Martin County schools cost less, and results are better

Indian River County School District taxpayers are not getting great value for their money, according to budgets submitted to the state for the current school year.

According to the budgets, the slightly larger Martin County School District will spend about $18 million less than Indian River County School District while achieving dramatically better academic results.

Martin County, which has 18,915 students, will spend $269 million this fiscal year, while Indian River, with 17,541 students, will go through nearly $287 million during the same period.  Despite spending less per student, Martin County was No. 8 out of 67 districts in Florida in the state Department of Education rankings in the 2016-17 school year, while Indian River County was mired in a tie for 32nd place.

The teacher-student ratio was 1-to-15 at both counties, according to 2016 Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports submitted to the state, so Indian River’s higher spending is not the result of hiring more teachers than Martin.

Instead, the difference is mainly related to how much the two counties spend on debt service, purchased services and instruction-related technology.

Indian River will spend nearly $24 million on debt service this school year, compared to Martin County’s $5 million. It appears Martin County pays cash for capital improvements and borrows little, but doesn’t scrimp on its buildings. It will spend $64 million on capital projects this year, while Indian River will spend $41.6 million.

The second major difference is “purchased services,” which the state defines as “primarily personnel services” provided by outside contractors “with specialized skills,” such as architects, engineers, auditors, medical doctors, lawyers, consultants and accountants. The category also includes the cost of issuing bonds, insurance premiums, travel costs, grounds upkeep, technical-related repairs and maintenance, lease rentals and communications.

Indian River will spend $29 million on purchased services in the current year, more than double Martin’s budgeted $13.7 million.

The third major difference is “instruction-related technology.” Indian River County will spend $10 million this year while Martin County spends only $2.8 million. Indian River has spent similar amounts over the last four years, using the money generated by a voter-approved property tax.

Spending more than a nearby district on new computers, instructional software and digital infrastructure might seem like a smart investment, but the spending has not resulted in widespread academic improvement.

In 2011, before the technology initiative was begun, Indian River was rated an “A” district by the state; today that rating has dropped to a “B.”

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