How does school spending break down?
In talk of school regionalization proposals, Jim Miller heard a lot about saving costs on superintendents, but it seemed to him "that was a very, very small piece of the total school expenditures, and that wasn't the real reason for the legislation."
He has inklings about spending on fancy construction projects and "unnecessary layers of administration."
"I don't really even know what the facts are," acknowledged Miller, a Lyme resident and father of kids in 11th, ninth and first grades. "I have some impressions, and I would like to know what the facts are, so I can form opinions that are based on fact, not based on supposition."
So as part of The Day's CuriousCT reader engagement initiative, he asked, "I would like to know how current levels of school spending break down between facilities, teachers, admin and special ed programs, for each existing school district."
We set about gathering data for districts in the region, and comparing Connecticut to other states. All except Lyme-Old Lyme and Norwich Free Academy provided numbers.
Findings include that more than 60 percent of spending in Connecticut schools is for classroom costs such as teacher salaries, the share of the budget spent on special education varies widely among local districts, and Connecticut has some of the highest school construction costs in the country.
For the 2013-14 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics put Connecticut at an average district enrollment of 3,046, compared to a national average of 3,659. Locally, enrollment ranges from 4,894 in Groton, 3,907 in New London and 3,545 in Norwich, to 736 in North Stonington, 651 in Preston and 584 in Salem. In the middle are East Lyme, Ledyard, Waterford, Montville and Stonington, with enrollments ranging from about 2,700 to about 2,000.
The U.S. Census Bureau found that only New York and Washington, D.C., topped per-pupil spending in Connecticut. Last year, per-pupil spending in southeastern Connecticut ranged from $14,634 in Ledyard to $21,589 in Lyme-Old Lyme, according to spreadsheets provided by the state Department of Education.
Data source: Connecticut State Department of Education
Over the past five years, per-pupil spending went up every year in East Lyme, Groton, Lyme-Old Lyme, Stonington and Waterford. But spending isn't increasing as fast here as elsewhere in the state.
Spending on teachers and administrators
According to Governing magazine, Census data show that Connecticut expends 61.5 percent of its per-pupil spending on what is considered instruction spending, the 10th highest in the country.
In a review of 2017 data from the state, the Connecticut School Finance Project found that Norwich spends a higher share of its budget on "program expenditures" — namely teachers and aides — than any other district, at 78 percent. The data shows Ledyard with the second-lowest share going to program expenditures and the highest share for school-based administration — 51 and 20 percent, respectively.
Superintendent Jay Hartling said that under a new finance reporting system, "districts made some judgment calls" on how to categorize expenditures, meaning Ledyard may have labeled a certain cost as school-based administration while other districts didn't. Connecticut School Finance Project Executive Director Katie Roy echoed this, saying, "The instructions on what is supposed to go where is not necessarily clear for school districts."
Overall, though, Connecticut ranks high in education data transparency.
For the current school year, Ledyard's teacher salaries are about 50.7 percent of the budget, whereas this figure is in the 40 percent range for other local districts.
According to data the districts provided, overall teacher salaries for the current school year are $34.2 million in Groton, $21.6 million in Norwich, $21.4 million in Waterford, $19.9 million in East Lyme, $16.2 million in Ledyard, $16.1 million in Montville, $14.8 million in Stonington, $5.6 million in North Stonington, $3.1 million in Preston and $3 million in Salem. New London does not break out teacher salaries from certified salaries in its budget, and the district didn't provide The Day with teacher salaries.
USA Today reported last year that only New York has a higher median salary for primary and secondary school teachers than Connecticut.
As for administrators, the Fordham Institute reported that Connecticut in 2010 had 89 nonteaching staff per 1,000 students, the sixth-highest in the country. It was also the sixth-highest for growth in nonteaching staff from 1986 to 2010.
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Data source: Connecticut State Department of Education
Among local districts that serve grades K-12, superintendent salaries range from $150,545 in North Stonington to $197,029 in Stonington. Statewide, the average salary for administrative staff last year was $127,606 — a 3.4 percent increase over three years prior — and $76,147 for non-administrative educators.
Spending on special education
While overall student enrollment in the state is declining, the number of special education students in Connecticut public schools has increased 19.5 percent over the past five years, according to the Connecticut School Finance Project.
As a share of the total budget, spending on special education teacher and aide salaries, transportation and tuitions for the 2018-19 school year was 11.5 percent in North Stonington, 13 percent in East Lyme, 17.2 percent in Waterford, 17.6 percent in Montville, 18.9 percent in Stonington, 20.25 percent in Ledyard, 21.1 percent in Groton, 21.4 percent in Preston, 22.3 percent in Salem and 33.9 percent in Norwich.
As with teacher and administrator salaries, it can be difficult to compare districts apples to apples. It's unclear whether some districts subtracted the Special Education Excess Cost grant from the state, or included costs for services at magnet schools.
"We do a lot of our programs in-house and have worked very hard to keep kids here," East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said, citing the district's therapeutic program. He said the district has heard from some parents that they've moved to East Lyme for the special education program.
Asked about the increasing number of special education students, Newton said he thinks identifications of autism and Asperger's are on the rise.
