I wrote previously about some problems with the Kentucky School Report Cards. One issue surfaced when I linked to a different page in a school’s report. Suddenly, the school for which the data was being reported changed without warning. I also discussed the misleading nature of bar graphs on one of the report card’s sub-pages.
But, there is at least one more important issue that needs discussion.
As a requirement of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are required to report school-level financial data beginning with the 2018-19 school year.
Such financial data was only added to the Kentucky School Report Cards fairly recently. This includes added “Financial Transparency” entries in each school’s online report card web pages and a new Excel spreadsheet showing “School Level Spending Per Student.” Both the Excel and the Report Cards contain spending numbers for each school in the commonwealth. But, let me show you some things I found as I started to examine this data using the Excel spreadsheet.
The first surprise concerned the Paris Middle School. This surprise shows up in the Excel spreadsheet and also appears on the home page of Paris Middle’s Kentucky School Report Card.
Let’s see how that report card page looked. To get to this page, I started on the home page for the Kentucky School Report Cards. I clicked in the search window and started typing “Paris Middle School.” Before I had typed in the full name, a pop up saying “Paris Middle School” along with its address appeared. I clicked on this pop up and a new web page opened. This new page was the home web page for Paris Middle’s specific Kentucky School Report Card.
It took a little time for the data to fill in on Paris Middle’s home page, but once the data load was complete, I scrolled to the bottom of the page.
By the way, I first tried this on July 2, 2020, several days after downloading the Excel spreadsheet. I pulled Paris Middle’s school report card up again on July 3, 2020 and took the screen shot that you see below in Figure 1 (with some added notes in red). I tried this again on July 8, 2020, and the same page data loaded.
Check Figure 1 out. According to its home Kentucky School Report Card web page, the Paris Middle School spent an absolutely enormous sum of $1,304,139 per student in 2018-19!
Well, not really.
For some initial clues regarding this massive error, note that right next to the incredible Paris Middle School spending figure, which I circled in red to make it easier to find, you will see the entire Paris Independent School District’s average per pupil expenditure for 2018-19 was only $14,009, almost exactly the same as the Kentucky-wide spending average per student of $14,063.
Clearly, there is no way the middle school spent so much more per student. It is nonsense. Some sort of typo or formula error.
But, that huge per student spending figure got listed on the official report card and in the related Excel spreadsheet. And, this nonsense School Report Card figure remained unchanged as of 2:45 pm on July 8, 2020.
How did this happen? Click the “Read more” link to find out.
I called the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) on July 2, 2020 to find out what was going on. It turns out the districts load data for their schools into the database used to populate the Kentucky School Report Cards. Furthermore, the KDE has no way to check on the accuracy of these figures. Certainly, no one checked the Paris Middle School entry.
The department promised this will be fixed, by the way, but as of the afternoon on July 8, 2020, such action is still to come.
I spotted more during my Excel spreadsheet ranking.
Right below Paris Middle School, four schools in the Hardin County School District – Creekside Elementary School, Meadow View Elementary School, North Park Elementary School and North Hardin High School – all had improbably huge spending figures as well. They ranged from Creekside’s $262,794 total per pupil spending figure down to a still highly inflated $149,721 for North Hardin High. Not Likely!
What made this more interesting is that some other Hardin County schools had much lower total spending amounts, with the West Hardin Middle School showing only an $11,476 per pupil total spending. Thus, an error in understanding how to program the Excel spreadsheet that would impact all the Hardin schools simply didn’t happen. Something else is at work here.
So, I put a call into the Hardin County district finance office and Jessica Annis was really surprised to hear that any of the district’s schools had such huge total per student spending amounts listed, confirming those $100,000 plus amounts were definitely wrong.
By the way, as of July 8, 2020, North Hardin High’s Kentucky School Report Card home page still looks as it did earlier when I grabbed this screenshot shown in Figure 2.
Again the $149,721 total spending per student amount for North Hardin High shown in Figure 2 is just plain wrong.
There is a lot more going on in the Excel spreadsheet, by the way.
The sheet shows a number of different funding amounts for each school. These include spending from federally-sourced funds listed as:
- Personnel Spending per Student – Federal Funds
- Non-Personnel Spending per Student – Federal Funds
- Total Spending per Student – Federal Funds
Also included are spending amounts for local plus state funds combined:
- Personnel Spending per Student – State/Local Funds
- Non-Personnel Spending per Student – State/Local Funds
- Total Spending per Student – State/Local Funds
Finally, there is an overall total spending column:
- Total Spending per Student – All Fund Sources
I wondered if the “Personnel Spending per Student – Federal Funds” plus the “Non-Personnel Spending per Student – Federal Funds” figures would sum to the amount shown as “Total Spending Per Student – Federal Funds.” The answer was, only for some schools. In a number of cases, the sum of the parts didn’t equal the total, sometimes creating differences as high as $13,544. Even more interesting, sometimes the total amount was much less than the sum of the parts, but in other cases the total was much larger than the sum of the personnel and non-personnel figures. Go figure.
I found similar mysteries when I looked at the State/Local Funds totals compared to the personnel plus non-personnel spending totals for State/Local Funds, but the largest differences were notably larger, as high as $36,2745 in the case of North Hardin High School.
I also added the personnel and non-personnel funds from federal sources to the personnel and non-personnel funds from State/Local sources and compared that to the reported Total Spending Per Student – All Fund Sources figures.
Again, chaos – and North Hardin High School bubbled to the top with an enormous difference between the sum of the parts and the supposed overall total figure. That seems to be driven in part by a reported $333,624 figure for Personnel Spending per Student – State/Local Funds for North Hardin High. That sub-figure is actually much larger than the also incredibly large Total Spending per Student – All Fund Sources amount of $149,721 that we discussed earlier and saw in Figure 2. Total isn’t total in this case.
Some other interesting stuff has shown up for schools at the opposite end of my Excel spreadsheet analyses.
The Bedford Elementary School in Trimble County only reported personnel spending per student of $421 from federal sources and just $597 from the combined state/local pot. That adds up to a personnel funding amount of just $1,018 per student total. Consider what this means for an elementary school classroom with 16 students. That class’ teacher could only be paid $16,288 per year if this were really the case.
As a note, the latest classroom teacher salary information from the Kentucky Department of Education shows the average teacher in Trimble County was paid $51,220 in the 2018-19 school year. In a class of 16 students, that works out to $3,201 per student. And, still more money would have to be added to this for the principal, secretary and probably a number of other personnel in the school, too. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Another issue that showed up is how short-term grant money is handled. Grants can notably increase per pupil amounts in a school, but as short-term situations, the data might not be very comparable to other years for the same school or to other schools, as well. This is not a simple issue to solve, but it needs attention.
So, here’s the bottom line. Right now, I’m not comfortable using the numbers in the Excel spreadsheet or on the school report card web pages. Too much just doesn’t add up – sometimes literally. And, this is really unfortunate. With accurate funding data, school systems might be able to make a much better case when they need more money, and the public could better check on their education bang for the buck, too. Right now, all of that is out of reach. Hopefully, people working together can improve the situation and give the public real “Financial Transparency,” just as the report cards promise.