Education advocates call state audit report 'misleading'

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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 on the CBS 5 Investigates team. His reports have landed crooks behind bars and led to changes in state law.

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Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

He has exposed conmen who prey on the elderly and predators who target women and children. Morgan combines his legal training with the experience he’s earned over 20-years of news reporting in Arizona to break big stories and dig beyond the headlines. His stories about education, consumer scams and crooked politicians have gone on to make national headlines. Among his favorite investigations are the ones that take him undercover. In addition his hidden camera investigations on drug and human smuggling, Morgan infiltrated some of the most dangerous militia and vigilante groups in the southwest. Members were later charged with crimes that range from murder to child molesting. Over the years, Morgan’s work has appeared on CBS News, CNN, NBC, MSNBC, and NPR. Morgan won ten Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards, a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting, the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Amendment Award, and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. Morgan is a graduate of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, earned his Juris Doctorate at Concord Law School, teaches media law at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and is the president of the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, Inc., which advocates for open records and open government. When he’s not working, Morgan enjoys camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats, and spending time with his family at their ranch in southern Arizona.

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