WCPSS Chief Operating Officer David Neter provided a spending plan for reserve funds identified for special projects. Items included in the list are non-recurring. Many were initially included as business cases for the 2015-2016 budget, but did not make the final round for funding.
The projects were presented by departments. Academics projects, for example, include a request for funding to provide baseline training for all academic coaches (instructional, literacy, math, etc.) and a digital resource for writing instruction from kindergarten to first grade. Facilities / Maintenance and Operations projects include stripping and waxing of floors and deep cleaning of carpet at schools and service vehicle replacement. Transportation projects include equipping all remaining yellow buses with onboard cameras (85 buses were equipped last year) and replacing eight activity buses. You can find a full list of the projects and associated costs in Neter’s presentation.
Supt. Merrill emphasized that, “this is expenditure of fund balance,” pointing out the source of these funds. The emphasis was not lost on the school board members.
Benton noted that the fund balance, “has been a bone of contention in the community for many years.” The district has a $1.4 billion operating budget and a policy that allows them to maintain a six percent fund balance. Six percent is not a large number for a reserve of total budget. But even the smallest percentages of large numbers seem quite large. Six percent of $1.4 billion is $84 million.
The district cannot raise revenue. That responsibility lies with the county commission. From the county’s perspective, it may be less palatable to increase county spending (read: raise taxes) when the group you are helping has a seemingly large piggy bank balance.
“Seemingly” is used on purpose here. Most of that balance is already reserved for a purpose of committed to other use. The 2014 WCPSS Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (p. 71) shows a fund balance of $89,905, 785. In truth only $20,215,744 was available for use.
The district believes that they are maintaining a fund balance on the low end of a recommended range. In 2009, the Government Finance Officers Association recommended a minimum of two months operating expenditures, or a minimum of five percent. Two months operating expenditures for WCPSS is $233 million; five percent of the total operating budget is $70 million.
Add in that every year the greatest percentage of that balance is already reserved or committed, and the district’s true available fund balance is well below recommended range.
Beyond the local level, Benton further stated his concern that lowering that fund balance will reduce the district’s ability to react to the legislature in “unpredictable budget times.”
But board chair Kushner noted that, “there has also been interest in the fund balance at the state level.” In short, the legislature has been watching how much money school districts have in that piggy bank. The concern is that if they see districts are able to save money on what they are being allocated now, then they will continue to reduce education spending at the state level.
That’s right. This is not just about additional spending to clean floors, replace activity buses, and train instructional coaches. It is about three elected groups ensuring that your tax dollars are collected, allocated, spent, and saved in a fiscally prudent and effective manner. And not every group agrees on what that means.
That’s enough to make a piggy bank “run wee wee wee…all the way home.”