School savings accounts top $275 million

Idaho schools stashed more than $275 million in 2017.

The latest numbers, released by the State Department of Education, reveal a significant increase since 2015, when statewide savings topped $215 million. Saving accounts surpassed $250 million in 2016.

The unspent money resides in fund balances, or savings accounts, managed by school districts and charter schools across the state. Aside from the sustained three-year climb, the latest numbers reflect other ongoing trends:

  • Several of 2016’s biggest savers — and non-savers — resurfaced on the 2017 list.
  • One district and several charters still operate in the red.
  • Most big-saving districts still receive extra funds via locally supported supplemental levies.

The overall savings increase, despite some $300 million in added state funding since 2015, fuels debate over how much districts and charters should keep on hand for emergencies, and whether districts with large reserves should ask their patrons to approve supplemental levies.

Here’s a closer look at what was — and wasn’t — saved in 2017:

Almost all districts and charters save money

In all, 160 of the state’s 166 districts and charters carried fund balances in 2017 — up from 154 in 2016. Five carried fund balances of at least 80 percent of their annual operating budgets:

  • Chief Tahgee Elementary Academy: 105.2 percent ($820,109).
  • Kootenai Bridge Academy: 100.9 percent ($1.9 million).
  • Pleasant Valley Elementary: 93.7 percent ($238,815).
  • Mackay: 91.6 percent ($1.7 million).
  • Avery: 86.4 percent ($346,195).

Four of these five districts and charters met the 80 percent savings threshold in 2016.

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On the other end of the spectrum, one district and five charters operated either in the red or without any savings in 2017:

  • The Village Charter: -8.3 percent (-$147,221).
  • Blackfoot: -2.6 percent (-$617,868).
  • Idaho Science and Technology Charter -0.6 percent (-$10,813).
  • North Star Charter: -0.5 percent (-$27,945).
  • INSPIRE Connections Academy: 0 percent ($0.00).
  • Idaho Virtual Academy: 0 percent ($0.00).

Five of these six also operated in the red or without savings in 2016.

On average, Idaho district and charter fund balances constituted 26.9 percent of annual operating budgets in 2017.

(Click here to see how much your district or charter saved.)

Increased funding accompanies added savings

An Idaho Education News investigation last year revealed that eight districts and one charter reached the 80 percent savings-to-budget threshold in 2016. Only five reached the mark in 2017, the partial result of a roughly $2 million decrease among the state’s biggest savers over a year.

Despite slightly smaller reserves on the top end, overall school savings soared by some $25 million from 2016 to 2017. Yet combined average savings-to-budget percentages fell from 27.7 in 2016 to 26.9 in 2017.

The reason? Bigger budgets, and increasing state budgets. Since 2014-15, Idaho’s general fund budget for K-12 has increased by more than $300 million.

Consider the Murtaugh School District, which also reached the 80 percent savings threshold in 2016. The district’s budget increased from $1.9 million in 2016 to $2.3 million in 2017. Even after putting another $100,000 into savings, Murtaugh’s savings-to-budget percentage dropped to 76 percent.

Overall, average general fund budgets increased from $9.3 million in 2016 to $11.7 million in 2017, while average savings increased by $143,272.

Some of the state’s biggest savers run levies

The statewide boost in savings and consistent state K-12 funding increases have undermined some big-saving districts’ rationales for asking local voters to approve supplemental levies.

The Salmon River School District blamed lawmakers in 2016 for underfunding Idaho schools, then asked patrons to renew its $525,000 supplemental levy, despite holding almost $1.5 million in savings — 14 percent more than its entire annual operating budget.

Salmon River’s situation caught the ire of patron and state Rep. Paul Shepherd, who said the district’s rhetoric before the election hardly reflected its actual financial standing.

“The message that we got was that if we didn’t pass the levy the district would face several cuts,” said Shepherd, R-Riggins. “You would’ve thought they were destitute.”

