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9 area districts spend more than most

The annual Comparative Spending Guide details N.J. school spending and ranks districts by categories.

In six out of 34 kindergarten-through-12th grade districts in the three-county South Jersey region, total spending per pupil exceeds the state average, according to figures released yesterday by the state Department of Education.

Of the 10 local high school districts, three are outspending the state average for their group during the current academic year.

Spending more than the total state per-pupil average are the K-12 districts of Pemberton Township, Camden, Gloucester City, Burlington City, Collingswood and Pennsauken.

The high school districts of Northern Burlington Regional, Gateway Regional and Lenape Regional exceed the per pupil state average.

The 2008-2009 statistics are part of the Comparative Spending Guide, an annual report that details New Jersey school district spending and ranks districts by spending categories including money spent on instruction, classroom salaries, supplies and textbooks, administration salaries and benefits, and operations and maintenance costs.

High spending does not necessarily equal higher performing districts. Many factors influence per-student spending, including the size of the district's special-needs student population.

"Very often these districts that have special needs have to spend more, and it might not show up in test scores," said New Jersey School Board Association spokesman Frank Belluscio.

State education officials provide the statistics at this time of year, before school budgets go to voters in April, to allow the public and school boards to examine expenditures.

"Many of our citizens are out of work and struggling to pay their bills," state Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said in a release that accompanied the report. "This year, it is more imperative than ever for us to look closely at how we spend each and every education dollar."

Four former Abbott districts - 31 largely urban and low-income districts which, until recently, got a disproportionately high level of state funding due to 1990s court decisions - were at the top of overall per-student funding for K-12 districts. Those districts were Hoboken City at $24,808, Asbury Park City at $24,428, Newark at $19,305 and, locally, Pemberton Township at $18,970.

Coming in 22d among 220 K-12 districts was Camden, another former Abbott, at $16,131 per student during the current academic year.

However, that was a decrease from $18,274 per student in 2007-08. That year, Gov. Corzine introduced a schools-funding formula that sought to spread aid to all districts with low-income children - an action that remains the focus of a state Supreme Court case and challenged by advocates of the former Abbotts.

Camden was forced to make spending cuts in the face of an only 2 percent budget increase during the 2008-09 year. In the coming year, the district is projected to receive no increase.

Camden also spent less per student for instruction this year compared to last year, as did three other local K-12 districts - Haddon Heights Borough, Paulsboro and Glassboro.

Of local K-12 districts, Pemberton Township this year spent the most per student for instruction: $11,435, or 60 percent of its total per-student spending.

Burlington Township, however, spent the highest proportion on instruction. It dedicated 67 percent, or $7,475, of its per-student spending to instruction.

Statewide, the average total cost per pupil is $13,539, up 5.9 percent from last year. The total classroom instructional cost average is $7,968 per pupil, a 6.1 percent increase.

On average, instructional costs are about 59 percent of total per pupil spending, according to the state. Support services made 15.4 percent of the total cost per student on average, and administrative costs make for 10.6 percent of the total per pupil cost.