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How Supes & Principals Should Not Respond to Tight Budgets

I had the privilege of visiting with Rhode Island's superintendents and district business officers the other day, to discuss the fiscal crunch and how to stretch the school dollar. One of the things we touched on was the recent Phi Delta Kappan piece "Leading Through a Fiscal Nightmare." I used it to suggest how not to respond to a budget crunch, and to flag some tics common to superintendents and principals that are misguided and likely to alienate supporters.

The winning course, given that families (e.g. taxpayers) across America have lost jobs and homes, and had to tighten their belts, is to recognize that things are tough all over and then protect kids and programs by optimizing spending, rethinking instructional delivery, or finding ways for adults to shoulder the load. (If you want suggestions, check out Stretching the School Dollar.) But let's take a moment to discuss what not to do, using quotes from principals and superintendents in the PDK piece to flag four problematic habits of mind.

The first mistake: excuse-mongering. Quote: "I feel as though I am at a point where I have to say that it is OK for some kids to fail because we cannot provide the extra help they need." When parents lose their jobs, or take a pay cut, they don't say, "It's now okay for my kid to go foodless." When police budgets are cut, we'd be furious if the police said, "Hey, we can't keep you safe." Look, we all know that education is filled with vacuous declarations that "all children will learn." It's fine for educators to reject those banalities as a matter of course. What's not okay is to use budget cuts as an excuse to accept mediocrity--to say, "Well, we used to think no one should fail, but now we've changed our mind." Every leader, public or private, has good budget years and bad ones. Responsible leaders make it their mission to do the very best they can with the resources they have--that's the mission and the vision they share.

The second mistake: imagining that progress only comes with new dollars. Quote: "You can't push forward with new innovations without the funding to see them through." That's just silliness. The most innovative organizations in the world tend to be cash-poor start-ups. They rely on moxie, creativity, and elbow grease. In education, "innovation" has typically meant layering new dollars and programs atop everything that came before. So, districts didn't rethink staffing or school libraries when they got classroom computers or internet connectivity, they just laid these atop everything that was already in place. This is why education is the only professional sector with which I'm familiar (possibly aside from health care) which seems to have seen a decline in measurable productivity since the introduction of the personal computer.

The third mistake: thinking that any budget cut will be debilitating. Quote: "It is impossible to make cuts in a district and not have it impact teachers and students. We cut a secretary and many tasks are now falling to teachers. This takes up their precious time to prepare for students. We cut a technology integration person, and now teachers are having to spend more time researching web sites and online projects. We cut a mail delivery person, and now secretaries and paras are having to do curbside pickup and drop-off of mail so the mail can travel on buses." The underlying message is lunacy. By the speaker's logic, no organization--not the U.S. military, not the postal service, not General Motors--can ever make cuts or trim personnel without compromising quality. Well, the reality is that a slew of organizations have made cuts that seemed painful but that ultimately seemed to boost productivity, strengthen the culture, and left them more effective. Obviously, cutting in dumb ways (like by zeroing out music, art, or sports to save negligible dollar amounts) has an adverse impact. But the challenge for leaders is to prune in smart ways, to use rough periods as a chance to cut back so that their organizations will emerge leaner and healthier. To deny that one can do that is to abdicate one's responsibility.

The fourth mistake: countenancing rather than condemning unacceptable employee responses. Quote: "I was and continue to be surprised at how some people react. I had typically reasonable people telling me that they weren't going to do their job... I feel we have taken a huge step backwards in our communication, trust, and cooperation. So, we have more work to do and are working together more poorly." Surprised? Surprised?! The principal should have been livid, outraged, aghast. The employee reaction shouldn't have been calmly related but offered up as a case of moral depravity. After all, those "reasonable people" were expressing an intent to shortchange children and waste public funds. Until that kind of sentiment routinely draws an appropriately furious, public reaction from edu-leaders--instead of the watery "you know how hard times have been on our people" that the public so often hears--it's going to be tough for them to make the case that the public can be confident that new funds will be well spent.

For better or worse, I think I can safely say that this is one lesson that you're unlikely to get in the nation's educational administration programs.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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