School savings surpass $323 million

Idaho schools saved over $323 million in 2019.

That’s an increase of over $37 million from 2018 and nearly $150 million from 2014, according to State Department of Education numbers.

The unspent money resides in savings accounts — or fund balances — managed by school districts and charter schools across the state. Aside from continued accumulation of unused funds, the latest numbers reflect several trends from recent years:

  • Nearly all districts and charters stashed money in 2019.
  • Some continue to save more than their annual operating budgets.
  • Despite the growth in savings, districts continue to ask local voters for more money to supplement a growing allotment of state funds.

Who saved and who didn’t

In all, 169 of 173 districts and charters had at least something saved up in 2019.

West Ada, Idaho’s largest district, led the statewide pack with $27.8 million, an increase of over $4 million from 2018.

Here’s a look at the other top savers:

  • The Boise School District saved $23.7 million in 2019, an increase of nearly $1 million from 2018.
  • The Idaho Falls School District saved just under $17.1 million, down $300,000 from the year before.
  • The Blaine County School District saved $12.6 million, a nearly $5 million jump from 2018.
  • The Pocatello-Chubbuck School District saved over $11.6 million, an over $400,000 decrease from 2018.
  • The Nampa School District stashed over $9 million, an almost $3 million increase from a year earlier.

Nampa School District spokesperson Kathleen Tuck said that the money is largely encumbered.

“We have revenue that comes in before expenses are incurred, but that money remains obligated,” she said. “We also have other restricted and non-spendable money that is not available for general use.”

One district, Orofino, and one charter, Idaho Virtual Academy, reported no savings in 2019, while two charters dipped into the red:

  • Boise-based INSPIRE Connections Academy’s 2019 fund balance came in at  -$99,196, down by over $90,000 from 2018.
  • Eagle’s North Star Charter had a 2019 fund balance of -$10,411. The school’s 2018 fund balance: -$148,213.

Other districts saved more than their annual operating budgets. Kootenai Bridge Academy, a Coeur d’Alene-based charter, saved over $3.1 million in 2019 — over 145 percent of its general fund of $2.1 million. The tiny Prairie Elementary district’s 2019 savings of $140,444 nearly matched its annual budget of $140,407.

‘Sometimes it rains hard’

Idaho law allows districts and charters to set aside annual contingency funds, reflecting up to 5 percent of annual budgets. Unused contingency dollars are counted as income at the end of the year and can be moved into separate fund balance accounts.

But how much a school should save has been a growing matter of debate.

Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation, has railed against growing school savings accounts in recent years.

“It’s a crime against taxpayers,” Hoffman said in response to fund balance hikes in 2016.

Educators say a healthy savings account safeguards against unforeseen financial hardships.

Kootenai Bridge Academy principal Charles Kenna said his school is “blessed” with lower overhead than many other Idaho schools. As a result, school savings have swelled.

And that’s a good thing for Kenna.

“Sometimes it rains hard,” he said, “and you never know when.”

Retired district business manager Katharine McPherson also defends school fund balances, and said most school auditors suggest saving approximately 12 percent of an annual budget.

“An insufficient balance from which to pay legal obligations suggests a lack of cash management discipline,” McPherson added.

Swollen savings coincide with state and local funding hikes

Consistent increases to state and local K-12 funding have accompanied school savings hikes since 2016.

Legislators have increased K-12 spending by at least $100 million each year for the past five years. Meanwhile, school district savings accounts continue to swell alongside requests for more funding through local property taxes.

Total school savings increased from $174 million in 2014 to $323 million last year, a nearly $149 million jump. The increase in statewide supplemental levies during that same time: $120 million.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of overall school savings compared to Idaho’s annual supplemental levy bill since 2014:

Year     Total school savings      Supplemental levies

2014        $174 million                     $180 million
2015        $195 million                     $187 million
2016        $227 million                     $188 million
2017        $255 million                     $195 million
2018        $289 million                     $202 million
2019        $323 million                      $214 million

Click here to see what your district or charter saved in 2019.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader provided data for this story. 

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

Reporter Devin Bodkin covers education issues in East Idaho. He is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. Devin co-hosts "Beyond the Books" online news segments in conjunction with EastIdahoNews.com. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at dbodkin@idahoednews.org.

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