Guest contribution by Arthur Green
Timberlane has long and loudly declared that Timberlane’s per pupil cost is below the state average. The implication is that Timberlane is a sound financial manager, pinching pennies and making do on less money than other districts.
To compare ourselves to the state average is self-serving and misleading. And with the most recent number just released by the Department of Education, Timberlane is now well above the state average in Cost per Pupil (CPP).
Timberlane’s Cost Per Pupil (CPP) for the 2013/14 school year ended in June shot up 8.8% from the previous year – almost $1,200 per student. Both the percentage increase and the absolute number are well above the state average. (See chart below)
If the state average CPP is not a suitable comparison, what is?
The state has over 160 school districts, many of them small and rural, with average enrollment of about 1150. The average district in New Hampshire has much different challenges and cost drivers from Timberlane. To say, as Mr. Collins does, that over 100 districts have higher cost per pupil is a meaningless and misleading comparison.
There are only 9 school districts which have a composition similar to Timberlane
- Enrollment in the range of 3,000 to 5,000
- Service all grades K – 12
- Southern NH
- Single HS, MS, cluster of feeder elementary schools all administered as a single district
These comparable districts are Bedford, Concord, Dover, Hudson, Keene, Londonderry, Merrimack, Rochester and Salem. To make the comparison more useful, I will focus just on those districts which have stronger NECAP results in both Grade 11 Reading and Math.
Here is the CPP for just these 5 “Leading Districts,” with comparison to the state average and to Timberlane:
The Cost Per Pupil average for the “Leading Districts” is well below the state average. It makes sense that districts in the 3,000 to 5,000 enrollment range have more opportunity for economies of scale. In this group, only Keene is higher than Timberlane. Comparing to the cohort of “Leading Districts,” Timberlane’s CPP is significantly higher, and grew faster. CPP for the “Leading” cohort increased 4.8% last year, but Timberlane increased 8.8%. No district in the “Leading” cohort had as large an increase as Timberlane.
And keep in mind, all five of these districts deliver stronger academic results.
What can we say about Cost Per Pupil for the current year 2014/15?
The CCP can’t be known with certainty until the end of each year, but it is possible to estimate it based on our best current knowledge of the budget, spending and enrollment.
I’ve estimated the CPP for this current year ending in June 2015 at $15,484.
I have been criticized for making estimates, but I consider it a duty of people in office to do their best to understand the consequences of their actions and to to tell people honestly about them.
Here’s the math.
Cost Per Pupil has a numerator and a denominator.
The numerator is cost. Not all costs are included in the DOE calculation, but the percentage increase should provide a good estimate.
Actual costs in 2013/14: $63,689,780
Forecast costs for 2014/15: $65,436,000 (based on the budget of $67,736,000, minus the district forecast of a $1.9 million surplus passing forward to 2015/16.)
Percentage increase: 2.7%
The denominator is number of students. For the Cost Per Pupil calculation, the DOE uses the Average Daily Membership (ADM), which is based on recording actual daily attendance through the year. However, the annual changes in ADM track very closely with changes in the enrollment figure, which is reported as of Oct. 1 each year.
Actual enrollment Oct. 1 2013: 3,922
Actual enrollment Oct. 1 2014: 3,773
Percentage change: - 3.8%
Putting it together we have:
Cost: ($14,498 x 1.027 [2.7% increase]) Divided by Number of Students: (1 – 0.038 [3.8% decrease]) = $15,484 per pupil
This would be an increase of 6.8% – almost $1,000 per pupil – from the year ended in June 2014.
And this estimate is very generous to the administration, because it incorporates the forecast of $1.9 million surplus. We know that the Board and the administration are already planning to make expenditures which are likely to significantly reduce the surplus, increasing this year’s CPP.
Cost Per Pupil is going up dramatically because we are losing students rapidly while allowing our budget to grow. Do you think paying an estimated $15,484 for every student from kindergarten to 12th grade is value for money when other comparable districts our size with better academics are doing it for less?
Responsible Decision Making
The Cost Per Pupil discussion highlights a key difficulty of making reasonable judgments about the school budget – lack of up-to-date information.
The 2013/14 school year ended last June. The final CPP number was published by the NH Department of Education on Dec. 15. Between those dates:
- Timberlane published as District Report Card on Aug. 7, reporting the old 2012/13 number – $13,329 per pupil – as the most current available.
- The SAU submitted its “DOE-25” filing to the state on Aug. 29, reporting a preliminary CPP figure of $14,414
- The fall budget season began. The complete Draft 1 budget was published on Nov.17. By Dec 11, Draft 3 was being reviewed. In all the deliberation to this point, the only “official” CPP number acknowledged by the school district was the 2012/13 number, $13,329
For those who prefer to avoid acknowledging the rapidly rising costs in the district, it is very convenient to have a rear-view mirror which only shows the data once actual events are 18 months in the past.
My view is that CPP is an example of an important financial metric which needs to be understood by everyone involved in the budgeting process, and which needs to be actively used as a tool (one amongst many) to gauge spending plans.