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Leveraging the Core Budget to Change America's Schools

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By: Lisa Duty

Across Reynoldsburg City School District (RCS), personalization of learning is increasingly achieved at the classroom and individual student level through the shift to blended learning. Blended learning requires a fundamental redesign of instructional and organizational models, transforming the core elements of teaching and learning--changing roles, structures, schedules, staffing, and core budgets.

Following on the heels of their new investment program , the district's latest move provides greater school budget autonomy to principals. The increased autonomy is meant to inspire a rethinking of what teachers, students, and schools do, and how they are organized and optimized to do it for greater results. Starting the 2014-15 school year RCS principals will have direct control over an estimated 90% of their budgets--the most to date.

Directly benefiting the achievement of students . With expanded budget autonomy, the central administration allows the schools themselves to make decisions as to how to spend the budget, letting those who know their students, staff, and community best direct the resources and take actions that most benefit their children.

Greater autonomy helps free principals and their staffs to pursue new approaches to school management, instruction, staffing, and supports so they can respond more nimbly and effectively to unique and often changing student needs. Provided that principals have the capacity to occupy the significant space created by the greater autonomy with actions that will actually improve student learning, kids stand to benefit the most.

Cultivating ownership. Principals' greater budget autonomy further shifts the orientation of the central administration, from one of directing schools vis-a-vis funds, to supporting their capacity to do things well on their own. However, simply loosening the purse strings won't do anything to alter the capacity of principals to make effective or norm-breaking decisions. Part of the goal of the shift is to help principals understand - and foster more ownership - for staffing decisions by flowing the expenditures for their staff through their building budgets. The shift in policy, along with support from the district, could help principals more fully consider their students' total needs and priorities. District time spent making decisions for principals regarding budgets will be reallocated to providing more support for effective decision-making.

The budget before... Historically, materials, supplies, professional development and other non-staff expenses have been covered by school-level budgets under the direct control of the principal. The district occasionally pitched in for major, essential purchases, like updating hardware for PARCC compliance. Although staffing was a district expense, Reynoldsburg's central office has been making "trades" with principals for the last few years. In one case, a principal made a decision to forego her "share" of the district's art, music and physical education staff, and instead apply the equivalent dollars to one FTE certified teacher for her Innovation Station (which blends basic technology instruction, art standards, a dramatic inquiry approach to deciphering complex texts (Shakespeare), and design challenges for all students), one part-time wellness paraprofessional and a contract with an outside vendor for music experiences (by the way, all programs delivered good results). The new policy encourages all principals to act on this kind of creative, independent thinking.

The budget now... High performance remains the goal, but now district management will more uniformly and aggressively seed and cultivate the potential of its leaders. While many of the details for the new budget are still being worked out, essentially each principal will still be provided funds to cover materials, supplies, software, etc. but they will now direct staffing budgets. Currently custodians, cooks, etc. are not included in the budget but teachers, paraprofessionals, administrative assistants, social workers, and guidance counselors are included. The district will allocate funds to schools based on student enrollment. They are still contemplating how to address special education given its more complex rules. The central office expects that the policy will evolve as principals work through the process.

A difficult shift. This is a difficult shift because some things must remain outside of the principal's control and will be inequitable across the buildings. Special education is a primary example. There are many state requirements to meet and principals don't control which students show up for an education. At the district level, there can be some efficiencies in deploying specialized staff and following student need... but at the building level there could be vast disparities among students who must be served. That's why the approach to special education staffing is still under consideration.

It is also true that the district office can sometimes coordinate and deliver services and purchases -- things like software or devices-- more efficiently and less expensively than schools can on their own. The additional work of investigating products and services, testing them in isolation from other schools, and negotiating the price and terms of offer can place a very costly administrative burden on each school. Most districts centralized these tasks long ago to ensure that experienced professionals made these decisions thoughtfully in a way that wasn't too expensive. Of course centralized procurement also has its challenges. The district is now rethinking new, more principal-owned, networked structures to support these functions and will still own centralized functions where they make the most sense. Principals will need to guard their time and the new dollars--now in their direct control--from simply going to overhead within the school instead of elsewhere.

Evaluating and supporting performance. Districts using portfolio management don't directly manage all schools; in the case of RCS they grant school leadership teams the responsibility and authority for determining how to meet their goals. Since providing a failing school or a faltering principal with more autonomy would be a very bad idea--the central office still plays a vital role--it focuses on evaluating school performance and leadership. Setting clear, non-negotiable goals for student achievement and well-being, closely monitoring those goals, and cultivating the conditions, capacity and board support to achieve the goals is precisely what could make this new equation work.

Whether? A learning agenda. The adoption of a new policy is only a starting point. It will be important to observe how this new policy is carried out or even whether it's carried out by principals. Only time will tell if principals will assume the role of change agent, or opt not to do anything significantly different from that of traditional school principals without budget autonomy. What will they do with the freedom? How will this change really affect principals, change their roles and the full scope of their responsibilities? What core competencies are needed to make this policy a success? Will school leadership teams leverage their autonomy to go much further? Or will the extra autonomy feel like extra calories?

RCS principals already have a package of autonomies and support for risk-taking. Now the work of knowing how to challenge convention and transform their organizations begins anew. When Reynoldsburg principals look around themselves, however, they see almost all of their peers outside of the city limits conducting business as usual. History tells us, however, that these same principals tackled curriculum questions, hiring decisions, and school designs that all initially involved vision or skills that some didn't have at the start.

It's not enough for a district to have great models of blended learning classrooms-- they need to create system conditions where schools will thrive. Reynoldsburg is taking multiple actions in order to overcome the tremendous gravitational pull of business-as-usual. In the end, performance won't have anything to do with the actual budget dollars--it's not about money. It will be about the vision and skills of the principal to leverage this new opportunity, the team they lead, and just how much they "get it."

Dr. Lisa Duty is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator where she leads design work with RCS in addition to TLA's state strategy, partnerships and investments. Follow Lisa on twitter @LisaDuty1.

Reynoldsburg City School District (RCS) is now hiring entrepreneurial principals for the 2014-15 school year.

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