Who’s Up For A Fresh Round of Cost Per Pupil?

Guest Contribution by Arthur Green

The NH Department of Education recently published the Cost Per Pupil data for the 2015/16 school year which ended last June.  So it’s time to update our look at how Timberlane stacks up.

In context of debating the 2017/18 budget, this new data is very much in the rear view mirror.  The state defines Cost Per Pupil (CPP) in a way that’s intended to support reasonable comparisons amongst districts, but it depends on numerous factors not available until well after the end of the school year.  At the bottom of this post, I’ve included the DOE definition of CPP, suffice it to say that transportation and other costs are not included.  So, the CPP figure is much lower than the amount we actually budget and spend per pupil.

I also use the concept of “comparable”districts.  NH has so many tiny districts that averages across such differing profiles are meaningless.  There are only 10 districts in the state with +/- 4,000 students, a single high school and its feeder schools with unified governance for pre-K through 12.  Here’s the Cost Per Pupil for these:
cost-per-pupil-table

A few observations:

In 3 short years, Timberlane’s Cost Per Pupil is up from $13,300 to $15,700.  That is a huge jump in a short time.

The District likes to do its Report Card comparison against the state average.  We’ve gone from being 1% below state average to 5% above.  If we were still 1% below state average (in 2015/16), that would be almost $1,000 per pupil lower cost.

The more meaningful point of comparison is the comparable districts.  The average CPP of districts with reasonable economies of scale is consistently below the state average.  But Timberlane is not only above the average for comparable districts, but by an increasing margin.  In 2012/13, our CPP was 7.6% above the comparables, by last year that had ballooned to 13.5%.

What does that number really mean?  Suppose that our CPP in the past year were still holding at 7.6% above the average of comparables.  That would be a CPP of $14,889, which is $800 per pupil less than what we spent.  This would imply a cost reduction for the district of $2.8 million dollars.  Oh, and we would still be outspending 6 out of the 9 comparable districts.

Remember, this is not arguing that there are no increases in costs.  The CPP of comparable districts has gone up over that time from $12,382 to $13,832, an increase of about $1,500.  But over the same period, Timberlane has gone from $13,329 to $15,695, an increase of $2,300.

And remember, all of these comparable districts have athletics, music and theater.  They all have employee health insurance and retirement costs.  They all have to fund updated curriculum materials and technology.

This is what runaway spending looks like.

Unfortunately, the CPP defined by the state does not help with budgeting a year into the future.

An alternate metric of per-student costs which can help us understand the year-to-year change in the resources our district is planning to commit is Gross Budget Per Pupil.  For the current year, the budget is $70,194,988.  The enrollment (minus tuition students) is 3,566.  Gross Budget Per Pupil is $19,685.

For 2017/18, Timberlane has a (currently) proposed budget of  $71,528,092.  We don’t know the enrollment next Oct. 1 – let’s get a feel for the range by looking at 3 cases:

  • flat enrollment:  Gross Budget Per Pupil is $20,058
  • enrollment up by 11 (administration estimate):  $19,997
  • enrollment down by 47 (my “forecast”):  $20,326

We can say with some confidence that on the (currently) proposed budget, Gross Budget Per Pupil is very likely to be above $20,000.

As usual, context is everything.  Here’s the context on Gross Budget Per Pupil (note that I can’t use this for comparison with other districts, just year-by-year for TRSD):

gross-budget-per-pupil-table

For 2017/18, I’m charting a flat enrollment number (it will almost certainly be lower, which will push Budget Per Pupil higher.  I’m using the currently-published proposed budget to demonstrate the cost impact of that number – again, once the dust settles from Deliberative and voted warrant articles, we will have to revisit the final 2017/18 number.

Note on Cost Per Pupil -State of New Hampshire Department of Education

The Cost per Pupil represents, with certain adjustments, current expenditures from all funding sources (local, state and federal) associated with the daily operation of schools. Payments to other school districts and private schools have been subtracted. Revenues from the sales of lunches have also been excluded. Cost per Pupil is calculated by subtracting tuition and transportation from K-12 current operating expenditures, and then dividing by the average daily membership in attendance (ADM-A). The report “State Average Cost Per Pupil and Total Expenditures” identifies which expenditures have been included or excluded.

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