What’s in a number?

What is Milford’s “real” cost per pupil?

Milford’s per pupil expenditure is “officially” $9,748 for FY 2010-11.  The cost/pupil is always a fun number; while it purports to reflect “the cost to educate a student” in each public school district, and to be comparable across the board, the reality is very different.

For instance, this number includes the cost of food service for each district.  In Milford’s case, this is extremely misleading: because our food service also services other districts, and all that cost is included in our number, the cost is much higher than it should be.  In addition, our food service not only pays for itself within the department, it also pays back the district for operational services provided (i.e., accounting, custodial, utilities).

Extended Day/Public Preschool is a similar situation to Food Service:  this program supports itself and “pays back” to the district.  Thus, no expense should be counted.  In fact, for both of these, the amount they paid back can be deducted, because it is counted in the General Fund as income and does not apply to the expense line.

One more addition to the 2010-11 number that does not reflect ongoing operations is Federal Stimulus and Ed Jobs funds.  This was money provided by the government above and beyond standard funding as part of the stimulus programs.  In Milford’s case, we used those funds to hire additional people who were with us only as long as the funds were – as soon as the money was gone, we reduced those positions.

These three items add up to $4.55 million in 2010-11.  This is money that should not be included in our cost/pupil number.  If we remove it, our “adjusted” number is $9,006 – almost 8% less than the “official” number.  And another important consideration:  this was before the district reduced spending another $2.1 million in 2011-12.

Another way this number is used is to compare it to past years to evaluate spending growth.  If you look at 2000-01’s cost/pupil of $6,704 and compare it to the “official” 2010-11 number of $9,748, it looks to the naked eye like Milford’s cost/pupil had increased 45%!

There are three problems with this:  1) that number is not comparable to the “official” number, due to the factors listed above; 2) 2000-01 had a similar problem with Food Service expenses and revenues; and 3) most importantly, that number was not adjusted for inflation.

I adjusted the 2000-01 number in two ways.  The first was to take out $1.3 million from Food Service receipts, which reduced the cost/pupil $275.  This is important because, while we were not serving as many districts and Food Service was not paying its whole way like it is now, it was bringing in some money:  costs were not the entire $1.4 million that was included in the $6,704.

I then adjusted the new number for the 27% inflation we saw over the time period.  This results in a new number of $8,146.

If we compare the adjusted number for 2010-11 to the adjusted number for 2000-01, there was actually only a 10.6% increase in costs.  During this time, the district saw many changes:  opening new neighborhood schools, which added to utilities and transportation costs; increases above inflationary levels for fuel and other utilities; increases in health care costs; and more.

And to stress once more:  the 2010-11 number is before the district reduced an additional $2.1 million from ongoing expenditures.

What does all this mean?  Basically that statistics may provide a snapshot, but they are not helpful unless you truly understand what’s in the numbers.  Saying Milford increased costs 45% in 10 years is huge, and could lead people to believe the district is not fiscally responsible; but when you look at a more accurate increase of 10.6%, it becomes clear we have controlled costs and are continuing to do so in the face of a recession and state cuts.


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