Despite plans to spend about $14.5 million in reserves over the next two years on an extensive renovation program for its schools, Riverside Elementary School District 96 remains in the kind of financial shape that many other districts can only dream about.

On Sept. 20 the District 96 school board unanimously approved the district’s 2011-12 budget, which projects an operating surplus of $917,000. The budget projects operating revenues of $23,149,200 and operating expenditures of $22,232,200.

“We always budget in the black,” said District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson. “We always underestimate our revenue, because of the uncertainty of some of our revenue sources. We under spend our budget. Our actual expenses never reach our spending threshold.”

At the end of the budget year on June 30, 2012 the district expects to have a positive fund balance of a whopping $10.6 million, which excludes the $14 million it expects to spend on renovation.

This will give the district a fund balance to expense ratio of 47.8 percent. A ratio of 33 percent is generally considered healthy. The district has built up its cash reserves since 2004, when voters passed a property tax referendum to increase operating revenues.

Since that 2004 referendum, property tax collections have exploded in District 96. During the 2003-04 school year, the district collected $7.6 million in property taxes. For the 2011-12 budget year, the district projects collecting $17.9 million in property taxes for general operations.

“I want to say thank you to the community,” Lamberson said at the Sept. 20 meeting.

Lamberson said that the district’s strong financial condition is also due to spending controls and the adoption of zero-based budgeting.

In notes attached to the budget, Lamberson noted that “[T]his budget evidences good fiscal stewardship through the improving financial condition, the increase in fund balance, and the positive fiscal position of each fund. The district’s fiscal condition continues to improve as a result of the generous, ongoing support of the community.”

Lamberson pointed out that operating spending is projected to increase by sixth-tenths of 1 percent. Education Fund expenses, by far the largest component of the budget are, projected to increase less than 1 percent.

Eighty-two percent of the spending in the operating budget is spent on personnel, Lamberson said, reflecting the experience of almost all school districts.

– Bob Skolnik