more than a decade changes the way total spending is calculated to make it appear districts are spending almost a third more than in the past.

Released Friday afternoon, the guide’s total per-pupil cost includes, for the first time, the money the state contributes on behalf of districts for teachers’ pension and social security payments.

That’s an odd decision, given the state has paid the employer contribution to the Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund for more than 45 years, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

Why include money districts haven’t been responsible for in almost a half-century in individual districts’ budgets?

The logical answer is to prove your point that districts are spending a lot more than anyone realizes, more than the state and taxpayers can sustain. And if you were trying to prove that point, you’d probably want to release the data right before the state Supreme Court was going to rule on whether your administration is violating the Abbott v. Burke funding decisions.

But DOE’s answer, according to its press release announcing the release of the data, is to provide “complete transparency about spending” that, for the first time, “reflects the total amount spent on PreK-12 education.”

This new transparency can be shocking.

Anyone who looked at the 2010 comparative guide for the Morris School District, for example, would see atop the search results that the district spent $15,643 per pupil in 2008-09. Check the 2011 taxpayers guide and the figure $20,652 shows up for 2009-10.

Wow, Morris spent $5,000 per pupil more last year than the year before? That’s outrageous. Or, it would be, if it were true. It’s not.

The 2009-10 figure includes transportation and tuition payments made by the district that were not included in the prior year’s figure, as well as those pension and social security payments the state made for Morris School District teachers and administrators.

The real comparative figure, which can be found only by those adept enough to download and search through the statewide Excel spreadsheet files, is $15,775, or an increase of just $132 per pupil.

To be fair, the 2011 guide also includes the prior year’s data, using the new formula, for comparison’s sake. So, 2009-10’s total of $20,652 compares with 2008-09’s $20,165, an increase of somewhat less than $500.

But how fair is it to use that total?

Gov. Chris Christie, in the DOE’s press release, said, “If we are going to reform a system that is failing tens of thousands of children, we need real accountability for academic performance that considers the total dollars being spent.”

Yes, if you are trying to convince people schools are spending too much, even if they are not actually spending that much.

The DOE had a similar accountability goal when it began publishing the guide. Officials wanted to give taxpayers a way to compare what their home districts were spending against others of similar size and type: large K-12s vs. other large K-12s, small elementaries vs. other small elementaries, etc.

So, using that comparative cost, taxpayers could see that Rockaway Township was the third highest spending large K-8 district in New Jersey last year, at $15,508 per pupil, and might ask their board of education and district leadership why.

They could do that because the comparative total included only those expenditures that are common in every district and omitted those items that could skew a comparison.

Some small towns, for instance, do no busing, while geographically larger districts have high transportation costs. Similarly, tuition, construction, debt service and the pension payments were omitted.

In its introduction to the old guide, the DOE wrote that it gave “careful consideration” to what would make for appropriate comparisons and what could be grounds for “bias.”

Christie’s DOE claims to have solved those issues, saying it can now include nine formerly omitted categories of spending in the new taxpayers guide, including those pension payments that the district doesn’t pay.

Interestingly, the DOE chose not to include the pension payments in the total per pupil amount it included on the school report card.

For the Morris School District, the total spent per pupil last year is listed as $19,439 on the report card. That’s about $1,200 less than the amount in the new taxpayers guide.

When it was first introduced in the 1990s, the comparative guide used to get a lot of publicity. Then the DOE began including per pupil spending data on the report card and virtually everyone ignored the guide.

The new calculation that makes the total controversial this year may generate renewed interest in the guide. But instead of enlightenment, anyone who tries to decipher all the different data available is likely to just get confused.

In the DOE’s release on the new guide, Christie is quoted as saying, “Parents, students and taxpayers deserve nothing less than a complete reporting of all the facts.”

That’s true. But the new taxpayers guide seems designed more to inflame, rather than inform, the debate over the cost of education in New Jersey.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

Lurky Loo July 11, 2011 at 09:17 PM
You mean the Left Ledger? Canceled that paper 3 years ago! They were sooo in the tank for the Anointed one. When they asked my why I was cancelling, I told them It was because they were racist against conservatives!
Dan Grant July 12, 2011 at 01:31 PM
I am not talking about some phoney effort at property tax relief. It is a fact that the Constitution of NJ requires a public school education and that all children in the State are to get it. The problem lies in the fact that currently local property tax payers to the exclusion of all others are required to pay for it. 93 percent of educational expenses are paid for by local property taxes and that includes local infrastructure. People have to decide which tax is worse. Local property taxes are forever and not dependent on income so if you have a loss of income you are still obligated to pay your property taxes. Sales Taxes, Income Taxes require that you either spend or earn and are therefore reflective of your personal financial position.
MadInNJ July 12, 2011 at 05:30 PM
NJ's constitution also requires that all revenue from the Income tax be used to provide property tax relief, but that language has been ignored by the NJ Supremes, as has the language that says NJ must provide a free public education to children 5 - 18 (not 3- 21, as they have now decided). Revenues from any new tax scheme will simply be swallowed up whole by the Abbott districts until/unless the constitution is amended to "clarify" how public education must be funded so that it is no longer open to interpretation by four unelected judges sitting on the high court. P.S. As bad as property taxes are, at least they are a stable form of funding. What's your plan for the next time there's a recession and both income and sales taxes dry up again . . . layer on yet another "temporary" "millionaires" tax in the name of "fairness" and "doing it for the kids"?
MikeL July 27, 2011 at 09:19 PM
Could the commenters claiming bias explain where the column is incorrect? Are these not facts being discussed? Forget the part affiliation or claims of racism (come on Lurky, really?). If O'Day is so biased, can someone please point me to an accurate opposing view? Thanks.
steve revette August 22, 2011 at 07:39 PM
Listen. What needs to happen simple. We need to ignore the supreme court ruling. The only way any good could come out of this. Why do they need olympic size swimming pools? Why do the need million dollar arenas? If i were a supreme court Justice I would have asked Sciarra. How does having an Olympic size swimming poll help kids learn? You guys want more funding? where do you think that funding is going to come from? There going to raise our taxes so that we get our fair share of funding. I think Christie should have told the supreme court to stick it. They are a co equal branch not superior. If the abbotts need money for education so badly whya ren't they spending it one ducation?

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