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Keller school district does well in Financial Allocation Study

RICHARDSON -- The Keller school district is one of the best in the state at achieving cost-effective academic success, according to a report released Wednesday.

Keller, the Arlington Classics Academy and the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts were among 43 of 1,235 school districts and charter schools examined that earned a five-star rating in the Financial Allocation Study for Texas. It looks at which schools are doing the best at making student gains while spending the least.

The Fort Worth school district ranked near the bottom, with a star and a half.

"If you are doing a bang-up job in academic improvement and low spending, you are the best of the best," said state Comptroller Susan Combs, who unveiled the report Wednesday at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The 2009 Legislature required the comptroller's office to develop a way to determine how districts are spending money relative to how well their students perform.

The report determined each district's per-pupil spending on core expenditures -- such as instruction and operating costs -- while adjusting for a community's income level. It measured progress on state reading and math tests from 2007 to 2009. A district's spending was then compared with spending in districts of a similar size, income level and student makeup.

'Great ... progress'

The San Antonio school district was the only urban district to earn the same rating as Fort Worth.

The report noted that Fort Worth had a high spending index -- $7,713 per student -- but that its academic progress was far lower than in any other district in its peer group.

Fort Worth school officials said the report does not accurately reflect the district's progress, including academic gains made from 2009 to 2010.

"We feel strongly that our own statistical programs show that we are making great academic progress," spokeswoman Barbara Griffith said.

Officials said Fort Worth's spending is higher because the district maintains campuses, particularly high schools, that are much smaller than at many other urban districts.

Chief Financial Officer Hank Johnson said the district's large one-time costs in recent years, such as an information software system and districtwide curriculum, skewed the expenditures data.

'More with less'

Keller Superintendent James Veitenheimer said the new rating means that the district's efforts to hold down costs while achieving academic gains, such as restructuring curriculum and improving teacher training, have paid off.

"We have said for a number of years that we are efficient, that we have done more with less," he said.

But school board President Cindy Lotton said the district, facing a budget deficit of at least $12 million, can't sustain its academic performance without more financial support from the state or community. Grapevine-Colleyville, Mansfield and Northwest were also among the top-rated districts, with 4.5 stars.

Mansfield is listed as having a "very low" spending index, $6,046 per student.

Jim Vaszauskas, associate superintendent for curriculum, instruction and accountability, said principals have been key in finding cost-effective training that fuels student progress.

"Some of the best and least expensive professional development we have is simply giving our teachers time to talk with each other and time to collaboratively produce quality lessons for our students," Vaszauskas said.

'Best of the best'

Combs said spending per student has increased by 63 percent in the last decade, while the number of administrators has jumped 36 percent. The number of teachers has increased 27 percent.

With a legislative session scheduled to begin in January -- and with a budget shortfall looming -- Combs said it is important "to find the best of the best."

The report, "Connecting the Dots: School Spending and Student Progress," notes that about 20 percent of districts and charter schools earned 4 to 4.5 stars, 36 percent earned 3 to 3.5, 31 percent earned 2 to 2.5, and 10 percent earned 1 to 1.5.

Online: www.fastexas.org

Staff writers Jessamy Brown and Shirley Jinkins contributed to this report.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700

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