Paul Soutar, an investigative journalist recently hired by the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, has uncovered some interesting numbers that might be part of the solution to the concerns of school administrators and taxpayers alike.
Soutar looked at numbers on the KSDE web site. Each school district has to allocate its money into a variety of funds. The following numbers, taken from this link on the Flint Hills site, give the historical perspective on some of the largest unencumbered balances in the largest funds. (I believe the original data is here, though be ware that some links at KSDE do go bad after a while.)
|Fiscal Year||Capital Outlay||Special Education||Food Services||Contingency Reserve||Total||Annual Change|
In other words, schools have a lot of funds that they could be tapping, and the amount of money has increased from year to year. KSDE gives the following guidance, which I’ve formatted for easier reading:
* There are no definitive guidelines as to how much money is to be kept in the Capital Outlay Fund-it should be dependent on the size of the district, the age of the buildings, renovations needed, the status of equipment, and numerous other factors.
* There are no requirements for the Special Education Fund cash balance either.
* The Food Service Fund cash balance, however, must not exceed three months’ average expenditures and
* the balance in the Contingency Reserve Fund must not be greater than four percent of the General Fund for years to the 2005-06 school year. For the 2005-06 school year and thereafter, the limit was raised to six percent.
Consistent with these guidelines, the balances in the food service funds have increased the least of these commonly observed funds. The most growth has occurred in the category with the broadest latitude, the contingency reserve funds.
You can also download a spreadsheet file that gives the cash balances, for each fund, for each school district in the state, though only for the 2007-08 school year. The file contains not only the funds mentioned above, but many others, including professional development, summer school, and “extraordinary school.” It also lets you see how much each district has, on a per-FTE basis, when you add up all the funds. The amounts range from $321 per student in USD 438 Skyline to $19,469 in USD 442 Nehama. Actually, USD 422 Greensburg beats them all at $8…. but that’s largely due to the need to rebuild after the tornado. The average district (mean value) has $2,785 per student in reserves.
In a report that accompanies the files, Soutar sums up the total unencumbered balances at $1.36 billion (as of the latest numbers on July 1, 2008). He says that if the Legislature loosened some of the restrictions currently in place, districts could switch money from one fund to another, and thus address some of their financial needs.
He also points out that state law has a spend-it-or-lose-it provision that applies to general funds. This provision could lead to some unwise spending.
Two days after his initial report, Soutar reported that districts can in fact spend some of their unencumbered funds–though only in the contingency reserve funds. Here’s an e-mail on the subject: