PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Fighting for dollars in the classroom was one of the biggest talking points in the Red for Ed movement last year to improve accountability in Arizona schools.
Our team of reporters and producers at Arizona's Family ran the numbers and compared the outcomes for students and schools across our state to see where that benchmark is paying off and how some districts are getting away with spending a lot less to achieve similar success.
No one wants to reduce our children to dollar signs.
But if we want to invest and grow their success, we have to ask if the money spent on each student adds up to higher test scores and better school performance.
"Dollars in the classroom is our No.1 priority," Vesely said.
Kyrene is comprised of 25 schools, 92% of which are getting an A or B grade. She says that has a lot to do with the fact they're spending more in the classroom -- $4,685 per student, 5% more than the state average of $4,480.
"That is absolutely a point of pride because as we look for efficiencies in effectiveness in our district; we keep cuts away from the classroom," Vesely said.
Paige Janty is a mom and a teacher at Kyrene.
"To me, that's important because I know it means the district is thinking about the children first," Janty said. "As a parent and an educator, I want to see passion. And I know that I see that in every single person who works on this campus."
Tracking dollars in the classroom doesn't just make good fiscal sense, it's the law.
[SPECIAL SECTION: State of Our Schools: The search for solutions]
Instructional dollars in the classroom covers salary and benefits for teachers and aides, and classroom supplies, like scissors and workbooks, pencils, and paper.
Kyrene's counterparts that are spending $1,000 less per pupil with 100% A or B schools would argue that more dollars in the classroom does not equate to successful schools.
"The majority of those dollars are going to teacher salaries in our district," Vesely said.
Kyrene has one of the best average teacher salaries, at $53,111 for the 2019-'20 school year. It's one reason Vesely says they have zero vacancies while other schools struggle with teacher shortages.
"We stay very, very competitive because we believe truly that teachers attain a high degree of education," she said. "They are professionals, and they deserve a professional salary."
Mary Jo Conery, assistant superintendent for Catalina Foothills in Tucson, says they are winning by spending considerably less, $3,788 a student, 15% less than the state average.
"Obviously, more dollars can make a difference," Conery said.
CFSD's average teacher salary is $52,417 this year, one of the highest averages in southern Arizona.
"I think that every dollar we spend is with intention," Conery said.
And their stats are pretty impressive.
100% A or B schools
99% attendance rate
97.5% graduation rate
90% college attendance rate
Renee Shane Boyd leads the biggest band in the state at Catalina Foothills High School.
"When I first started teaching in the district, we had one junior high and two elementary schools and virtually all the kids in the district were from this little area. Now I think we're at least over 40% open enrollment," Shane Boyd said.
She says families want to be at CFSD and those parents pump in a lot of supplemental dollars beyond the arts and extracurriculars.
Leah Glashow-Mandel, the professional learning program specialist at CFSD, says they make it a priority to give their teachers more training and more discretion to modify lessons based on the dynamics of who's in the room teaching and learning.
"So we don't have pacing guidelines where everyone needs to be on the same page at the same time because we're all working towards those same transfer goals," Glashow- Mandel said.
"The amount of money spent in the classroom will define how your year goes," said Jessica Creswell, starting her fifth year teaching in the Cave Creek District.
She spends a lot of her own money in her classroom.
The Cave Creek District is spending $3,880 per pupil on instruction, 13% less than the state average, and yet they also have 100% A or B schools.
"You may make a higher salary somewhere else, but you may not enjoy the camaraderie, the teamwork, the leadership at that place you work, so money isn't always the No. 1 thing," said Cave Creek Superintendent Dr. Debbi Burdick.
She says her district with seven schools covering Cave Creek, Carefree, Maricopa County, north Phoenix, and Scottsdale can't keep up with higher teacher salaries. The CCSD average of $47,065 is about $6,000 less than Kyrene.
"So, we're trying to keep up with making sure that we're providing the most engaging, exciting learning experience we can for them every single day," Burdick said.
CCSD is the only district in the state offering full immersion in Mandarin, French and Spanish, and, like Catalina Foothills, they rely on boosters and community donations to provide more options, like the only full equine and horsemanship program in the country.
"I love it. I have a passion for teaching," Creswell said. "I love working with the kids, so that's what keeps me here. A lot of the teachers in our district stay. They do," Creswell said.
At last check, there were only three vacancies in Cave Creek.
Back in Kyrene, Vesely says dollars in the classroom isn't the only meter to their success.
"I would say it's the whole package," Vesely said.
The same way focusing on the whole student inspired their Family Resource Center -- where families can get free food, clothes, and supplies -- on campus at Kyrene de los Niños Elementary, Vesely says she saw a need for a counselor on every campus and reworked the bell and bus schedule to free up $700,000 to make it happen.
With more than three times the schools and students compared to CCSD and CFSD, Vesely says she has to run her district like a corporation to avoid surprise operational costs.
"Over 10 years, I can tell you when every fan is going to be replaced," she said. "I can tell you when we are going to be doing upgrades on our air conditioning, our roofing."
And it has to be that precise when you boil down the difference it could make taking any money away from students in the classroom.
[SPECIAL SECTION: State of Our Schools: The search for solutions]
The latest Arizona Auditor General report from 2018, which was just published this spring, found Arizona schools are averaging 54 cents to the dollar in the classroom. While that's up for the second consecutive year, it's still down 4.6% from our peak fiscal year in 2004.