Special education staffing has been stable in Groton for the past several years but volatility comes from not knowing whether a high-needs child will move into the district after the budget has been set, Superintendent Michael Graner said. For example, a tuition bill — with a paraprofessional — for the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford "could easily run $180,000."
Spending on facilities
The state reimburses districts 20 to 80 percent for renovations and 10 to 70 percent for building a new school, with the amount based on each town's adjusted equalized net grand list per capita.
For example, the rates the state set for 2018 range from 31.43 percent in Waterford and 32.96 percent in Stonington, to 77.86 percent in Norwich and 78.21 percent in New London.
Using NCES data, the 21st Century School Fund reported in 2016 that state money covers 57 percent of school construction costs, compared to a national average of 19 percent over the last 19 years.
Perhaps this helps make up for the fact that in the 2015-16 school year, 56.3 percent of public K-12 revenue in Connecticut came from local governments, compared to a national average of 44.3 percent, according to the National Education Association.
The Connecticut School Finance Project reports that costs per square foot of school construction in Connecticut have risen 64 percent from 2000 to 2012 — adjusted for inflation — and are among the highest in the nation, though comparable to other New England states.
The median cost per square foot nationwide was $250 in 2015, whereas the Connecticut School Building Projects Advisory Council in 2016 approved a cap of $365 as the maximum reimbursement cost, down from a median cost of $392.
A 2017 law created other changes for the process of approving school construction projects, such as requiring districts to submit enrollment projections for the next eight years and show efforts made "to redistrict, reconfigure, merge, or close schools" prior to submitting a grant application.
To get state funding for a construction project, a district must apply with the Office of School Construction Grants & Review, which submits its "priority list" to the governor and Education Committee by Dec. 15 each year. The Connecticut General Assembly then approves projects in the following legislative session.
A review of priority lists from 2001 to 2018 shows that Groton submitted the highest total project costs at $345.5 million, followed by Waterford at $238.3 million, New London at $118.9 million, and Stonington at $91.5 million. These figures do not reflect later requests for additional funding, which arise because of factors like asbestos removal, energy-saving measures or a change in location.
The biggest chunk for Groton is the Groton 2020 plan for the construction of a new consolidated middle school, and the building of two new elementary schools on the sites of the existing middle schools. The past 18 years also included the construction of two new elementary schools that opened in 2008.
Waterford had elementary schools built in 2006, 2008 and 2009. New schools built in southeastern Connecticut since 2001 also include Gales Ferry Elementary in 2001, East Lyme Middle School in 2002, C.B. Jennings Elementary in New London in 2008, and most recently, Wheeler Middle/High School in North Stonington, which opened in March 2019.
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Data source: Connecticut State Department of Education
Roy, of the Connecticut School Finance Project, said the approval of the North Stonington project, "in spite of the fact that their enrollment projections did not necessarily align with having to build a new high school," served as an anecdotal reason for the state to require enrollment projections. She said Groton is "a little bit of an outlier" in terms of the reliability of enrollment projections because of the Naval Submarine Base.
Kosta Diamantis, director of the Office of School Construction Grants & Review, rejected the notion that districts are building palaces.
"What we do here is we deliver a school that is safe, secure, healthy and educationally adequate, and they are facilities that are able to be sustainable and fiscally sound," Diamantis said. He added, "We hunt those costs to get them down as far as we can without sacrificing quality of the school."
He acknowledged that in response to the school desegregation case Sheff v. O'Neill, the Capitol Region Education Council was building more elaborate schools to attract students from the suburbs. They were built from 1996 into the 2000s but no longer are being constructed.
Committing to a "debt diet," Gov. Ned Lamont told reporters last month the state is "not going to rubber stamp everybody's bonding request" and wealthy communities should not rely on state funds to construct a small school.
Spokesperson Maribel La Luz said in an email Friday, "Projects currently under construction will not be impacted, but going forward, only strategic investments — largely in the areas of technology and economic development — will be considered. The Debt Diet means the state can no longer afford to put projects on the state's credit card — with a buy now, pay later approach."
When Jim Miller's question won the voting round, this story was assigned to me because along with business, I cover education — including K-12 regional issues, higher education and policy. I reached out to the town reporters and asked them to email their districts for the following numbers: student enrollment, administrative salaries, superintendent's salary, total teacher salaries, special ed teacher and aide salaries, special ed transportation, special ed tuitions, special ed supplies and a variety of maintenance costs.
I reached out to Jim and realized when he said "facilities," he meant construction, not operational costs. So on this and other questions he had, I set about finding data and reading studies — which took me down rabbit holes of more data and more studies. If you want more information that's not in this article, you can see my notes from reading and conducting phone interviews at bit.ly/SECTschoolspending. That does not include figures the districts sent or emails from the state Department of Education. Please excuse misspellings when I'm trying to type quickly during interviews.
Digital editor Carlos Virgen and I consulted multiple times over the past two weeks on how best to visualize the data. Upon realizing the many hurdles to making apples-to-apples comparisons, and not wanting to mislead, we opted against incorporating some of the data the districts provided.
Explore the data used in our visualizations here: bit.ly/2JS0sk8.
— Erica Moser