by Karen Schotz
Ask folks how much we spend, per child, per year, to educate a public school student in Jefferson County and you will hear a variety of answers. Most often people will guess that we spend between $2,500 and $5,000 per student, per year. Occasionally someone will tell you the answer is about $7,000 per student, per year. Rarely will you ever hear the actual figure which is about $11,500 per student, per year.
Jeffco educates nearly 86,000 students each year which, when multiplied times the per pupil spending shows Jeffco spends close to $1 billion a year on public education. Many people find that figure hard to believe so please refer to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) on the Jeffco Schools website. The last page of each audited CAFR is provided by the State of Colorado. It shows all of the funding received by the school district from federal, state, local, and other sources. According to the 2016 CAFR for the 2015-16 school year, all sources of revenue combined equals $991 million.
So why when you ask neighbors and friends how much we spend to educate a public school student do they not know the answer? For most of us over half of our property taxes go to support our public schools and yet few of us ever think about what is actually spent.
Some of the confusion seems to be intentional. When school districts make presentations about how much they receive and spend, they often speak only about the General Fund. This is the fund which is used to pay for most of the operating expenses of the classroom. But it only tracks about 60 percent of a district’s spending. School districts also receive grant funds and funds to support transportation, food service, student activities, and buildings. When districts make presentations they often ignore the funds received for these purposes. In most districts those funds contain about 40 percent of the funds spent.
Some justify the intentional understatement of spending by saying that the General Fund is used to track most of the spending for operating classrooms. And while that is true, the dollars spent from the other funds support the public education of our students. It would be hard to justify not talking about the costs of buildings when discussing public education spending or forgetting to mention the special grant funds a district receives. It would be like forgetting to mention your mortgage payment when applying for a loan.
So the next time cocktail conversation turns to how much Jeffco spends to education a student, you will know the answer is $11,500 per student. And if it happens to be super trivia night, you can mention that for an average classroom of 25 students that equates to $287,500 per classroom. And yes, those are annual numbers.