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Valley News Dispatch finds higher spending on students in area is reflected in academic performance

| Sunday, May 5, 2013, 10:53 a.m.

A review of school district spending shows the region's moneyed districts enjoy higher academic rankings — usually.

With 2013-14 budgets looming and districts and educators lobbying for more funds, the Valley News Dispatch found higher spending on students is reflected in their academic performance.

But that's not a hard rule.

“There's not always a direct correlation between money and achievement, although money certainly helps,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Buckheit argues that it has been having an impact over the last few years as school districts have taken hits in funding and have furloughed or eliminated 20,000 positions in public schools.

“I don't know how anyone can argue that if you lose that kind of capacity, that it's not going to have an impact on student achievement,” he said.

The Fox Chapel Area School District has the highest cost-per-student spending in the Alle-Kiski Valley and is often at the top of academic rankings.

Still, district spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski said: “Education can't always be viewed as a dollars-and-cents business because it is a people business.”

Tuition rates per non-special needs students in the Alle-Kiski Valley vary from the low of $7,480 per student at South Butler School District to $12,601 per student in the Fox Chapel Area School District for the 2012-2013 school year, according to the state Department of Education's most current statistics on tuition rates paid to charter schools, provided by the state Auditor General's Office.

Those tuition rates are the closest way to track cost-per-student spending that's available for the current school year. The most recent figures available for actual cost-per-student spending in each district, tracked by the state Department of Education, are two school years behind.

Here are two confounding examples of academic achievement relative to spending money: Both Fox Chapel Area and South Butler school districts — polar opposites in per-pupil tuition rates — fared well recently in several rankings:

• Fox Chapel Area High School ranked 25th in the state in the recently announced U.S. News and World Report's high school rankings. In the A-K Valley, Riverview, Valley, Apollo-Ridge, Highlands, Kiski Area and Springdale high schools also placed.

• South Butler and Leechburg Area were the only two local districts that had all of their schools and grade levels meet the “adequate yearly progress” benchmarks on the 2011-12 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests (PSSA), which measures student proficiency in math and reading.

How much is enough?

At some point, there is a financial cap on how much a district can spend on education, said John Pallone, superintendant for the New Kensington-Arnold School District and a former state legislator who served on the House Education Committee.

“I don't know where the cap is to spend on a child, but I can assure you that the New Kensington-Arnold School District has not met that cap.

“We are doing the best that we can with the financial resources we have,” Pallone said.

“We would like every student to have a laptop and an iPad. We would like to have modern, energy-efficient facilities. Can we do it?” Pallone asked. “No — we can't afford it.”

It's not a financially level playing field for school districts, Pallone said.

“You look at a district like South Butler that is a growing district, and it has the ability to expand its tax base,” he said.

Conversely, districts in older communities don't experience tax base expansion and are often saddled with older buildings.

Then, there's the student population and its needs.

“We have a lot of ‘at-risk' students,” Pallone said. “We have a lot of special education students. And that's a determining factor for delivery of services for us.”

What money buys

In the Alle-Kiski Valley, school districts with the higher tuition rates aren't necessarily scoring the highest on standardized tests and rankings.

Although, that is the case with Fox Chapel Area.

“There are many factors that go into student achievement beyond the amount of money a school district spends,” spokeswoman Berzonski said.

Factors include the rigor of the academic programs, instructional strategies, student readiness and high expectations for all students, she said.

“Being able to spend a fair amount of money per pupil enables us to provide the best possible academic programs and safety nets for our students,” Berzonski said.

“Safety nets” for students who don't score as well on the PSSAs include more academics and additional time spent in certain subjects, social supports to help students focus on learning, and learning opportunities that extend beyond the school day, Berzonski said.

Paying for safety nets is a factor that boosts the cost to educate some students, she said.

And that's why districts with significant populations of high-risk and lower-income students face more financial challenges.

Buckheit, of the state school administrators' group, said: “Households that have low income require more money per pupil because, generally, the families don't have resources that other kids have like books, computers, going to museums and going on vacations.”

The biggest challenge, he said, is poverty.

“Kids from high poverty areas have more serious health issues,” Buckheit said. “They might need more health aides. There's more family issues. They need more counselors and more tutors.”

Other factors can drive the cost to educate.

One of the reasons why Riverview is on the higher end of student tuition rates in the Alle-Kiski Valley, is its small class size, said Margaret DiNinno, Riverview's superintendent.

“The Riverview community has historically prioritized the value of providing small class sizes,” she said.

And the community has valued educating the “whole child,” DiNinno said.

“This is reflected in our music program, art program, athletic programs, enrichment programs and AP (Advance Placement) courses that we offer,” she said.

A significant portion of the school district budget is spent on personnel, and DiNinno said, “It is the personnel who make a difference in the lives of our kids.

“It is the people who work with kids that have the most significant impact on their ability to learn.”

What money doesn't buy

In a number of tuition-per-pupil rates, the South Butler School District is the lowest or among the lowest of the Alle-Kiski Valley's 15 school districts.

Determining how to spend the public's money is complex, district spokesman Jason Davidek said. Districts must maintain a commitment to academic standards, he said, but keep taxpayers in mind.

Of course, the district would like more money to invest in educational materials, Davidek said, “but there is not an infinite amount of money.”

Spending is one of the most complicated and controversial subjects in educational policy, said Maureen McClure, Riverview School Board member and an associate professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in education finance.

“On one hand, of course, money matters,” she said. “Wealthier people tend to benefit more from education. Their family invested in it. They've done well. They not only have more money, but they are willing to tax themselves at higher rates because they see education as a good investment.”

The poorer districts not only have a smaller, poorer tax base, but the education payoffs have not been so good, McClure said. “So they are less apt to tax, themselves.”

But there are so many variables influencing the effectiveness of an educational program and the costs of education.

“Education is not manufacturing,” McClure said. “It does not create products, but it is business-like. It is a service, as we have many services, like police and health services.”

McClure points to “cost disease” of the service industry.

“Generally, costs rise because of the way we negotiate pay by seniority, without necessarily increases in productivity,” McClure said, “and so that is a chronic problem in the service industry.”

Not everything good in education costs money.

Community involvement makes a difference with support and services that can save a school district money, McClure points out.

“What makes Riverview work well is that there is very strong community support,” she said. “You don't have to write a check. You can show up and help the band. We have lots of volunteers for athletics.

“You don't have to have a lot of money to tell kids that education is a good investment.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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