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Some Districts Punt Thorny Budget Decisions Back to Parents, Students

For district administrators and school board members, the most contentious time of the year is the spring, when they have to decide how to balance the budget books and where to spend their money. 

While the bulk of those decisions are typically made during superintendents' cabinet meetings and sparsely-attended school board meetings, school leaders in Tulsa, Okla., and in Dallas are attempting unique ways to engage the community.

In Tulsa, where the school district has had severe funding shortages after losing more than 5,000 students over the last decade, Superintendent Deborah Gist held 11 community engagement meetings to decide how to cut more than $20 million from its budget last month, according to local reports. The meetings were held at high schools, elementary schools and local churches and attracted hundreds of community members across the city. Two of the meetings were conducted in Spanish. The district also conducted an online survey.  

Many at the meetings urged administrators to keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible and to reduce administrative overhead, which has increased in recent years.

In Dallas, superintendent Michael Hinojosa proposed in his recent budget to set aside $60,000 for a project in which high school students "brainstorm, craft and compete" for grants to fund projects on their campuses, according to the Dallas Morning News. The district's school board approved the measure last week.

"We want to put the power in the hands of people of color and working-class people, to give them an opportunity to make decisions on how their tax dollars are being spent in their local communities," José Perez, an education justice organizer for Texas Organizing Project told the Dallas Morning News. The group pushed for the measure.

Marguerite Roza, a school finance researcher who runs the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, has long advocated for administrators to give the public options when deciding which programs to add and which programs to cut. She suggests in a recently-published paper for the American Enterprise Institute that the coming fiscal year—with recession anxieties rising—might be prime time to engage the general public about how to craft school budgets since school-spending data will be placed on state report cards.  

"Messaging research tells us that the public trusts leaders who talk in terms of cost-equivalent tradeoffs and dollars linked to students—and most systems could stand to build more trust right now," Roza said.  

As budget cuts and high taxes have become more politically volatile, some government agencies have used a strategy called participatory budgeting, in which politicians design budgets with a steering committee and place proposals on a ballot for the public to vote on. That mirrors the custom in many school districts in the small towns throughout the Northeast, where budgets have long been put before the public for scrutiny and a vote.


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