Building outlay skews HAST per-student cost

2012-12-22T19:30:00Z 2012-12-23T23:38:05Z Building outlay skews HAST per-student costBy Carmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

A list of school expenditures of every school in Indiana has prompted a political blogger to post them online and present them as though they are actual and accurate per-student costs for each school. Local principals, superintendents and others said those calculations are misleading because they misrepresent the true per-student costs per school.

According to a recent blog by Indianapolis lawyer Abdul Hakem-Shabazz, if one counted local revenue and the cost of new construction, the Hammond Academy of Science and Technology is the most expensive place in Indiana to educate a student at $34,915 per student.

Such figures for all schools in the state were put together by the Indiana Department of Education at the request of a board member, said spokeswoman Stephanie Sample.

The Hammond Academy of Science and Technology is a charter school, opened in August 2011, touted as the brainchild of Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

It specifically received total revenue of $10,251,716 in 2011 and had  expenditures of $10,439,538. It has 299 students.

HAST Principal Sean Egan is quick to point out, however, those 2011 revenue and expenditure calculations published by the Department of Education's Office of School Finance do not accurately illustrate school financing and school operations at the academy.

"The local revenues in excess of $6 million that account for three-fifths of the DOE's total for Hammond Academy were not used on the operational side of instruction at the Hammond Academy," Egan said.

He said those funds, instead, were integral to constructing its new school building.

"In larger districts, such expenditures can be distributed over long-term bonds and divided by a larger population. In our case, the funds were spent upfront; the state then took that sum and divided it by our 299 students from 2011," Egan said. "This misrepresentation of spending has greatly skewed our per-pupil expenditure for the 2011 school year."

Egan said if the local revenues are removed from the calculations, it actually costs $13,925.67 per student. And if one looks at the state's general fund allotment for the 2010-11 school year, which goes mostly to salaries and benefits, the school's per-student spending is actually $6,726.10.

The DOE's Sample said it's a fair report, but she acknowledged it tells only part of the story about school funding and the actual cost per student, because the DOE figures Hakim-Shabazz used in his blog report include money that is not used for instructional purposes such as debt and capital projects funding.

 Comparing apples to oranges

Robert Lendi, Hammond City controller, said the ratio applied to HAST is a "naive" and misleading indicator that does not reflect the true per-student instructional cost. He said it represents a gross figure of the money the school received divided by the total number of students.

"The school itself was a redevelopment project because the Masonic Temple used to be at that site," Lendi said. "We had to demolish the temple and remediate the site, relocate utilities, move and create new roads, access and easements. There was significant redevelopment. Those are not expenses which will be reported again, so the numbers are skewed for the first year."

School superintendents in the School Town of Munster and the Duneland School Corp. agree with Lendi.

Duneland Superintendent Dirk Baer said it's not a fair comparison as it doesn't compare apples to apples; it includes building funds, grants, federal money and other one-time or extra funds that not every school gets and that is not spent solely on instruction.

"It just gives you a number. I'm not sure that it tells you anything," Baer said. "We'll be a little higher on capital projects but lower on the general fund."

Munster Superintendent Richard Sopko said it makes no sense to generate a report based on all federal, state and local dollars received by a school district.

"We have undergone a lot of building," he said. "The elementary buildings and the high school were deteriorating badly. We needed to upgrade. Since facilities are provided through local dollars, it's very easy to skew those numbers."

The figures for all schools were highlighted in early December in Hakim-Shabazz's news and political blog, called indypolitics.org.

Hakim-Shabazz said it's the schools' mission to educate students. "Whether it's the janitor who is cleaning the building, the person making the lunches or direct teaching, all of that goes toward education," he said.

A self-professed fan of charter schools, Hakim-Shabazz said people always debate whether schools have enough money, but the real question is whether the public is getting the best "bang for the buck."

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