EdSource’s new report on pension costs for California school districts details how those financial obligations doubled over the course of four years.
To report the story, EdSource obtained pension data from the California Department of Education. The data comes from financial reports that school districts send to the state each year.
We looked at traditional K-12 district general fund expenditures for the CalPERS and CalSTRS state pension funds for 2013-14 and 2017-18. The general fund is used to account for the ordinary operations of a school district. CalSTRS covers teachers and administrators while CalPERS covers other school employees like teacher aides, clerical workers and custodians.
On March 4, EdSource reported the data as per-student payments by the districts. After questions were raised about the numbers, EdSource learned that the data included payments into the funds by the state on behalf of the districts.
That stemmed from an accounting change in 2014-15 that shifted the way districts show pension spending in their reports. The change made it incorrect to compare 2013-14 expenditures to 2017-18 expenditures.
After consulting with school finance experts, EdSource updated the data by subtracting the state’s on-behalf payments to CalSTRS from the 2017-18 data, making it comparable to 2013-14.
Some districts didn’t list a value for their state on-behalf contributions to CalSTRS in 2017-18. School finance experts and some of the districts confirmed the practice. The figures for those districts are included in this data.
To allow comparisons, EdSource calculated per-pupil spending on pensions for each district. It based those calculations on average daily attendance. School districts in California are largely funded based on those attendance numbers.
San Francisco Unified does not participate in CalPERS, so data shown for that district is for CalSTRS only.
The pension numbers in this story differ from the general fund spending numbers provided by the California Department of Education and on Ed-Data, a collaboration between EdSource, the education department and FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis &Management Assistance Team), the state agency that provides fiscal advice to local districts. The Ed-Data numbers include the district’s total payments and the state’s on-behalf payments to CalSTRS.
Spending figures for 2013-14 are not adjusted for inflation. Inflation increased about 6 percent from July 2014 to July 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.