First Bell: Classroom spending hard to define

A task force appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback began meeting this week to study ways of making schools more efficient so more of the state’s education budget will be spent “in the classroom.”

One of the first questions the panel will need to answer, however, is what, exactly, qualifies as “classroom” spending, as opposed to any of the other categories that make up school district budgets.

In a press release announcing the task force Sept. 28, Brownback said only a handful of districts were currently meeting a state requirement of spending at least 65 percent of their budgets on instruction or classroom expenses.

That was a reference to KSA 72-64c01, which establishes a “policy goal of the state” (not a requirement) that at least 65 percent of the money made available by the state be spent “in the classroom or for instruction.”

That language suggests that “classroom” expenses and costs associated with “instruction” are two separate, but possibly overlapping, categories.

The problem is, there really is no standard definition of what qualifies as a classroom expense, and thus the amount of money districts are spending “in the classroom” is open to interpretation.

The Kansas State Department of Education publishes annual reports on school district spending by category. Those reports are based on “current operating expenditures,” which excludes bond and interest payments (the money spent to build the actual classrooms) as well as capital outlay costs (often, the money spent to outfit the classrooms with desks and chairs, computers and other equipment).

According to those reports, operating expenditures are broken out into 10 categories that are defined by U.S. Census Bureau standards.

The report for Lawrence USD 497 shows that in the 2010-2011 school year, the district spent 61.76 percent of its operating funds on “instruction” – or, “activities dealing directly with the interaction between teachers and students,” according the Census Bureau definition.

That was a little higher than the statewide average of 61.55 percent for instructional costs.

Under that definition, however, the salary of a football coach counts as an instructional cost, but the salary of a librarian does not. Nor do guidance counselors, school nurses, school psychologists, speech pathologists and a host of other education professionals, all of whom have direct contact with students and have a direct impact on student learning.

Library and media services fall under the category of support services for instructional staff. Counselors, psychologists and many other professionals are counted as support services for pupils.

Another major expense category not counted as instruction is the cost of public utilities: electricity, heating and air conditioning; running water for the bathrooms – all the things needed to keep buildings open, comfortable and safe for use. Those costs are classified as “operations and maintenance.”

If one counts those support services and costs for operations and maintenance as classroom expenses, then you can argue that roughly 80.71 percent of operating expenses in USD 497, and 79.92 percent statewide, are being spent “in the classroom.”

That compares with roughly 10 percent going for administrative overhead. The remaining 9 percent is generally for transportation, food service and other miscellaneous expenses.

Based on that, the next questions for the governor’s task force ought to be why they consider those percentages to be out of line, what do they think the percentages ought to be, and what improvements in the quality of education do they expect to achieve by shifting the percentages.

In other news …

• Ticket presales for the Oct. 26 Lawrence High vs Free State High football game at Lawrence High will begin on Monday. Ticket prices are $7 for adults and $5 for students. Tickets will be sold in the finance offices at both LHS and FSHS. Ticket holders will be able to go straight to the ticket takers to be admitted to the game on Oct. 26. Gates open for the game at 5:15 p.m.

• The next Project Graduation Parent meeting will be a 7 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Free State High School Library. Organizers are looking for committee chairs for Publicity, Decorations, Volunteers and Survey/Parent Letter. Anyone interested can email Diane Becker at, Angie Evers at or Michelle Fales at