Very early in my career I was attempting to do a fiscal analysis on the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and found myself frustrated. Simple questions, like how much does MPS spend per-pupil, did not have simple answers. How could this be I wondered? I soon learned that definitions matter greatly in education finance.
For example, when attempting to find revenue per-pupil a researcher has to decide whether to divide total revenues by membership, or headcount. Membership is the number used for purposes of school aids, while headcount is actual students in seats. For example, a district may have 10,000 students but membership of only 9,800. Why? Half-day kindergarten students count as .5 fte. There are also other small things that make membership different than headcount (The LFB has a full discussion of this if interested), but the point is revenue per-member and revenue per-student are different numbers even though the actual amount of revenue received by a school district is a known number.
That is one small example, but one I think (I hope) illustrates the source of some of the confusion I’ve seen about the OASD referendum. There is a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo floating around showing that OASD’s revenue per-pupil was $11,537 in 2013-14. At the same time OASD’s own charts show their cost-per member as $11,265, (and an earlier version showed $10,808). So who is lying? The answer is nobody. The three numbers measure different things.
The LFB number, $11,537, is the total revenue received by the district in 2013-14 divided by the district membership ($113,793,892/9,863=$11,537). You can see all the numbers on DPI’s website under “Revenue Per-Member”: https://apps2.dpi.wi.gov/sdpr/district-report.action. The $11,265 numbers is total district cost divided by membership ($111,106,413/9,863=$11,265). This too is on the same DPI page: https://apps2.dpi.wi.gov/sdpr/district-report.action.
This begs the question, why is cost different than revenue? DPI’s helpful glossary page provides an explanation: http://dpi.wi.gov/wisedash/help/glossary. It is total education costs “plus food and community service costs.” What is total education cost?:
“This measure attempts to identify overall instructional and instructional support service costs attributable to district resident students. It can generally be described as the cost of the district’s General and Special Project funds, excluding transportation and facility acquisition expenditures, less inter-fund transfers and revenues for instructional services the district provides to non-resident pupils such as tuition receipts, CESA and cooperative agreements, and state inter-district integration aid.”
Confusing I know, but the key phrase is “district resident students.” Almost all school districts have pass-through funding, revenue for services provided to non-district students, and “transportation and facility acquisition expenditures” that exist but are not included in the education cost per-member number. Which brings me to the final $10,808 number. This appears to be an earlier version of the total education cost-per member, which is currently listed as $10,819 on this same DPI page: https://apps2.dpi.wi.gov/sdpr/district-report.action. My guess is the auditing of the number changed it slightly, which is common.
To view these numbers go to the link I keep posting: https://apps2.dpi.wi.gov/sdpr/district-report.action, scroll to Oshkosh Area School District, and click the “Staffing/Finance” tab. Everything is there. It is all publicly available, and it is all explained.