California school districts use a system called "fund accounting." All revenues and expenditures are placed in one of several funds. Each fund is self-balancing and has its own financial statement with a beginning balance, list of revenues and expenditures, and ending balance. The principal purpose of separating financial transactions into funds is to demonstrate fiscal accountability.
The General Fund is the chief operating fund for school districts and county offices of education. Most of the district's financial transactions flow through this fund. The largest part of the money is for general purposes and is categorized as unrestricted. Some of the revenues that go into the General Fund, however, are restricted to specific uses, usually in compliance with state and federal regulations. This includes most special purpose ("categorical") programs.
Most revenues and expenditures are accounted for in the General Fund. However, general accounting guidelines, or state and federal laws, sometimes require that districts place certain revenues into other funds that are separated from the General Fund. Most often, the revenues are used for purposes other than providing K-12 instruction.
Special Revenue Funds are established to account for the proceeds from specific revenue sources that are restricted by law to the financing of particular activities. Examples include adult education, cafeteria, child development, deferred maintenance, and charter schools. A district can also create Special Reserve Funds that allow the school board to set money aside for various reasons, including anticipated expenses such as benefits for retired employees.
Capital Project Funds account for resources that are to be used for the acquisition or construction of major capital facilities. Examples include building, capital facilities, and state school building lease-purchase.
Debt Service Funds cover the accumulation of resources for and the payment of principal and interest on general long-term debt. Examples include tax override, debt service, and bond interest and redemption.
Permanent Funds are for endowments (including those from a private foundation) where the main balance is preserved but which produce ongoing income that the district uses.
All these funds, which are used for educating students, operating food services and child development programs, and constructing and maintaining facilities, are considered "governmental." Some districts establish separate proprietary or fiduciary funds that are more like business ventures than government programs.
Proprietary funds fall into two categories:
Enterprise Funds are established to report any activity where a fee is charged to another person or entity outside of the district for goods or services.
Internal Service Funds primarily account for services provided by the district on a cost reimbursement basis to other funds or departments of the district.
Fiduciary funds account for assets that are held in a trustee or agent capacity for others and cannot be used to support the district's own programs. These funds fall into three categories:
Pension (and other employee benefit) Trust Fund: money that is set aside irrevocably for an employee or agency to be used at a later time; it may be spent only for its stated purpose.
Private-Purpose Trust Funds include endowments given for a specific individual or purpose but not for general use.
Agency Funds generally include money that the district holds for federal and state taxes or for student body activities.
Most district revenues or expenditures must be recorded in specific funds. If a district is using a particular fund, it must report cash flow to the California Department of Education. Thus, the list of funds varies from district to district.
A few of the funds are optional, that is, a district does not have to report them. An example is an "Agency Fund" called Student Body Fund. It lists the assets and liabilities of the student body. It does not have revenues, expenditures, or a fund balance; the student body maintains its own General Fund to account for the transactions.
A district also has the discretion to place revenues and expenditures for school cafeterias into the General Fund or into a separate Cafeteria Special Revenue Fund.