Santa Monica High School students leave campus. (File photo)

Santa Monica High School students leave campus. (File photo)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Average per-pupil spending in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District ranges widely across its 18 schools and lags slightly behind state spending, according to a report released by public school officials.

Olympic High School sees the highest expenditures with $6,682 per student, followed by Point Dume Marine Sciences Academy in Malibu at $5,388.

At the bottom is Roosevelt Elementary School, with $4,150 per student, followed by Franklin and John Muir elementary schools.

Schools build upon that baseline with “supplemental” dollars, which can raise the overall amount by as much as $1,500 per student.

That shifts John Muir Elementary School up, with Santa Monica High School replacing it as one of the lowest “earners” with only $4,978 to spend.

On average, the district spends $5,303 per student compared to $5,455 in the state.

The numbers are a “good benchmark,” but mask a lot of details about each of the schools that help explain the wide variation, said Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer.

Supplies and materials cost the same across the board, and it’s impossible to take advantage of economies of scale when the school in question has only a couple hundred students.

Schools with smaller student bodies will naturally have higher per-pupil expenditures because they have a similar amount of administrative overhead in terms of principals and other personnel, Maez said.

The cost of those personnel also counts.

“If the staff is very veteran and at the top end of the salary schedule, you could have schools of the same size and show higher cost per pupil,” Maez said.

Exactly what goes into per pupil spending is something of a mystery, said Carrie Hahnel, director of Policy and Research with Education Trust West, a nonprofit focused on California education policy.

“It would be helpful if there were state guidelines that stated what should be included in the (school accountability report cards), but there aren’t,” Hahnel said.

Inquiries to the state for their accountability report card requirements resulted in directions to a document that defines what fields are necessary in the report card that relate to per-pupil spending, but doesn’t dictate how to come up with the numbers.

School officials also struggled to come up with the list of numbers included in their accounting by deadline.

“The per-pupil figures that you’re looking at don’t make a lot of sense,” Hahnel said. “It makes a lot of sense to wipe out the existing formula and rewrite it.”

She hopes that is one of the many things that will come out of Gov. Jerry Brown’s newest proposal to shift more control over school finances to the district level. If embraced by the legislature, Brown’s concept would scrap a number of specialized funds that snarl accounting.

It might be time to put more thought into compensation structures for teachers as well, Hahnel said.

Schools with higher per-pupil costs may not be getting superior instruction just because their teachers have been in the business longer than others. Teaching remains one of the few professions where pay scale is primarily dictated by how long an employee has been with a district rather than performance.

More experience does not always mean better teaching, although research conducted by Education Trust West also suggests that schools with higher levels of low-income students tend to have younger, less experienced teachers and commensurately less money spent per child, Hahnel said.

“We need to have an honest conversation about what it means to be a good teacher,” Hahnel said.

California lags behind many other states in per pupil spending, particularly those in the northeast. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 per pupil spending in California was $9,375 per student — using a very different accounting than the accountability report card — while New Jersey spent $16,841.

While extra dollars and resources help, you can’t count California out, Hahnel said.

“When I look at schools out east, I do feel jealous because they have more opportunity and can offer students more,” she said. “But that doesn’t take the place of innovative thinking, great teaching and high expectations that can’t be bought by dollars.”

 

ashley@smdp.com