New Report: How School Districts Spend Funding Remains Murky

According to the University of Maryland project Local News Network, how local school districts spend State and county funding, especially with outside vendors, remains murky for many. Counties are among many stakeholders deeply invested in public school success – but have few tools to evaluate and assess spending priorities.

The University of Maryland’s (UMD) Philip Merrill College of Journalism Local News Network recently examined how Maryland’s school districts spend school funding in its report Contracted Out. The “Contracted Out” database provides a comprehensive and unprecedented itemization of school contract spending statewide.

The project’s key findings: 

  • Understanding just how murky school funding reporting is under Maryland’s current system and requirements and
  • An easily searchable database where you can look up a school district’s vendor payments over the past four years (from 2018-2022).

The UMD project examined spending by public school districts and provided spending by vendor search for contracts related to a series of services, including school meals and healthcare.

Data on public school spending leaves more to be desired

The Local News Network report states, “Maryland’s school districts are required by law to tell the state how they spend their money.” However, Local News Network students and staff found that data and information on how local school districts spent this education funding was not readily available. Reporting on the project notes:

To get a comprehensive look at all of Maryland’s 24 public school districts, students and professors at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism worked for seven months to compile and refine state-mandated Open Data Portal information. But, until UMD students and faculty demanded it, huge amounts of the data that was supposed to be posted to the portal by law was missing.

The report later continues:

But the Local News Network found big problems with the school contracting data on the state’s Open Data Portal.

When work on the project began in January, huge chunks of data from four of the five largest school districts in the state were missing. Data was also missing from several smaller districts — even though a 2019 act of the General Assembly requires districts to report vendor payments of over $25,000 with the Department of Budget and Management.

Student journalists and Local News Network Director Jerry Zremski spent months prodding districts to comply with the law and provide the missing data.

The need for more transparency in spending is concerning, especially as school districts spend upwards of $6 billion combined in contracted school services each year.

The spending breakdown for each district can be found here:

Local News Network notes that while some of this data is being shared publicly for the first time, there are still limits to the information:

  • Vendor payments account for only a small portion of school funding in Maryland or any other state. Roza said the vast majority of school spending — 80% to 90% of it — goes to teacher and staff salaries, not vendors.
  • The data used to construct the “Contracted Out” database — most of it obtained through the state’s Open Data Portal — lacks detail. Most districts only have to report payments of more than $25,000, the name of the vendor and the zip code where the vendor is based. A quirk in state law requires only Baltimore County Public Schools to say why they spent what they spent.
  • School districts have differing policies regarding which services they contract out and which they handle in-house. For example, some districts have their own bus fleets while others hire contractors to transport students.
  • Districts also disagree on what constitutes a vendor payment. Most notably, some list state and federal taxes as vendor payments, but others exclude them from the data. For that reason, any district-by-district comparison of overall vendor payments would not be statistically valid.

Counties seek greater transparency

Incomplete and even missing data are not new concerns for Maryland’s counties, which provide roughly half of public school funding. Historically, education spending at the local level has operated in a sort of “black box”: local boards of education receive funding from county governments, the State, and various federal funding and then manage and spend funds through processes that may seem guarded and opaque.

Unfortunately, this has created a certain level of disjointed access and understanding of comprehensive, accurate, timely data on education spending and needs. This hinders counties’ ability to develop and adopt responsive and impactful budgets that fully address the many requirements and unique needs of modern public education.

MACo and Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City have long sought more accurate and timely information on local education spending to best address needs and better inform priority-setting. So much so that transparency in education spending was a prime topic at the 2023 MACo Summer Conference and was adopted as a MACo 2023 Legislative Initiative. Ultimately, Maryland’s students suffer when counties and other stakeholders do not have access to the whole picture.

Access the Local News Network findings.