Public Policy Forum Blog

A closer look at non-instructional expenditures in suburban school districts

The Forum released a new report this morning that examines out-of-classroom expenditures in Milwaukee County's suburban school districts. The examination was prompted by the increased pressure faced by most districts to identify operational cost savings while also maintaining or enhancing academic performance. Given the apparent conflict between the two imperatives, non-instructional areas of spending are likely to receive increased focus for possible cost-saving opportunities, including possible service sharing with other districts or local governments.

The report focuses on the dollars spent on non-instructional support services, including administrative, "back office" functions (e.g. payroll, accounting, information technology); administration of ongoing operations and school buildings; non-instructional pupil services, such as social work and guidance; and instructional staff services, such as curriculum development and staff training.

Among our key findings:

  • Milwaukee County suburban school districts tend to spend more on support services per pupil than their peers from across the state. This finding is particularly perceptible for the smaller and wealthier school districts in the county.
  • Fourteen of the 17 Milwaukee County suburban districts are at or above their peer medians in support services expenditures when measured as a percentage of total expenditures. Consequently, support services expenditures constitute a greater proportion of these districts’ budgets and require a greater share of district revenues.
  • There is considerable variation within Milwaukee County in support services expenditures per pupil, ranging from $3,220 at Oak Creek-Franklin to $7,035 at Nicolet, and from 29% of total expenditures at Cudahy to 39% at Nicolet and Fox Point-Bayside. Nicolet and its small feeder districts, among the wealthiest districts in terms of property values, generally have the highest expenditure totals per pupil, while the largest districts (Oak Creek-Franklin, West Allis, and Wauwatosa) are among the lowest.
  • Many Milwaukee County suburban districts are cooperating with neighboring school districts in providing administrative and other services. Nevertheless, the report identifies three areas of shared services saving opportunities that may hold promise for additional cost savings: cooperative health insurance purchasing, back-office operations, and regional networking.

The report finds that consolidation of back office operations is perhaps the most intriguing of the three options examined, particularly for the Nicolet district and its three feeder districts, all of which are small in size, with high costs, and a tradition of inter-district cooperation. Residents in small- and medium-sized districts in the southern part of the county also might find this attractive given their traditional concerns about cost, and the fact that district borders cross several other municipal taxing jurisdictions, allowing costs to be spread among a larger tax base.

We hope the suburban school districts will consult the expenditure data included in this report as they consider internal fiscal and program evaluations and contemplate budget strategies. We fully expect each district to do so, of course, in the context of its own fiscal and educational circumstances, which may include a preference for a level of services that costs more, but that they determine best meets student needs.

A full copy of the report can be accessed here, and our media release here.

Rob Henken