Reasons why Phoenixville School District spends so much money on education

PHOENIXVILLE — After an appeal from a school board member, Phoenixville Area School Board Executive Director of Operations Stan Johnson presented some of the reasons the cost per educating a student in the district is near the top in the state at Thursday’s meeting.

Johnson said the factors that put Phoenixville near the top of costs for instruction include personnel cost, the number of personnel employed by the district and the variety of programs offered by the district.

“The more programs you offer, the more staff you’ll need,” to facilitate them, Johnson said.

In his presentation, Johnson focused on two statistics listed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in their assessment of districts.


When it comes to instructional expense per weighted average daily membership, Phoenixville ranks 6th in the state at $12,597.50 with the latest available numbers from the 2010-11 school year.

Average daily membership is a rating used by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to assess the average number of students that attend school each day. When it is weighted, it gives different values to children in kindergarten, elementary schools, and secondary schools.

Kindergartners are rated at half an ADM, elementary school students are one ADM, and secondary schools students are at 1.36 ADM.

Great Valley was the closest local district to matching Phoenixville’s weighted ADM, coming in at 19th in the state with $11,163.72.

Johnson compared Phoenixville to three neighboring school districts in his presentation: Great Valley, Owen J. Roberts, Tredyffrin-Easttown.

Of the four, Phoenixville consistently had the highest expenses per student in various statistics the state’s department of education measures, with Great Valley running closest but always off by more than $1,000.

The top districts in the state for expense per student are typically in two areas, according to Johnson.

“The schools (with highest expenses for instruction) are either in (south)east Pennsylvania or out west,” he said. “You’ll see Allegheny County around Pittsburgh heavily represented and you’ll see the four suburban Philadelphia counties heavily represented in the top 50.”

Some districts toward Harrisburg also turn up, Johnson said.

The district has made efforts to keep operating costs low in recent years, Johnson said. Initiatives such as the solar panels that now partially power the high school and district administration building fit into those efforts.

Passing the budget for this academic year, the school board raised taxes 1.66 percent, the lowest in 20 years, according to district superintendent Alan Fegley at the time.

During Johnson’s presentation, Fegley mentioned that some of the costs associated with the district come from funding students who are going to charter schools such as Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville.

“We have a much higher percentage of students going to charter schools,” as opposed to other schools withcomparable expenses, Fegley said.

School board member Joshua Gould cited the proximity of Renaissance Academy as the reason why Phoenixville Area School District loses so many students. He also said the Center for Art and Technology-Pickering in town also draws students because of its closeness.

“Geographically, a lot of Phoenixville parents choose to send their kids to those schools,” Gould said.

Phoenixville Area School District pays approximately $5 million to charter schools each year based on the students going there according to Johnson.

Fegley said he is looking to change “the culture” of sending Phoenixville students to other schools.

“It takes a while to change a culture. I’m not afraid to change it,” he said.

Over the last year, the district has focused on redirecting students from charter schools back into the district. Fegley said there are numbers suggesting those efforts may be working.

Board member Jan Potts said it would be “interesting” to check test scores and compare with other districts.

According to numbers released for the 2010-11 school year, Phoenixville ranked high in the state on PSSA scores across the board. However, compared to school districts in Chester County and nearby in Montgomery County, the number of Phoenixville students at or above proficiency district-wide in the four subjects tested (math,. reading, science and writing) was slightly lower.

The highest number of students at or above proficiency across the board was Tredyffrin-Easttown with a weighted ADM instruction cost of $10,720.62, almost $2,000 less than Phoenixville. West Chester Area and Spring-Ford Area School Districts also ranked high with weighted ADMs that were even lower.

At the same time, Phoenixville ranked much higher in their PSSA scores than some districts with weighted ADM instructional costs that were higher. Per weighted ADM, Wilkinson Borough School District in Allegheney County is slotted at $ 13,199.25, several hundred dollars more than Phoenixville. But Wilkinson’s the number of students rating at or above proficiency across all subjects were consistently about 40 percentage points lower.

In his presentation, Johnson emphasized that more analysis needs to be done rather than looking at the hard numbers alone.

“These are simply numbers, simply facts, and we’ll be talking more about them as we go down the road,” he said. “There’s lots of different ways to factor costs per student...any time you pull out one of those factors, it changes the number you get.”

School board member Irfan Kahn, who requested the presentation on costs per student, encouraged further analysis of the numbers.

“When you look at it, we are astronomically higher than surrounding school districts and that needs to be explained,” he said.

“We’ve got to look at it compared to other districts and say, ‘Are we getting performance for what we’re paying for?’” Gould said.

Check out the numbers provided by the state for instructional expenses and test scores.

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.

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