The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
In city, per-student costs high
BY ROBYN SIDERSKY
AND AMY FLOWERS UMBLE
Fredericksburg Superintendent David Melton said city students get more personalized attention than those in larger neighboring school districts and that attention comes at a cost.
The city spent more per student on administration and instruction than every other division in the Fredericksburg region for the past decade, a review of school spending by The Free Lance–Star found.
The city also routinely spent more than twice the state average on administration over that period, according to data filed with the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts.
Melton defended the city system, saying a higher overhead is the price of doing business in a small school division.
“Our expenses are spread over fewer students,” he said. “We have to perform the same functions as all the other school divisions do.”
The city has four schools and about 3,000 students, but all of the responsibilities of the larger divisions, he said. As a result, it needs essentially the same administrative staff as divisions about nine times its size, such as neighboring Stafford and Spotsylvania counties.
But not everyone in the city agrees that spending is justified.
During his eight years as Fredericksburg mayor, Tom Tomzak complained that the city schools inflated administrative costs and didn’t serve some students well, especially those at risk of dropping out.
Tomzak, speaking shortly before his term ended last month, criticized the school division as top heavy. He said he hopes new Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw and the city’s new council members will challenge the School Board on its spending patterns.
“I think that the School Board has not been responsible and never justified the administrative spending,” Tomzak said.
David Baker, chief financial officer for Fredericksburg schools, said it’s unfair to compare city school districts to county districts.
“Cities attract people with different needs and different issues,” he said. “It creates a different educational and learning environment.”
City officials for years have been challenged to deal with the influx of low-income and refugee families. Roughly half of the city’s students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches.
The 600-student Colonial Beach system showed the same trend as Fredericksburg. The town ranked second or third in the region for per-student spending on administration throughout the decade examined.
And, Westmoreland County, the smallest county system in the region with about 1,700 students, was one of the top four spenders in the area six out of the 10 years.
Fredericksburg schools saw a dramatic spike in administrative spending for the 2005–06 school year.
That year, the school division spent 5 times the state average on administration.
Melton did not lead the city schools at the time, but said the spike was likely related to the opening of two new schools that year—Lafayette Upper Elementary and the new James Monroe High School.
Baker said he doesn’t provide the numbers that go to the state auditor, but said the ones he uses don’t show a steep rise in administrative spending for 2005–06.
His numbers correspond to the Virginia Department of Education’s annual superintendent’s report and show a spending hike of about $200 per student on administration that year.
The auditor’s report shows per-student spending jumping by nearly $1,100—from $1,409 in the 2004–05 school year to $2,508 in 2005–06. The state average for 2005–06 was $447.
Baker said the division hired four new central office employees for the opening of the new schools.
The next year saw a dramatic drop in per-student administration spending in the city, according to the state auditor’s report.
Per-student spending on administration dropped by 61 percent in 2006–07, from $2,508 to $984.
That spending increased to $1,113 in the 2007–08 school year and stayed in that range for the rest of the decade.
Melton said he and his finance staff look at state spending averages when crafting the district’s annual budget, but ultimately make decisions based on the needs of city students.
“We pay attention to what everyone pays per pupil, but averages don’t represent anyone adequately,” he said. “We look to see what our neighbors spend, to see what cities that are similar to Fredericksburg spend. It gives us a barometer of where we are in relation to them. But the decisions we make are best for Fredericksburg.”
Those decisions include cutting central office positions instead of teachers, offering competitive salaries, and keeping class sizes as small as possible despite tough financial times, he said.
During his five years overseeing city schools, Melton said he has focused on reducing content specialists and other central office positions instead of teachers.
Those choices represent a city priority for smaller student-to-teacher ratios, Melton said. The city maintains an average ratio of 20-to-1 in grades three and under, and 25-to-1 in grades four to eight.
In Stafford County, the ratios are 23-to-1 in elementary school and 26-to-1 in middle school.
In Spotsylvania County, the ratios are 23-to-1 for early elementary, 24-to-1 for upper elementary, and 27-to-1 for middle school.
Melton also emphasized the city’s efforts to reduce dropout rates through smaller class sizes, mentoring programs and tougher attendance policies.
“Anything we do costs money,” Melton said.
In the past three years, those efforts have started to pay off, according to the state Department of Education’s school report cards.
In the 2008–09 school year, 54 city students dropped out of school compared with 22 in the 2009–10 school year and 14 in the 2010–11 school year.
But the city still has a higher dropout rate than neighboring school divisions, a point former mayor Tomzak has emphasized.
COMPARABLE CITY SYSTEMS
When Fredericksburg school leaders want perspective on running their division, they look at divisions in cities of similar size, such as Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Staunton and Winchester.
Compared to those cities, Fredericksburg spent more on administration four of the 10 years examined.
Charlottesville’s school division led the group in instructional spending throughout that decade.
Ed Gillaspie, finance director for Charlottesville schools, gave three reasons for the district’s spending: more schools, higher teacher salaries and additional staff to support teachers inside their classrooms.
Charlottesville, with about 4,000 students, has nine schools—six elementary, two middle and one high—compared to four in Fredericksburg, which has about 3,000 students.
In 2009, Charlottesville’s School Board hired a consultant to do an efficiency study. Gillaspie said the study found the division had invested heavily in instruction, with an administrative structure to support it.
He said that, overall, the study validated the school leaders’ decisions and led to a better community understanding of school spending.
Melton said that, for now, Fredericksburg schools don’t plan on a similar study. He said that when residents have concerns, he often invites them to the School Board office and walks them through the budget’s intricacies.
“You always have people who have legitimate concerns and want some answers, because it’s such a large part of the city’s budget,” Melton said. “Ninety-five percent of the time, they come away with a better understanding of our decisions.”
Robyn Sidersky: 540/374-5413