Where do schools spend their money?

New state web­site gives bare-bones look at fi­nances

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Monte Wha­ley

With a cou­ple of clicks, any­one cu­ri­ous can now see a bare­bones ac­count­ing of how much Colorado K-12 schools and school dis­tricts spend on stu­dents and teach­ers and what’s been col­lected in grants and do­na­tions.

Other fi­nances are also tracked on a new web­site launched by the Colorado Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion that al­lows side-to-side com­par­isons among schools and school dis­tricts.

Bear Creek El­e­men­tary in Boul­der Val­ley, for in­stance, spent $6,791 per stu­dent last year while $7,679 was spent on each stu­dent at Fron­tier Char­ter Academy in Gree­ley-Evans School District.

School of­fi­cials and ed­u­ca­tion watch­ers ap­plaud the state’s ef­forts at trans­parency, but warn the site only of­fers a Cliff Notes ver­sion of school fi­nanc­ing.

Users must study the in­ner work­ings of a school to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on in­side its walls, they say.

Prob­lems arise when peo­ple look at num­bers and make as­sump­tions about a district with­out tak­ing into ac­count “nu­ances, like the size of the district or the num­ber of stu­dents it serves, or the type of stu­dents they serve,” said Tra­cie Rainey, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Colorado School Fi­nance Project, a non­par­ti­san, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that stud­ies and re­searches school fi­nance.

One district may serve all its hear­ing-im­paired stu­dents in a sin­gle build­ing, while in an­other district, hear­ing-im­paired stu­dents are dis­persed through­out its schools. Dif­fer­ences in how money — and how much money — is spent ed­u­cat­ing those stu­dent pop­u­la­tions isn’t re­flected on the web­site.

“It gives the im­pres­sion that one school has a lot of money and per­son­nel for hear­ing-im­paired stu­dents while other schools don’t,” Rainey said. “If viewed the wrong way, this could be mis­lead­ing.”

The web­site also doesn’t in­clude in­for­ma­tion about the per­cent­age of stu­dents el­i­gi­ble for free and re­duced lunches, the num­ber of days of in­struc­tion and other lo­cal-con­trol is­sues that fac­tor into school fund­ing, of­fi­cials say.

“I think it’s a good step to­ward fi­nan­cial trans­parency and it’s help­ful be­cause it’s fairly easy to un­der­stand,” Mark Fer­randino, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer for

Den­ver Pub­lic Schools, said.

The state’s Fi­nan­cial Trans­parency for Colorado Schools web­site al­lows vis­i­tors to com­pare in­for­ma­tion at the school, district, char­ter op­er­a­tor or BOCES — Boards of Co­op­er­a­tive Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vices — level. Par­ents, tax­pay­ers and oth­ers can see a snap­shot of each school’s fi­nances and cre­ate a side-by-side view of up to four schools or ed­u­ca­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions for com­par­i­son.

“I think it al­lows com­mu­nity mem­bers to see how school dis­tricts are funded and sup­ported,” Ker­rie Dall­man, pres­i­dent of the Colorado Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, said.

The site cur­rently cov­ers the 2015-2016 fis­cal year, in which Colorado ed­u­cated 899,122 stu­dents within 1,857 schools. There were 1,630 tra­di­tional schools and 227 char­ter schools.

On av­er­age, $9,944 was spent per stu­dent across the state, for a to­tal of $8.94 bil­lion.

The web­site was prompted by leg­is­la­tion passed in 2010 and 2014 aimed at pro­vid­ing the pub­lic a deeper un­der­stand­ing of how ed­u­ca­tion dol­lars are spent, CDE ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of school fi­nance Jen­nifer Okes said.

Ev­ery district and BOCES in Colorado last year pro­vided data for the site.

CDE of­fi­cials say they are aware of con­cerns about the web­site and it likely will be re­vamped this year.

“It’s an or­ganic web­site and we never thought it will look the same a year from now or two years from now,” CDE fi­nan­cial data co­or­di­na­tor Adam Wil­liams said.

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