Understanding Data

Funding and Resources › Personnel Costs

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Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE),
Park View Middle School.

Across the nation, school personnel costs account for between 80% and 85% of all school spending.

Education is a labor-intensive industry. While money buys materials and sports equipment and building maintenance, it mostly buys people's time and expertise - teachers, principals, secretaries, janitors. Salaries, healthcare and pensions are by far the largest portion of school expenditures. For the most part, these costs are fixed. So while the amount of money available for each student matters, how the money is spent matters more.

Schools and districts make choices as to what mix of personnel they use in their strategy for success. Some schools invest heavily in support services for their students — counselors, social workers and psychologists. Others invest in academic support — remedial reading specialists, literacy and math coaches. Some schools "outsource" certain services — for example, they might purchase nursing services on a flexible basis rather than hire a full-time nurse-teacher. Some personnel strategies pay off better than others, so School Improvement Teams occasionally shift priorities. A change in student demographics might require different investments. As long as changes in strategy are in the best interests of the children, it's good to experiment with improving the personnel mix.

Personnel costs become controversial when costs seem to serve adults at the expense of children.

Some costs can benefit students. For example, a teacher, like any employee, is more effective when free from worry about sick leave. But each of Rhode Island's 36 districts and 8 independent charter schools has its own sick leave policy. In some districts, teachers can "buy back" unused sick days when they retire. Furthermore, both the number of sick days and the buy-back value of each sick day vary from district to district. (In most states, sick leave and other benefits are set by state law or otherwise standardized among districts.) This is only one of many examples of Rhode Island's differing personnel expenses. These differences directly affect how much money is available to spend on services to children.

Also, with the pressure to spend on personnel, schools commonly run into difficulties with deferred maintenance. Routine upkeep costs much less in the long run than major repairs. Again, when major repairs become unavoidable, this is money that comes from services to children.