More money is going to students, instruction and educator pay in Utah, although a gap between teacher and administrative salaries is widening, a tax watchdog group reports.

Wes Quinton, research analyst for the Utah Taxpayers Association, whose April report compares school district spending in 1996-97, says "it's a happy day everybody's been looking for."But the State Office of Education is holding its applause. Deputy State Superintendent for Public Instruction Laurie Chivers has trouble with the association's numbers. She cannot trace many of the numbers and therefore is not comfortable commenting.

"It is a peculiar comparison," Chivers said, noting report errors that have since been corrected.

The report and corrective was distributed to 2,700 residents, including half of Utah's 40 school districts, Quinton said. It uses data from the State Tax Commission and state school superintendent's annual report. It figures capital expenditures and operating costs to determine per-pupil spending. The state office uses only operating costs to figuring per-pupil spending to prevent fluctuations due to yearly bonding differences for building programs.

The association reports an average $4,792 on per-pupil spending; the state office's figure is $3,460.

Education officials and the association have been at odds over data gathering for years, most recently regarding a September report card giving C grades or lower to more than half of Utah school districts. That report manipulated data from standardized test scores, educators said.

The April report has been criticized by Granite Superintendent Stephen Ronnenkamp, incensed by reports that his district gave administrators a 27 percent raise. The increase, including longevity adjustments, actually averaged 6.45 percent for teachers and 7.21 percent for administrators.

"It should be obvious when your numbers seem so far out of line that you need to verify your information," Ronnenkamp wrote to Taxpayer Association president Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

"You have a public obligation to be accurate and to understand the figures used by your organization. Your figures for Granite are totally in error, your charges are unfounded, (and) that is probably the case for the other districts you mention."

The report's error has been corrected, but it now averages Granite's pay increase with eight other districts on the higher end of the scale. The report states administrators in South Summit, Carbon, Garfield, Daggett, Davis, North Summit, Washington, Grand and Granite received an average increase of 14.5 percent while teachers received a 4.6 percent raise.

The Taxpayers Association stands by its corrected numbers.

"We ought to be focusing on the data" marking a positive turn in education, said Greg Fredde, association vice president. "I'm comfortable anyone could take our methodology and make adjustments and replicate the state office's numbers. Our methodology is sound."

The report highlights an 8.8 percent spending increase on student instruction, outpacing a 5.2 percent increase in average per-pupil spending. The increase comes in the percentage of operation costs going toward instruction, now up to 70 percent, or an average of $2,743 per student.

"That demonstrates more education dollars are reaching the classroom, showing we're focusing more on children," Quinton said, attributing increases to Gov. Mike Leavitt's budgetary priorities and legislative support.

Spending differs among districts, and smaller ones face more instruction funding difficulties due to size, Quinton notes.

For instance, Logan School District used 78 percent of maintenance and operation monies for instruction, more than any other district. But Daggett School District forwarded just 54.5 percent of that money to instruction.

Those numbers could not be tracked by the State Office of Education.

Per-pupil expenditures also vary. The report shows Park City spent the most at $13,246, with more than $8,000 of it for construction. Daggett and Tintic spent $11,574 and $10,198 per student, respectively, due to high costs of operating small school districts.

Districts with the lowest per-pupil spending are Cache, Jordan and Granite, with $4,131, $4,221 and $4,296, respectively, the report states.

Those numbers also could not be tracked, Chivers said. But salaries reflect those at the State Office of Education.

Teacher salaries average $33,631, including career-ladder pay but not benefits, marking a 3.5 percent increase. Inflation was 1.7 percent, Quinton said.

Emery School District topped the scale at $36,797, followed by Salt Lake City School District's $36,437 and Granite School District's $35,561, the report states. Piute, Grand and Daggett rounded out the bottom of the scale with $23,219, $28,877 and $29,932, respectively.

"This is good news," Phyllis Sorensen, president of the Utah Education Association, said of the pay increase.

"But we don't like to see the pay gap between educators and administrators widened. . . . I know we have lost a lot of good teachers out of the classroom, especially men, because (administration) is the only way they can stay in education."

Administrators enjoyed an average 5.4 percent pay increase, the report states. In 1995, their average salaries outpaced teacher pay by $15,000.

Cache and South Summit school districts topped the administrators' pay scale at $71,000 and $67,600, respectively. Wayne School District administrators average 38,400.