Salmon River slipped from the state’s top saver in 2016 to No. 7 in 2017, but not because of an overall savings reduction — the district increased its savings by more than $27,000 from 2016 to 2017. Like Murtaugh, Salmon River’s general fund budget grew from roughly $1.3 million in 2016 to more than $1.9 million in 2017, helping to eclipse growth in savings.

Salmon River is not alone in seeking local dollars while amassing savings. Six of Idaho’s 10 highest saving districts, all with savings-to-budget ratios of at least 60 percent, collected a combined $1.8 million in local levies in 2017:

  • Mackay: $75,000 supplemental levy.
  • Avery: $115,520 maintenance and operations levy.
  • Salmon River: $522,868 supplemental levy.
  • Arbon Elementary: $25,000 supplmental levy.
  • Kootenai: $750,000 supplemental levy.
  • West Side: $90,000 supplemental levy.
  • Valley: $300,000 supplemental levy.

The Wallace School District, which teetered at the 80 percent savings-to-budget margin in 2006, runs a supplemental levy of over $1.8 million. A savings decrease of $124,185 from 2016 to 2017 and boost in state funding saw the district slip to a 46 percent savings-to-budget margin in 2017.

Wallace superintendent Bob Ranells said fresh memories of K-12 cuts tied to the Great Recession and school board restraints on what savings can be used for fuel the need for some districts with big reserves to run supplemental levies. Wallace trustees require half of the district’s $2.3 million — money saved from bygone federal forest subsidies — to be spent only on maintenance and operations, Rannals said. Minus the forest funds, Ranells pointed out, the district has actually stockpiled just over three months of annual operating expenditures for anything else. Three months of savings is a fair place for districts to be, Ranells believes.

Despite stressing that different districts have different needs, Ranells questioned those that save more than their annual operating budgets and said the state’s top savers should be ready to explain their reserves to local taxpayers.

“That’s a conversation they need to be willing to have,” he said.

Depleting forest funds drive need for supplemental funding

Some say the state’s big-saving districts need the supplemental funds more than ever, due to lost infusions of federal forest funds typically paid out to Idaho’s timber-rich districts since 2000.

All but one of the state’s top-saving districts with supplemental levies, Valley, qualify for the federal subsidy.

Forest funds, as provided by the federal government’s Secure Rural Schools program, have proven to be anything but secure in recent years. The law was designed to provide a funding stopgap for communities in timber country by replacing the money counties and school districts used to receive from timber sales on federal lands. However, Congress stopped its funding in 2016-17, leaving the districts with extremely diminished replacements based largely on proceeds from waning federal timber sales. As a result, Idaho schools received $659,000 in 2016-17, roughly a tenth of the money that came in 2015-16.

Idaho’s top-saving districts, listed above, saw a combined loss of $187,208 from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

“It’s been an enormous loss for us,” said Mountain View business manager Becky Hogg.

Mountain View received over $1 million in federal funds in 2015-16, which dwindled to $56,5113 in 2016-17. Due largely to dried up forest funds, Hogg said, Mountain View’s overall reserves have fallen from over $5.5 million in 2017 to $4.6 million in 2017, or 43.5 percent of the district’s annual operating budget.

To slow the rate of loss, Hogg said, the district is actually increasing its $2.7 million supplemental levy this March. Meanwhile, state funding increases have enabled the district to avoid raising the levy rate over the past three years, Hogg added.

“Kudos to them,” she said of Idaho lawmakers.

Administrators on the other end of the savings spectrum say supplemental levies are just as vital in their districts.

The Blackfoot School District has operated in the red since 2015. Superintendent Brian Kress, who attributes the district’s savings woes to recessionary cuts and enrollment losses to nearby charter schools, said supplemental funds have played a key role in cutting his district’s deficit from $1.3 million in 2015 to $617,868 in 2017.

Added state funding has helped, too, Kress said: “It’s really a combination of both.”

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