Riverside School District 96 passed a referendum back in 2004 that infused cash into its reserve fund at such a rate that the school district has been carrying reserves of well over 100 percent of total annual expenditures for more than a decade.
Since 2004, the school district has undertaken some pretty significant initiatives, including upgrading technology throughout the district, building and life-safety improvements, the purchase of three properties and an expansion of the district’s central administration.
Even with all of that, at the end of the 2017-18 school year, the school district still carried more than $31 million in cash reserves, more than 120 percent of annual expenditures.
The district has launched a campaign to expand and improve all of its elementary schools, and the preliminary price tag is roughly $22 million. Work was targeted to begin in 2020.
Now school board members are having some second thoughts about spending down its cash reserves to about 35 percent of annual expenditures, a level that many school districts would love to have.
There are concerns over future impacts to the school district’s bottom line, over possible changes to pension funding, among others.
Those uncertainties are real, but the school district has some real needs with respect to its elementary school buildings, and the district’s reserve funds are not a bank account where the goal is to amass as much money as possible.
Local school districts account for the lion’s share of local property taxes, and school boards can’t continue to hoard money at this rate in the face of unknown future threats.
The school district should move ahead with its school improvement plans, spend down reserves to a comfortable level – 40 percent of annual expenditures is a generous cushion – and consider supplementing using cash reserves by issuing some debt for large capital expenditures.
But to keep carrying such large cash reserves is unfair to taxpayers, who might want to look at reserving some funds themselves.