Performance audit shows excess transportation costs at SUSD

(file photo)


Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith presented the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board with information produced by the Auditor General’s report on classroom spending for fiscal year 2016, during its April 20 study session.

The biggest financial stress identified in the audit is declining enrollment, Ms. Smith said.

“Even though our district administration cost per pupil is higher than our peers, we are less than the state average,” Ms. Smith explained.

A pie-chart provided at the public meeting showed operational spending is broken down into:

  • 53.6 percent in instruction;
  • 13.5 percent in plant operations;
  • 9.4 percent in student support
  • 9.2 percent in administration;
  • 5.4 percent in instruction support;
  • 4.5 percent in transportation; and
  • 4.4 percent in food services.

Numbers also show Scottsdale Schools has an average of 18.6 students per teacher, and the average teacher salary is $48,853 — slightly higher than the peer and state averages provided. Additionally, Scottsdale has an average teacher experience of 13.6 years, and has 14 percent of teachers in their first three years.

The overall financial stress level of the district is considered low, with a highlighted concentrated decrease in students.

Efficiency measures relative to peer averages show administration, transportation, and plant operations costs per pupil are higher than their peer averages.

Transportation costs per rider show the district spends $1,677, versus $1,092 state average. In fiscal year 2016, the district drove just under 2 million miles on the school buses, numbers show.

Ms. Smith says the district carries 4,858 eligible students — pupils who live at least one mile from the school.

“We may choose to transport students that are closer because there’s a major thoroughfare, there’s something in the neighborhood you don’t want the kids hanging out at while they wait for the bus,” she said. “So you can transport those kids but you don’t get reimbursed for it.”

Following a previous audit, the district has begun developing and monitoring performance measures to monitor cost per mile, cost per rider and bus capacity. In March, the Governing Board approved the purchasing of two software programs to help with tracking.

“As you know, for Scottsdale, minimum state standards is not the way we operate,” Ms. Smith said as she showed photos of student trips that require the use of larger charter buses or air flights.

“That gets coded to student transportation, it gets calculated in the cost per mile even though it’s not our bus,” Ms. Smith said, of one of the reasons the district’s transportation costs were high.

“It’s a great experience, I don’t think we want to stop doing that but once again, we’re paying a vendor to transport our kids, and it gets calculated into the cost, even though the wheels on the bus aren’t going round and round.”

Ms. Smith said there is around $1 million in extra student transportation that’s added to the overall cost.

The peer groups the district is compared to in audit’s such as this one is determined when the Auditor General first arrives at the district. In this particular efficiency audit, the district was compared to Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix and Tucson school districts.

“They look at how many miles does the rider ride,” Ms. Smith said. “Not the part of town, if they’re rural, etc. That criteria is established when the Auditor General first shows up at your district, so if nobody argued that case when they started.”

Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says since first receiving the audit, the district has reduced some of the local bus routes, and she expects that with the use of the tracking software other information will be available.

“The other thing is how our bell schedules are set up,” Dr. Birdwell said of ways that would reduce transportation costs.

By having every school start at the same time, they are running all their buses during the same block of time.

“When you don’t have tiered starts you run into transportation problems in trying to keep everyone at the same time,” Dr. Birdwell said. “What you’ve created is more bus routes so that’s a problem. If we wanted to reduce our costs, the first thing we should do is change our bell schedules and tier our bell schedules.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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