School savings top $397 million

Idaho schools saved over $397 million in 2020 — an increase of nearly $74 million from 2019, according to numbers from audits submitted to the State Department of Education.

The money resides in savings accounts, or “fund balances,” controlled by school districts and charter schools across the state.

Last year’s increase continues a trend in Idaho. Since 2014, fund balances have shot up by nearly $223 million.

In addition:

  • Nearly all districts and charters stashed money in 2020.
  • Several continue to save amounts exceeding their entire annual operating budgets.
  • Growth in savings continues to accompany increases in supplement funding for K-12 at the local level — and, this school year, a one-time influx of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Click here for a statewide rundown of fund balances, and how they changed from last year.

Who saved and who didn’t?

In all, 174 of 177 districts and charters had at least something saved up in 2020.

West Ada, Idaho’s largest school district, led the statewide pack in terms of growth for the second straight year, with just over $39 million saved, an $11.3 million increase from 2019.

A look at the state’s other top savers:

  • The Boise School District saved $28.4 million in 2020, an increase of over $4.7 million from 2019.
  • Blaine County saved $15.7 million, a nearly $3.1 million jump from 2019.
  • Idaho Falls saved just over $15 million, down around $2 million from the year before.
  • Pocatello-Chubbuck saved over $14 million, a more than $2.3 million increase from 2019.
  • Vallivue stashed over $9.8 million, a $1.7 million increase from a year earlier.

Just one district, Clark County, and one charter, Idaho Virtual Academy, reported no savings in 2020. Another district, remote Three Creek Joint Elementary, was the only district or charter to dip into the red, with a fund balance of -$13,406. The school’s 2019 fund balance was $20,030.

As in years past, some charters saved more than their annual operating budgets.

  • Kootenai Bridge Academy, a Coeur d’Alene-based charter, saved over $3.9 million in 2020 — over 172 percent of its general fund budget of nearly $2.3 million.
  • The tiny Prairie Elementary district’s 2020 savings of $226,061 easily exceeded its annual budget of $140,198.
  • Seven-student Pleasant Valley School District similarly exceed its annual budget amount of $228,708, saving $277, 590.

How much is enough?

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.

Yet debate over how much schools should save lingers. Critics have railed against large and steadily increasing fund balances for years, noting that swollen savings continue to accompany growing requests for local tax dollars in school districts.

The state’s supplemental levy bill continues to set yearly records, despite state budgets that have increased K-12 spending by $100 million a year for the five straight years preceding the pandemic.

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 levy total
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
2020 $397 million $217 million

These increased state and local dollars don’t include millions in added COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for schools this school year. But those funds constitute one-time payouts. Once the federal money is gone, schools and the Legislature will have to pick up the slack.

Overall, it’s been a complicated budget year. And with added expenses from the pandemic, some school leaders fret over the state’s method for disbursing federal relief funds.

“We’re very much in limbo, but we’ve just been through a pandemic, too,” Kimberly superintendent Luke Schroeder told EdNews earlier this week. “There’s a lot of unknowns.”

Kimberly’s fund balance is just over $1.1 million, or about 9 percent of its annual operating budget — well below the statewide average of nearly 30 percent.

Other school leaders say anything less than that simply isn’t enough. Blaine County School has steadily built up its fund balance by millions at the request of auditors.

“They’ve told us, ‘If you were a family, you can’t live paycheck to paycheck,'” said Blaine County Interim Superintendent Fritz Peters.

Blaine County’s nearly $3.1 million jump in savings from 2019 put it just over its goal to have three months of reserves built up.

One longtime school business manager recently suggested having at least 12 percent in contingency funds on hand at all times.

Others agree it should be more, citing memories of cutbacks tied to the Great Recession.

“Sometimes it rains hard,” Kootenai Bridge Academy principal Charles Kenna told EdNews last year, in defense of his school’s $3.1 million in savings — over 145 percent of its general fund of $2.1 million.

The district’s increase in 2020: $801,641.

Idaho EdNews data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to 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. He is a 2019 Solutions Journalism Network fellow and the Idaho Press Club's 2019 print reporter of the year. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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