Education funding: State auditor critical of out-of-classroom spending in report some call ‘an attack job on public schools’

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Mississippi Auditor Shad White says “there’s never really a great time to release a report like this.” 

A day after Gov. Phil Bryant signed a $1,500 pay raise for public school teachers into law, the Mississippi Auditor’s office released a report criticizing the Mississippi Department of Education and local districts for spending too much money outside of the classroom.

If out of classroom spending “had been kept the same, per student, over the last ten years, Mississippi could afford to give a greater than $11,000 pay raise to every teacher in the state,” State Auditor Shad White’s office said in a report Wednesday.

The three-page report outlines K-12 spending in four categories: administrative, non-instructional, instructional and instruction support. The report suggests that while enrollment and teacher workforce have decreased over the years, spending has not.

Administrative expenses, like superintendent salaries, travel expenses, and school office costs, have increased more than 17 percent in the last 10 years with $968 million spent in the 2016-17 school year, according to the report.

The report goes on to mention that administrative and non-instructional expenses “do not directly impact students inside the classroom.”

In an email, the Mississippi Department of Education pushed back against the assertion.

“While teacher salaries make up the majority of spending on instruction, principals and other key administrators who are instructional leaders in their schools and districts have a direct impact on classroom learning,” the department said. “Mississippi students have achieved unprecedented gains in recent years as a result of the hard work and collective effort of teachers, staff and administrators in schools and districts across the state.”

Some argue the report and its content were published for political reasons.

“It’s an attack job on public schools basically,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of public school advocacy group The Parent’s Campaign. “What (Shad White) intended it to be was political cover for his buddies, and that should be a great big red flag to people when he is using his office to issue an audit like report which is really a political cover for leadership.”

White contested that notion, saying that there wouldn’t be a politically ideal time to release this information this year and that wasn’t reason enough to hold off on making his findings public.

“If I had released the report during session people would say, ‘Oh you did this to manipulate the political process and the conversation around teacher pay raises.’ If I had done it after the session, which we did, in the election year people would have said, ‘Oh you’re doing this to manipulate the election cycle.’ If I follow that logic then there’s never really a great time to release a report like this,” he said.

Earlier this year, the debate over teacher pay was a point of contention in the Legislature, where lawmakers eventually settled on $1,500 for teachers and assistant teachers. Once the bill passed, educators took to social media to express their disappointment in the amount and discuss the possibility of striking.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Gov. Phil Bryant speaks to an audience during MEC’s Capital Day 2019 at the Jackson Marriott Thursday, January 10, 2019.

Bryant signed the pay raise bill into law on April 16. On April 17, the auditor’s report was released, which stated spending outside of the classroom has “ballooned” in the last 10 years. Bryant applauded the report on Facebook.

“Good work here by Auditor Shad White,” the governor wrote. “We must address the issues with out-of-classroom spending and put more funding in the classroom with our students and teachers.”

The auditor’s report concludes that during that time period total spending on K-12  education had increased 12.89 percent to $5.5 billion while:

• Administrative spending, including for principals, increased 17.67 percent

• Non instructional support increased 10.67 percent

• Instruction increased 10.56 percent

• Instruction support  increased 20.26 percent

The Parent’s Campaign, which Loome is executive director of, said the auditor’s report does not tell the full picture in terms of education funding. The organization said cumulative inflation rate between 2007 and 2017 was 18.2 percent and that the total state budget, excluding education, had increased by 50 percent. Education funding, on the other hand, had increased by 9.5 percent, not keeping up with inflation.

White said he didn’t include inflation estimates in his report because the algorithm used to calculate it isn’t reliable for Mississippi’s purposes in that it measures the increase in the price of goods to the average urban consumer.

Mississippi, of course, is not an urban state. We’re a rural state. So it’s not obvious to me that CPI as a measure of inflation is all that great of a measure of the increase in the price of goods here in Mississippi,” he said. 

Since 2007, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the bulk of state funds for the basic operation of local school districts, had been underfunded by the Legislature by $2.5 billion. MAEP provides the state’s share of spending for everything from superintendents and administrative staff to utilities to textbooks to teacher salaries.

In a footnote, the report states that spending includes funds from federal, state and local sources, something Loome said is problematic.

“It is a violation of federal law to use federal funds to supplant state funds. Yet he is lumping all that together to say you should be spending more money on teacher salaries,” she said. “Teachers are just really angry and what it appears is that legislative leadership asked the state auditor to put this ridiculous piece out there that suggests that local districts could have found the money to give a teacher pay raise,” Loome said. “The Legislature sets the salary of teachers.”

There are also federal mandates in place that require districts to spend their federal funding for specific, outside of the classroom purposes such as free lunch programs. Producing a report that does not note those nuances and flatly categorizes it all as administrative spending appeared unfair and overly broad, other education advocates said.

Part of the purpose of the report is to shed light on those mandates. If there are big, federal mandates that are coming down that are requiring unnecessary or unreasonable administrative spending, then let’s start talking about it … at the same time – a lot of different parts of government gets mandates put on them from outside authorities … It’s very easy to let that new requirement serve as a justification for spending that is not necessary,” White said. 

The Mississippi Department of Education also noted that teacher salaries are a large part of school district budgets.

“Local districts set their budgets using the state-mandated teacher salary scale and by considering the administrative and operational costs needed to support teachers and students,” the department said.

The auditor’s report is correct in that enrollment has decreased in Mississippi public schools. This year 470,668 students are enrolled, down more than 20,000 children than in the 2008-09 school year.

While total school enrollment has dropped during that time period – 3 percent according to White – educators say the reduction would not necessarily be enough to close buildings, eliminating utility costs, or to reduce the number of administrators, lunch room workers, janitors, utility costs and the such.

“Our state’s total spending on K-12 education continues to increase,” White’s report said. “Mississippi policymakers need to ask hard questions about where the money is going, whether teachers and students are benefiting enough, and whether the spending is making a difference in student outcomes.”

According to the report, total education spending for the 2016-17 school year is $5.5 billion, which apparently consists of state, local and federal funds. Normally federal funds are earmarked for specific purposes. Of that $5.5 billion, about $3.1 billion is directed toward instruction and instruction support, according to the auditor’s report.

Contributing: Bobby Harrison