News: CJ Exclusives

Char-Meck Schools Open Their Books to the Web

At minimal cost, district provided spending at every CMS school

Much of public education policy and funding are driven by aggregated data, collected and analyzed for entire districts, counties, or states. The final application of those high-level decisions, though, involves much smaller parts of the educational system — the schools and programs closest to students — and many times the statistics used to inform school boards, superintendents and principals are unavailable to families and taxpayers.

This year, the state’s second largest school system has taken a step to open its books to the community. Where other Local Education Agencies and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction publish only the aggregated numbers, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has posted data on its website detailing per pupil expenditures at every school in the system.

Even better, the additional cost to provide these detailed statistics was basically zero.

“The rationale is that all that information is in the CMS Equity Report,” explained Lauren Bell, the district’s public information officer. “Now you can just go to one place where the data is easy to understand, explained in common language, and find anything you need to know about that school.”

(To retrieve PDF versions of the reports, visit the school board’s website, go to item V, Report E.)

CMS’s Committee on Equity was created to monitor effects of ending Charlotte’s decades-long court-ordered busing. Its 114-page annual report includes demographic and economic data along with results of annual testing, all of which is available from several sources. The school-specific financial information, though, rarely is provided to the public. Bell said the financial tables on the website were extracted from the report “to make it more easily accessible and easy to navigate.”

Interested citizens can discover a host of information about the school system with a simple visit to the website. In 2009-10, for example, the average per-pupil spending among the 103 elementary schools was $5,878 per pupil. At individual schools, though, that number varied from $4,429 at Polo Ridge to $10,403 at Thomasboro Elementary. The latter school has the district’s second-highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, 95 percent, and the second lowest student-to-teacher ratio, slightly more than 10 students per teacher.

The range is tighter in the 33 middle schools, where the average $5,332 per student represented both Community House Middle School at $4,014 and Sedgefield Middle at $8,377. The 31 high school programs ranged from $4,538 at Hopewell to $10,086 at Midwood High School. Interestingly, Midwood not only has the system’s highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, 86 percent, and the lowest student-to-teacher ratio, 9.1, but also the least experienced faculty, averaging seven years in the classroom, compared with the LEA’s average of 11.5.

This level of detail is not as easy to find for other large LEAs. It is simple to discover that Wake County’s average per pupil expenditures are down 5.1 percent from fiscal year 2009 to 2010, from $8,220 to $7,801. It is not so simple to determine funding for Enloe High School, for example. The DPI website shows the magnet school’s enrollment as 2,605 in grades nine-12, but does not disclose any financial information.

Those wishing to gather that information can request the numbers directly, but response varies. Wake County Public School System’s spokesman Michael Evans referred Carolina Journal to the school board’s 224-page budget report, where the intended (not actual) per pupil expenditure might be calculated.

A caller to the financial services office at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was told, “We’re not the department to ask. We just spend money here.”

Mary Hazel Small, the chief financial officer of the New Hanover County Schools, summed up the difficulty for most districts. “Our system’s really not set up to track that number by school,” she said. “We have a lot of overhead which may not be associated with any one school.”

However, she freely shared a spreadsheet of PPE calculations that was prepared for internal use during the budgetary process. “It contains a lot of assumptions,” she cautioned. New Hanover’s per pupil expenditure ranges from $7,447 at Laney High School to $10,616 at Snipes Elementary, with higher figures for pre-K and alternative schools.

Hal Young is a contributor to Carolina Journal.