Education advocates call state audit report 'misleading'

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

The Arizona Auditor General's Office has been putting this audit report together for 16 years. But this year's report is drawing fire, not because of what it contains, but because of what school officials, teachers and education advocates say it leaves out.

The report's headline reads, "Continuing its long decline, classroom spending decreased to 53.5 percent, its lowest point since monitoring began in 2001."

The report, which you can find here, contains facts and figures that show Arizona school districts are spending less in the classroom, and more on administration and other expenses, when compared to past years, and when compared to other states.

"I don't think the report is telling the big story here," said Tim Hogan, who is the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

He has spent years, decades to be exact, fighting court battles against state lawmakers in an effort to force them to spend more money on education.

[RELATED: Parents, teachers rally for more influence on education funding]

Hogan says the audit report is missing the "why." He argues that districts are forced to divert dollars away from the classroom because the state has drastically reduced the amount of money it gives districts for capital improvements, like school buses, roofs and air conditioners.

"School districts aren't getting any of that kind of funding anymore for the school buses, the buildings and facilities. So it's got to come out of this budget. And that means it's not going into the classroom," said Hogan.

One representative from the Arizona Association of School Business Officials told CBS 5 Investigates he is disappointed with the formula the auditors used to calculate classroom spending.

Chuck Essigs says a more fair calculation would include special education, counselors and other student support in the equation, because many of those expenses are mandatory and they directly impact classroom learning. Including those categories would dramatically increase the percentage of classroom spending, which is a priority for the governor and many state lawmakers.

The audit report was compiled for the governor and state lawmakers, and one official with the Arizona Education Association said she's worried that state leaders could use the report as an excuse to say schools are wasting money outside the classroom.

A spokesman for Governor Doug Ducey responded to emailed questions stating that last year's Prop. 123 had not fully affected classroom spending during the last school year, when the audit was undertaken.

[READ MORE: Ducey focuses on education in State of the State address]

"Next year's data should be more reflective of what's happening in our schools," wrote Daniel Scarpinato. 

"The governor has made it clear he wants more money in K-12 education and in the classroom. His budget, which includes fully funding inflation and $114 million on top of that, and his advocacy for Prop. 123 were driven by that desire," wrote Scarpinato.

[RELATED: Gov. Ducey declares victory for Prop. 123]

The Auditor General's manager of the division of school audits, Michael Quinlan, sent the following statement in an email:

"Our report provides a large amount of information for decision makers, including school district officials, governing board members, legislators, and parents, to see how their school district is operating in comparison with similar districts and in comparison with state and national averages. 

We follow a nationally recognized definition of classroom spending that allows for a comparison between Arizona school districts as well as comparisons with national averages.  Related to special education, some special education costs, such as salaries of teachers and instructional aides, are included in classroom spending, while other costs, such as speech pathologists and counselors, are included in student support services. Grouping any of the spending categories together makes it more difficult for us to evaluate how we differ as a State from the Nation. 

Additionally, as stated in our report, the percentage of resources spent in the classroom declined both during years of increased and decreased overall spending. Further, our performance audits have identified opportunities for improved efficiency at many districts, which could potentially allow more money to be spent in the classroom."

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards , two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. Last fall, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle, in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is a graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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