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School Finance 101

School Finance 101: COLA, the Revenue Limit, and Revenue Sources

Years can be invested in trying to understand all of the intricacies of California school finance and the allocation of funding to local school agencies. Books have been written on the topic and consultants are often hired to guide local agencies through the labyrinth of revenue allocations to California’s almost 1,000 school districts.

But most of school finance for the layman can be understood in the context of two themes: understanding school district revenue limits and categorical allocations.

This summary describes those two issues. For those who would care to search further, there are numerous websites and additional resources available for the interested reader. The school district business office can provide a comprehensive listing of those websites and some of them are identified within these materials.

Revenue Limit Funding

California school districts receive the primary base of their funding from their “revenue limit,” which is a dollar amount for each child that is in attendance on average during the course of the year. This dollar amount, which is determined by the State of California through a combination of statutory and state budget law, is assigned to the district as the funding base for expenditures that can be determined at the local level.

Revenue limits are the prime component of every school district’s budget. The dollar amounts per pupil vary between districts, but in 2004-05 they are generally around $4,939 for the average unified district, $5,719 for the average high school district, and $4,756 for the average elementary school district. These dollar amounts, described as the “base revenue limit amount,” have a series of add-ons for specific features of school district services, but for ease of description, they come close to the dollar amounts noted above. The district business office can provide the revenue limit calculations for our district.

The revenue limit dollar amount is multiplied times the number of pupils that are in attendance on average during the course of the year. This average daily attendance, called “ADA,” is a measurement of the district’s population served by the local agency. Note that the agency is funded based upon attendance and not enrollment. An absence by a student on average leads to a loss in district income of about $35 per day. As a consequence, it is very important that the district ensure that students are in attendance unless there are specific reasons for the child to be excused. By the way, districts are no longer funded for students who have an “excused absence” (as was the case up through 1997-98). The student must be in attendance in order for the local agency to receive the income for that day.

School districts are the only public agency in California that are funded based upon the population it serves. Cities, counties, or special districts do not receive more or less income because of a change in their population, only schools have a variable in total funding based upon population. As a consequence, a district that has growth in enrollment will have growth in its total revenue limit income from one school year to the next. A district that declines in population, however, will decline in its income. It is very difficult to manage a district that consistently declines in student attendance since the consistent revenue reduction has a
deteriorating effect on the expenditure options that are available to the local agency. Declining
enrollment districts have an especially difficult task in developing their district budget. The district’s total revenue limit, the calculation of revenue limit times ADA, represents an entitlement that will be funded by a combination of local property tax income and state aid. The education share of local property tax income is subtracted from the revenue limit entitlement, and the State of California funds the entire balance. As a consequence, local agencies receive the dollar amounts authorized by their total revenue limit income regardless of their local property tax wealth. An agency that collects only a small amount of property tax income, because of low assessed value in its community’s properties, will receive a high level of state aid. The reverse is also true. A community with a very high assessed valuation due to either industry or high values of residential property, will have a smaller allocation of state income. In either event, however,
the state is able to establish an equal opportunity for California’s students by ensuring that the dollar amounts generated for educational services do not directly relate to the property tax wealth of the community.

Each year, the school district’s revenue limit entitlement is increased by a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that is established in accordance with the requirements of state law. The cost-of-living adjustment for school districts is based upon a calculation of governmental expenditure price increases from one year to the next, and this percentage of the cost-of-living increase is multiplied times the average state revenue limit for each district type. That is, in fiscal year 2004-05 as an example, the cost-of-living adjustment of 2.41% is multiplied times the average revenue limit for unified, high school, and elementary districts to yield $112 for all elementary districts, $135 for all high school districts, and $117 for all unified districts. Note that the dollar amounts of these cost-of-living adjustments for school districts are not necessarily a percentage increase on that district’s revenue limit income since they are based on the COLA percentage times the prior-year statewide average. For example, for a unified school district with a high base revenue limit, the $117 increase may be only a 2.3% increase, while for a below average unified district, it may represent a 4.0% increase.

Thus, to determine the revenue limit increase from one fiscal year to the next, multiply your district’s ADA that is projected for that fiscal year times the dollar amount of the inflation increase that has been granted by the state. That result will reflect the vast majority of unrestricted revenue growth for your district.

There are a number of revenue limit adjustments beyond the “base revenue limit times ADA” calculation described above. Indeed, the State Legislature has attempted on many occasions to provide adjustments to account for needs that ranged from statewide issues, such as an increase in unemployment insurance coverage, to the unique circumstances of a single school district. If, however, you understand the above concepts of multiplying a revenue limit times a school district population, you will be well on your way to an “A” in School Finance 101.

