Using Benchmarking as a Budgeting Tool
By Trevor Skelton, Associate Client Manager
California charters are full swing into the budgeting season for the upcoming school year, and for brand-new schools to thriving networks, budgeting is never a simple process. We at EdTec often find that benchmarking against historical data as well as data from similar charters is an invaluable tool in assessing whether a budget is built on realistic assumptions. This information should not be used to define an entire budget, but rather as one of many tools used to inform budget formation and key financial decisions. This data also helps school leaders to understand the charter financial landscape, discover inefficiencies in their budgeting practices, and evaluate where and why their budgets may be similar to or different from that of the average charter.
From a historical viewpoint, the last five years have seen strong increases in K-12 education funding with the full implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which was enacted in FY14 to replace the previous California education funding system. Between the five-year period from FY14 to FY18, the average charter’s total revenues grew from $9,513 per ADA to $13,078, or nearly 9% per year.
In FY14, average LCFF revenues for charters were $6,887 per unit of Average Daily Attendance (ADA) – in FY18, they were $9,633c a 40% increase as closing the gap toward target funding progressed ahead of schedule. However, not all schools have benefited equally from LCFF. Funding is distributed to schools based on the number of students who qualify for Free and Reduced Priced Meals, are foster youth or homeless, or qualify as English Language Learners. This unduplicated pupil percentage (UPP) of students is a major funding indicator now that LCFF has been fully implemented, with the intent to direct additional resources to students and schools that need them the most. Funding disparities between schools with low and high populations of unduplicated students have grown significantly, as shown in the graph below. Beyond LCFF, federal revenues, most commonly Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title funding, also have a direct relationship with unduplicated students. Thus, accurate budgeting, tracking, and reporting of ADA and student demographics via CALPADS are more important than ever in maximizing revenue.
In FY18 the average charter school reported a 64% UPP, so while many have enjoyed increased resources, others have been forced to innovate to acquire resources to make ends meet. For charters, we see that disparities in government funding are often supplemented with local funding where available. In particular and perhaps unsurprisingly, charters located in counties with higher median household incomes, especially the Bay Area and Coastal regions, have the greatest access to these additional resources. Charters with a UPP of below 25% reported an average of just below $1,000 per ADA in local revenue, compared to less than $500 for the average charter.
K-12 education funding is at a point of uncertainty. LCFF has reached target, and FCMAT projects meager 2-3% COLA adjustments in future years – well below the revenue increases of the past half-decade of steady economic growth. An economic recession would certainly impact not just state funding, but local resources as well. Charters will need to be able to adapt and weather a possible storm if they are to survive an uncertain future.
In examining statewide charter expenditure data, we see that expenses have grown in a similar fashion to revenue over the past five years. The average charter was spending $8,411 per ADA in FY14 – by FY18, this had grown to $12,011, a 43% increase. Over this time period, California has grown from near the bottom of per pupil spending in all the U.S. to about average. While certainly movement in the right direction, pupil performance indicators, a higher-than-average cost of living, and the uncertain future of LCFF funding all indicate that this is hardly the moment for celebration.
An average charter will spend 60% of its budget on salaries and benefits, so it is essential to understand each piece of the compensation puzzle and to budget appropriately for future considerations. Overall, salaries per ADA have risen 9% a year, a rate of growth charters may no longer be able to afford in the new post-LCFF-target world.
Employee benefits have become a major budget challenge for charters. From FY14 to FY18, the average charter’s spend on benefits grew from 25% of salaries to 29% of salaries. This means the growth in benefits spending has matched and then surpassed the growth in salaries by nearly 20%. As shown in the figure below, this growth was led by STRS, as the mandatory employer contribution rate doubled over this time from its long-standing 8.25% to 16.28% of salaries for certificated staff. This may very well explain why the rate of new charters that chose not to enroll in CalSTRS rose from its steady 10% to 20% in FY15 and 33% in FY16. PERS has also seen rates that have more than doubled in the past decade, while health and welfare benefits continue to soar across the board.
Special education is notoriously difficult to budget for and is extremely underfunded. Based on our experience and data, we estimate the average charter spent at least $1,300 per ADA on special education in FY18. Charters that are a part of a Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA) may receive SpEd revenues to cover around half of that, but for charters serving their students as a school of the district, it’s not uncommon for district SpEd encroachment fees to exceed $1,300 per ADA.
Finally, we see facilities costs rising across the state for charters with and without SB740 revenues. Facilities costs for charters are rising at a pace of 8-10% per year, translating to over $600 per ADA net of facilities revenues.
For these areas with inherent risk and uncertainty, conservative budgeting with contingencies is imperative in managing school budgets.
These data all come together to form a charter’s overall fiscal standing. Overall, California charters have averaged somewhere between $400-$500 in operating income per ADA in any given year for the past five fiscal years, which has allowed them to steadily grow their fund balances. In FY18, new schools saved between 10-20% of expenses, while older schools were able to accumulate greater reserves for future investments and to manage cash fluctuations. Charters had a median of 80 days cash on hand – a comfortable amount for the average-sized charter – and at least 25% had 30 days cash on hand.
While operating income, fund balance, and cash balance are the main indicators of a charter’s financial stability, variance to budget will also be important to monitor. Continuously tracking budget vs. actuals year-to-date for trends and discrepancies can help to identify clear areas of weakness in a school’s financial or budgeting practices. And of course, managing against any debt covenants or authorizer requirements is imperative to staying in good financial standing.
Averages don’t tell the whole story. Every school has variances from the norm, but it’s essential to be able to explain why and understand what the possible financial implications may be. From individual school practices to the California Department of Education’s new LCAP Budget Summary for Parents, we see a trend toward increasing transparency when it comes to California’s education funding and spending. Adopting a practice of regular communication of school budget information and comparative data like this with parents, community members, school staff, lenders, and others can foster engagement and understanding with stakeholders, empowering those most invested in educating California.
Data Sources: Unaudited Actuals Financial Data (CDE); Public Schools Data Files (CDE); CALPADS UPC Source File (CDE); SB740 grantee lists (CSFA); County Data (U.S. Census Bureau); EdTec Client Data (Note: only includes financial data for charters whose data is available (n = 588 – 927), and thus is not representative of all charters. Sample sizes and composition vary over time.)