(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – A new report released today from the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions points to a number of disappointing problems with new, school-level financial data released by the Kentucky Department of Education in May.
“Kentucky’s School Financial Reports Just Don’t Add Up,” a Policy Point paper from institute education analyst Richard Innes, identifies several major concerns with the new school-level financial data, which was required for the first time for the 2018-19 school year by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.
The institute’s report, which examines both school report cards and spreadsheets with the financial information for every public school in Kentucky, is critical of the fact that only limited data is presented and therefore what is provided is not terribly informative.
School-level funding is only broken out into two major categories: spending for personnel and spending for non-personnel items. The former does not differentiate between teachers’ salaries and salaries paid to all other school staff. The latter seems to mash together all other spending in each school.
In addition to the extremely limited spending categories, the sources for the spending are also incompletely detailed. The personnel spending is listed from two different source groups: federal and a combination of state plus local dollars. There is no breakout of separated state and local spending amounts. Non-personnel spending is also only listed by federal or state plus local sources.
Due to this limitation, there is no way for parents, taxpayers and local citizens to determine how much state versus local money is provided to their school. This information, vital to the discussion about how much the local community puts up to fund each school, is simply unavailable in the new funding data.
Even worse, beyond the very limited and not terribly useful breakout of the school financial data, during its initial examination of the spreadsheet data, the institute discovered that some of the actual numbers reported are obviously wrong.
The most obvious error involves Paris Middle School. According to both this school’s online report card and the Excel spreadsheet, Paris Middle School spent an astonishingly unreasonable amount of $1,304,139 per pupil. Given that the statewide average spending per pupil is far lower, at only $14,063, such a huge error should have tripped immediate flags. This never should have even been reported. But, even as late as November 10, 2020, over four months after the institute identified the problem to staff at the Kentucky Department of Education, this number is still shown in the Financial Transparency section of the Paris Middle School’s report card.
The institute’s report shows Paris Middle School is far from the only example of obviously erroneous data. Several schools in the Hardin County School District show per pupil spending amounts ranging from $149,721 to $262,794 per pupil. Again, these figures are way out of line with the statewide average spending and should have triggered immediate flags for more investigation before the public was ever presented with such nonsense. Also, in many cases reported sums of the individual spending amounts don’t agree with the actual sums of those sub-amounts. Nevertheless, these errors also live on in the report cards many months after they were discovered.
The report also discusses a disturbing fact: in a particularly poorly informed decision the Kentucky Board of Education dropped its finance committee right after all the members were completely replaced last December. That committee was formed by the previous board to address better reporting of education finances. Along with the delays in fixing known errors, the current board’s action signals there might be a lack of interest in fixing these problems.
Overall, the institute’s report finds that the Kentucky Department of Education’s first attempt to comply with ESSA falls way short of what is needed. Data limited to the point of uselessness and which, at least sometimes, is obviously in serious error isn’t the intent of the federal legislation. The apparent lack of interest in fixing erroneous figures is disturbing as well.
The report makes recommendations for how to improve the situation. These include making internal improvements such as enabling software to catch seriously out of line figures like those listed for Paris Middle School and providing more detailed information. The report also suggests there is a need to create an external civilian/researcher oversight committee to advise the board and the Kentucky Department of Education on how to make the school-level financial reports more useful and accurate.