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Card Game Helps School Leaders Think Through Budget Decisions

Times are tough in Upper Samuels Township School District.

This mid-sized district of 130 schools has seen some enrollment declines over the years—15 percent of district seats are empty and a quarter of the schools have enrollments below 350. About 45 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent receive special education services, and 6 percent are learning English as a second language. Test scores in reading are about 10 points below the state average.

And, after four years of cuts at the central office and other operational cuts, the school district is facing yet another budget gap.

Upper Samuels Township, a school district I named after myself, does not exist. But the scenario is quite real for many districts that are struggling to cut their budgets and still maintain their educational focus.

Education Resource Strategies, a Watertown, Mass.-based company that helps large urban districts strategize how to deploy their resources, has created a novel process to help school leaders think about budget tradeoffs.

Called School Budget Hold 'Em, the goal is to create a "winning hand" of cards that meld budget priorities with educational priorities.

As an example, for Upper Samuels Township—a scenario I borrowed from ERS—I decided that I wanted to increase the sizes in non-core and elective classes by four or five students. According to the Hold 'Em game, that would save about 1.3 percent in my budget. But I also wanted to invest in a response-to-intervention program, which in the game means an addition one-tenth of 1 percent added to my budget. The cards offer several other options for cuts and investments, and the website offers some examples of what ERS believes are winning hands. (The cards are free online, or a physical deck can be ordered for $20 plus shipping.)

Some of the changes ERS suggests are not as easy as playing a card from a deck. For example, the game says that increasing class sizes by two students can lead to a savings of 1.8 percent, and closing 10 percent of schools can save 1 percent in a budget. But both of those options come with political costs (and in the case of closing schools, the budget savings may not be as large as predicted.)

Karen Baroody, the managing director for ERS, told me that the point is not that the cards perfectly align with savings at a given school district. Instead, the game allows leaders to think strategically about priorities and reduce defensiveness around certain programs. This is especially important to districts that have already made several rounds of cuts, and are now looking at difficult choices, she said.

"In our mind, there's a message: there's really fundamental things that need to change," Baroody said. "If we don't do this hard stuff, we're not ever going to make progress."

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