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School Budgets: Choices Reveal Values

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We have entered budget season. All of the internal preparation and analysis is completed. Now begins the public review phase. Of course governmental budgets are connected so school budgets are impacted by local, state and federal budgets. At each level, however, one thing is true: budgets reveal values. Legislatures, executives, school leaders and school boards are planning for new years which begin between now and July 1. They are turning values and priorities into fiscal plans.

Nationally, the budget proposed by the new administration expands support for the military and national security while cutting resources for the environment, the arts, health and human services, and department of state. Education also will be massively cut except for the enlarging charter school initiative. The values are clear.

Deficit Thinking

Make no mistake....dollars are always limited by what's available and what can be publically supported. When we examine local budgets values are a bit more murky because such a large portion is comprised of personnel and associated costs but study can reveal those values as well. Are staffing reductions revealing? Surely. Do we eliminate a class at every grade in the elementary school and increase class size or eliminate the low enrollment electives in the high school? Do we reduce the number of lawn mowings in the summer and make maintenance staff eleven month employees? Do we only bring them back to get the schools ready and fields prepared for the fall? Are the tasks replaced by technology so personnel can focus elsewhere...and maybe fewer of them? How do we balance safety and appearance of our schools? Is the technology choice between administrative applications and instruction? Do the students have access through the k -12 learning environments? What about the investment in professional development for the teachers and leaders, and the need for legal and accounting services.? What will happen to children if extracurricular activities are eliminated?  All of these support the functioning of a successful school district.

Communicate Thoughtfully 

Somewhere the battle lines are drawn and cutting confronts those who want to create and build. Choices are hard, between right and right. School leaders must remain mindful of another of their responsibilities during the budget process. Keeping the information accurate and accessible.  As the budget discussions develop, rumors spread, and emotions rise.  Without realizing it, with good intentions and attention focused intensely, school leaders sometimes forget and contribute to an uneasy community as the budget is being built and communicated.

Familiar Budget Scenarios For Reflection

A superintendent was recently quoted in a news article as saying "we are cutting an assistant principal." In context, their district enrollment is declining, they are consolidating two schools, reducing the need for one of the administrators.  But, as in all things, words matter. "Cutting" is a word we use in this process but it is associated with a painful experience.  Reducing staff is painful enough without exaggerating the pain through words. When announced, emotions erupted and the entire budget process will now be haunted by this single issue. It might be the language or it might be the person but either way it has distorted the process.

When asked about why a district remained closed for a third day after a snow storm had ended a day earlier, the superintendent responded that it was not because the plowing couldn't be done in time for schools to open, but because in order to do so those plowing would have to be paid overtime. Schools remained closed to save money. For some, this explanation worked; for others, it represented dereliction of a responsibly to educate children every day.

A faculty was told that the budget needed to be reduced by $400,000. and that the principals in each building (there are four) was given an equal share from which to reduce their budget ($100,000.).  Fair on the surface, a better approach might be to share enrollment data. The district is experiencing declining enrollment, lower grades are hit the hardest. Although it may seem fair to have each building have an equal share of money to reduce their budget, schools have different strengths and needs and are losing students at different rates.  As the faculty braces for the announcement of reductions, and the school leaders what to reduce or eliminate, emotions ran high. 

Build Budgets All Year

Budget building is a challenge on several levels.  Numbers seem as if they should be neutral, unemotional. One can think about how to make a number on a specific line simply a smaller number so the bottom line matches the targeted goal. But as in all things, frames of mind matter, collaboration matters, consensus matters, and as always, words matter.  All of these are reflections of what the leader values. Most importantly, where do we place children in the priority process of building budgets? Do we talk about them or about programs, adults, buildings, transportation, contracts, and technology?  How do the programs that we have contribute to the school experience of all students?  Are our investments in programs that demonstrate they are the most effective? How do we measure that? How much of our thinking is based on saving someone's job as opposed to improving students' experience? How prepared are we to make decisions that require loss and how will we handle the emotions that follow? And certainly, what words will I use to communicate?

Budget process is typically a year round, ongoing one in which programs, facilities, faculty, and staff are evaluated in terms of value to learning and the students.  It is a mind shift from dollars and cents to overall effectiveness.  Then, when the public phase of the budget-building season arrives, people will have a different focus, minds will have turned toward the students with an embedded understanding of where there is most value. Then, with skill of allocation and resource generation, leaders will be building budgets, faculty and community will understand and disruption will be minimized.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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