McHenry County school officials: Cost per pupil factors in location, demographics, more

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Across McHenry County, school districts have spent anywhere between $8,800 to $15,400 per student, the most recent Illinois Department of Education data show.

The operational cost per pupil – including all costs to operate the district except items such as summer school, adult education, capital expenses, and principal debt – is one of many financial indicators measured by the state.

Cost per student is often dependent on the local tax base, and from there it's important to look at where that money is going and how effectively it's being spent, school officials say, pointing to factors from employee salaries to student demographics to the implementation of certain efficiencies.

"One thing to look at is ... to run a high school is a lot more expensive than having to run an elementary district," said Sue Harkin, chief financial officer for Algonquin-based Community Unit School District 300.

Of the four high school districts in the county, three did in fact land on the higher end of a list of all 19 area districts.

Marengo Community High School District 154, Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155, and Richmond-Burton Community High School District 157 spent the most per pupil, according to 2013-14 data from the Illinois Report Card. Only District 154's $15,404 fell above the state average of $15,095 for high school districts.

McHenry Community High School District 156 spent the least, about $11,750 per student, falling below several unit and elementary school districts.

Chief Financial Officer of District 156 Dave Lawson said when looking at this metric, it's worth looking at what might not be provided on a micro level – for instance, certain courses such as Chinese, which District 155 offers while District 156 does not.

"I think like anything else, there's a balance," Lawson said. "You've got to be cognizant of what money you have coming in and where you can spend it."

Among the six area unit districts, which serve students in elementary, middle and high school, Woodstock Community High School District 200 had the highest cost per pupil, at $12,548 per student, while Huntley Community School District 158 had the lowest, $8,844 per student, the 2013-14 state data show.

District 200 Chief Financial Officer Risa Hanson stressed a few points that she said contributed to the district's spending compared to others.

"Take our demographics – our low-income percentage, English as a second language, our mobility rate – because they're all higher than, for instance, Huntley," Hanson said.

School districts with a higher concentration of low-income students are entitled to additional federal monies, which Hanson said are then expenses included in the total cost per pupil.

With 47.7 percent low-income compared to District 158's roughly 17 percent, she added District 200 has spent close to $1 million in federal grant money for that population of students.

However, its average administrative salary was among the highest at $106,036, lower than only Johnsburg School District 12, across unit districts, data show.

On the flip side, District 158's administrative salary was the lowest among area unit districts at about $85,125, and its average teacher salary is described by officials as one of its ongoing concerns.

"We are not the highest paying district and that is going to be a challenge for us in the future," District 158 Superintendent John Burkey said, later adding, "I don't like the fact that we do have some people in some job classifications who could make more money in a neighboring district."

With the lowest cost per student in the county, District 158 Chief Financial Officer Mark Altmayer pointed to the relatively low tax base and described the ways in which the district both allocates money and spends it as effectively as possible.

Keeping certain services in-house has helped, district officials said, listing food services, transportation, website development and the implementation of new programs.

Burkey added that energy savings through various projects has saved the district a significant amount of money each year.

Altmayer said seemingly less obvious efficiencies have to be sought out, too, remembering back five years ago when he initiated a reduction in how often custodians cleaned every classroom, saving about $400,000 on the custodial contract.

"I really think ... the leadership of the district has to question every expense and wonder, 'Is this helping to move us forward?' " Burkey said.