Categorical Programs

In addition to the unrestricted income that is primarily from the district’s revenue limit, local agencies also receive funding for selected student or district needs. These “need-based” revenues are provided to local agencies to address specified needs as determined generally by the State of California. The funding for these types of programs is “restricted,” meaning that it may not be expended as determined by the local agency, but must be expended for the categories as determined by the State.

The two biggest categorical programs in California are for special education services and for the reduction in K-3 class size. Special education funding is currently based on a rate per unit of ADA. While funding was previously distributed based upon selected service needs for the special education students, a new funding model that began in 1998-99 gives local agencies the ability to be able to operate programs in a much more flexible manner and removes some of the incentives—and disincentives—that were inherent in the old special education model.

School districts participate in special education funding as part of a group of school districts called a “Special Education Local Plan Area,” or “SELPA.” The SELPA receives the special education funding for all of the districts within the plan area, and then it is up to each SELPA to allocate the funding among its member agencies. Total special education funding does not cover the entire cost of providing special education services, and all California school districts contribute unrestricted General Fund money to ensure that special education needs are met. This unrestricted contribution to cover the full costs of special education is sometimes called “encroachment,” “mandated” local contribution, or some similar term. But whatever term is
used, this amount is funded by the district and represents costs that are required to meet the costs of the special education program.

The second biggest categorical, K-3 class-size reduction, is distributed to districts based upon a dollar amount times the number of students that are enrolled in K-3 classes that average, during the course of the year, no more than 20 students. Funding in 2001-02 is distributed at $888 per pupil for those that are in a full-day class, and half that amount for K-3 students who participate in the smaller class size for half of the school day.

There is a long list of categorical programs that serve California school districts, and some of the other large programs include Economic Impact Aid, the School Improvement Program (SIP), Teacher Staff Development, Transportation Services, and Instructional Materials. The business office can provide a list of the entire categorical programs that are available in our district.

Lottery Funding and Other Unrestricted Income

In addition to the school district’s revenue limit, California State Lottery provides a small allocation to school districts that can be used as determined by the local governing board. The dollar amounts for Lottery vary significantly between fiscal years, but it is estimated for the coming fiscal year that districts will receive approximately $130 per student. Lottery income is less than 2½% of the school district’s total income.
Other sources of unrestricted income include interest income, some small amount of fees and charges, reimbursement by the state for costs that are mandated by state law, and any donations that are made to the district either through community foundations or public agency grants. On average, California’s school districts have unrestricted income totaling approximately 68% of their total revenues.

Other District Funds

The above paragraphs describe revenues that are provided to a district’s General Fund or its primary operating fund. The typical district, however, operates several other funds that also provide support for district-level programs. The district operates a series of special revenue funds, including funds to operate adult education, cafeteria services, child development services, capital facilities, and deferred maintenance. The district business office can provide a listing of all of the funds that are operated by the district in addition to its General Fund.


California school finance is easy if you understand its primary concepts. Recognize that district revenues are primary driven by attendance, and that student attendance yields income, and that the lack of attendance results in an income loss. Districts with growth ADA have flexibility in their budgets considerably greater than those districts that are declining in ADA. A declining enrollment district is required to make program reductions in order to stay within its population income base and, unfortunately, those revenues can decline faster than the ability of a local agency to reduce costs without harming instructional services.

Unlike cities and counties, the growth or decline in a local property tax for districts is generally meaningless. The state is the funding agent for California public education after the local allocation for properties is reflected in district income. If the district grows in ADA, the state will provide additional dollars to the local agency. If there is a cost-of-living adjustment or a new program, the state—not the property tax—will fund that new program. While property taxes will increase from one year to the next, they will only offset the total school district revenue limit income, and the state will be funding the balance of the increases. In effect, local property tax income for public schools is only a footnote.

School districts are dependent on the decisions of a higher level of government—the State of California and, to a much lesser extent, the Federal Government—for determination of their revenues. They have very little flexibility to influence their total revenue growth unless the local electorate are willing to contribute additional funding through a voted parcel tax or other local agency support. Expenditures of the local agency are, however, generally determined by the school district. Expenditure decisions are within the control of the Governing Board even though the revenues are determined at the state level.

School Finance 101 is not a complicated course. It does, however, take some time to understand the important elements of how school districts receive funding and expend the resources available. Congratulations on passing this first step to understanding school finance.

-Courtesy of School Services of California, Inc.