Statewide, School District Reserves Continue to Climb
Though Some Districts See Falling Fund Balances
Total school district surpluses in Wisconsin reached $1.86 billion at the end of the 2010-11 school year, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WISTAX).
This continues an upward trend that began in 2003, when those combined “fund balances” stood at $1.20 billion. Since then, districts have increased their combined reserves an average of 5.6% per year. They rose 6.1%, from $1.76 billion to $1.86 billion, during 2011.
Looked at a second way, total fund balances equaled 17.9% of school spending in 2011. However, this percentage ranged widely by district, an indication that Wisconsin school health varies considerably. Of 423 districts, 144 had reserves that were 25% or more of expenditures, a sign of fiscal strength, caution, or both.
On the other hand, in 30 districts, 2011 reserves were under 10% of expenditures. Two districts—Gresham and Northern Ozaukee—reported no surpluses, and another three—Oconto Falls (2.0%), Royall (2.4%), and New London (4.0%)—had reserves under 5.0% of spending. The state’s largest district, Milwaukee, reported reserves only slightly higher (5.8% of expenditures).
“If there is a ‘canary in the mineshaft’ offering clues to school fiscal health, it might be the financial reserves, or fund balances, districts report,” WISTAX President Todd A. Berry points out.
Another sign of fiscal health or stress is large or sudden increases or decreases in district reserves, WISTAX notes. In 2011, 325 of 423 districts maintained or increased reserves, while 98 reduced them. Between 2004 and 2011, 44 districts cut reserves by 10% or more. Six districts reduced them by 50% or more over the eight-year period: Oconomowoc, Northern Ozaukee, Woodruff J1, Paris J1, Glendale-River Hills, and Reedsville.
One curious trend that WISTAX also noted was that, taken as a whole, school districts projected reductions in fund balances in their annual budgets in each of the past 21 years but actually increased them in all but one of those years.
The Focus newsletter “Canary in the school mineshaft?” is available at www.wistax.org or by emailing email@example.com; calling 608.241.9789; or writing WISTAX at 401 North Lawn Ave., Madison, WI 53704-5033