Pickups and Schools

Pickups and Schools

This year has brought some big changes for me. Among them, I am not commuting 120 miles a
day anymore. I also traded my 10-year-old
Nissan pickup on a new Ford F150. These
changes made me think about an interesting argument made by a Kansas policy group
about median spending in schools. The
argument is the Legislature should take the median spending level for
schools and limit spending to that median for each spending category. The assumption, I guess, is that any spending
above the median for each category is wasteful.

So let’s take a look at two hypothetical situations, call
them medians for 2014JH and 2016JH. (Since
I only had two data sets, I used average instead of median for a measure of
central tendency.)

Spending Category               2014JH
      2016JH Monthly       Average
Vehicle Maintenance                       $200                        $20                     $110
Gas                                                   $360                        $20                     $190
Principal and Interest                        $0                           $400                   $200

Based upon this comparison and the policy group’s reasoning,
2014JH is overspending on monthly maintenance by $90 and gas by $170, whereas
2016JH is grossly overspending on principal and interest by $200! These two JH’s are obviously on vehicular
spending sprees. The differences in
travel and age of vehicle explain the differences.

So let’s look at two large districts in a metropolitan
area. One district, call them Metro
City, is at the city core. Their
buildings were primarily built in the 1950s and ‘60s. The bond debt has been paid off for years,
but these buildings require as much or more maintenance as a 2006 Nissan
pickup. Their maintenance and energy
costs will be relatively high, certainly higher than the median.

Red River, the second district is in the same metropolitan
area and has been growing rapidly. All
of their buildings have been built since the 1980s. Because of the rapid growth, they add a new
school building every year or so. This
district’s bond and interest costs will be far above the Metro City’s and above
the median in their category. But
because they built with modern designs and materials, their energy costs are
far less than the median. Maintenance
costs on their newer facilities will be less than Metro City and the median.

If one is looking for a way to take cheap shots at different
district’s spending levels in different categories, they would say Metro City
is wasteful and inefficient because of high energy and maintenance costs out of
one side of their mouth and Red River is wasteful and inefficient because of
high bond and interest costs out of the other, while ignoring the obvious big
picture differences.

Kansas School districts are as different as the children they
serve. Garden City and Maize have
similar enrollments, but are unique in more ways than my short blog can
list. Should we really expect them to be
at the same median spending levels in total in categories? If you believe that, you haven’t driven a
Ford lately.