(MCT) — The cost of educating public school students in Illinois continues to go up in the face of a struggling economy that has forced teacher layoffs and led to cuts in state education aid, new state data show.
Per-pupil spending for 2010-11 stands at $11,664 statewide, with a handful of districts now spending more than $25,000 per child. Average teacher salaries are $66,614, while the average administrator makes $110,870.
In 2007, per-pupil spending was $9,488; the average teacher salary was $58,275 and the average administrator salary was $102,301.
The figures come from the annual Illinois School Report Card, which is being released Wednesday. The report card highlights results on state achievement tests but also provides parents and the public key financial information about school districts, from how much they spend per student to how much, on average, teachers and administrators earn, and whether districts are spending more than they take in.
School district officials say increases in spending are tied to several factors, including multiyear teacher contracts with built-in raises, some of which were signed before the economy went south and the state fell behind on sending millions of dollars to districts.
Even when the state doesn't come through, districts have to keep paying their bills, which keep going up, said Michael Jacoby, a former school superintendent who is now executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.
"Insurance costs continue to rise. ... There's been inflation on supplies and materials, utility costs have gone up. Basically it is just like any normal household — the cost of living continues to increase," Jacoby said.
Some districts had to dip into reserves or make cuts in other areas to keep up with those expenses as well as obligations in teacher contracts, he said.
Critics say school districts are overspending at taxpayer expense.
"We've been saying all along that all these cries of poverty in education are nothing but cries for more revenue," said John Tillman, CEO of the fiscally conservative Illinois Policy Institute.
Per-pupil figures are a broad measure of district spending because they encompass money for teacher and administrator salaries, supplies, building maintenance, transportation and a host of other operating expenses. By and large, teacher and staff salaries make up the biggest part of school district budgets.
Higher per-pupil spending has not been conclusively linked to better student performance, said Glenn "Max" McGee, the former state education superintendent.
"There is really not a direct correlation between spending and achievement," said McGee, who has studied school finance in relation to gaps in achievement between white and minority students. "Money helps and money matters, but there is not a direct correlation between money and performance."
Stanford University scholar Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, agreed, saying that "money alone is not sufficient to get achievement gains." He, too, is critical of schools that he said are constantly on the lookout for more money.
"Spending on education is a political matter, and (districts) have found it very convenient to convince people that schools are being cut to the bone even when they're spending more, because that makes their case that we should put more money into schools," Hanushek said.
At Sunset Ridge School District 29, a two-school district in the north suburbs, per-pupil spending in 2010-11 was $21,606, the eighth-highest in the state — a slight decline from the year before, which the district attributed to a change in daily attendance figures that affect the per-pupil calculation.
One of the schools in the district is Middlefork School in Northfield, whose principal, Mary Frances Greene, said she believes money does matter. The K-3 school has only 186 students. Class sizes are small, all children get access to laptops and the school has been able to keep programs that struggling districts have been forced to cut, such as music, art and recess, she said. "This is a great, great little school," Greene said.
At Middlefork, 100 percent of third-graders passed the state achievement exam in reading last spring, and 98 percent passed the state math exam.
But in another high-spending district, Will County's one-school Union School District 81, students didn't perform as well. Union spent $19,479 per student in 2010-11, up from $18,379 the year before and more than double the per-pupil expenditures five years ago. But on last spring's state exams, just 78 percent of students passed.
The new Union school superintendent, Tim Baldermann, said the Joliet district has only 105 students and brings in substantial revenue from a nearby industrial park, which accounts for the high per-pupil spending figure.
Several students have education challenges, which affect test scores, and the district has been criticized over nepotism and other issues. Baldermann said he's working on the problems. "We're changing the culture," he said. "We're focused on what matters now."
Districts in the Chicago area, with a higher cost of living than downstate, posted the highest average teacher and administrator salaries in the state. At Maine Township High School District 207, the average teacher salary rose to $116,044 in 2011-12, more than any other district. And Sunset Ridge School District 29 posted the highest average administrator salary, $202,228, up from $191,000 the year before.
In Maine District 207, spokesman David Beery stressed that the Park Ridge-based district has been making spending cuts — including eliminating 75 teaching jobs after the end of the 2009-10 school year.
Because teacher salaries are such a big part of a district's operating expenses, the layoffs ended up reducing district expenditures. Overall, spending per pupil declined to $15,839 in 2010-11, from $17,385 the year before, state data showed.
At the same time, the veteran teachers remaining on the payroll had higher salaries than the teachers who had been let go, Beery said. The result: The average teacher salary rose to $116,044 from $108,336 the year before.
Berry said the average teacher salary figure reflects pay increases in the final year of a contract negotiated in 2007, "which of course was a very different economic climate than we have today."
He also said the state's figure is "somewhat inflated" because of the way the Illinois State Board of Education calculates average teacher pay.
The same formula applies to all districts, but having more part-time employees on the payroll can influence the numbers in districts, including Maine, in the formula, state officials said. Beery said the average pay for Maine teachers in 2011-12 was probably closer to about $107,000.
Still, even that figure would put Maine in the top 10 districts in the state in terms of average teacher pay.
In Oak Lawn Community High School District 229, officials say they're trying to hold down spending after getting blindsided by the economic downturn.
The district has seen a 65 percent increase in average teacher pay in the last five years — the second-highest increase in the state. Average salary rose from about $56,000 to almost $93,000 from 2007 to 2012. Part of that increase stemmed from lengthening the school day and increasing salaries to compensate for that, Superintendent Michael Riordan said.
At negotiation time, the district didn't realize what was ahead.
"Going into the 2008-09 school year, right before the economy went crazy, we settled the five-year (teacher) contract and had incremental growth built in and we were sort of locked into that for five years," Riordan said. "Then the economy tanked and our revenue projections were not holding. We had some problems balancing budgets."
The solution was to work with the teachers union, which agreed to accept reductions in raises in the final two years of the contract, Riordan said.
The lesson to other districts is: "You have to live with that contract, unless you are able to work with your union and make adjustments."