Amid tightening budgets and declining enrollments, districts must manage funding costly school reopenings and frequent transitions between in-person, hybrid, and virtual learning. Considering these realities, districts cannot maintain the status quo budget process where few incremental changes are made year over year.
This model proves inefficient especially during budget cuts. Reductions made with little information about student impact or standardized cuts across a district can lead to inequitable outcomes for certain student populations.
Given that both the previous recession and the current pandemic have disproportionately impacted the highest-needs students, district leaders must move past incremental budgeting and make equitable budget decisions aligned with their strategic goals.
Adopt a goal-based approach to budgets
Embracing the concept of SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and timebound—goals can help districts align their spending to their strategic priorities. For instance, a district striving to improve early literacy across all student populations should state this priority as a SMART goal: students reading on grade level by third grade will increase by 20% in two years. Then, leaders should fund the actionable strategy targeted at achieving that specific goal. In this case, the district may adopt a foundational skills curriculum, invest in science-based teacher training, and analyze school-level data on an ongoing basis. Finally, district leaders must determine if their spending is appropriately aligned with the goal by using data to measure whether students are improving or if spending should be adjusted.
Once district leaders have created SMART Goals and aligned their spending decisions with those goals, they often must gain community support for their financial priorities. Building trust through transparent communication can help earn that support. SMART goals provide district leaders with clear rationales for their budget decisions, which make communicating those decisions easier. Consider using board meetings, professional development, district webpages, and newsletters as channels to share goal-aligned financial decisions and build trust with district stakeholders.
"The key to surviving a recession or really any challenging time is to ensure your community trusts you. And the only way to gain trust is to be honest, admit what you don't know, and communicate clearly the reasons for your decisions— especially the hard ones."
Superintendent, Midwestern School District
Identify opportunities to focus district spending on strategic priorities
Districts across the nation have identified creative and often simple ways to align their spending to their strategic goals while mitigating the impact of budget cuts.
One strategy involves decentralizing low-value activities to encourage savings across the district. For example, one district realized printing and copying costs across the district were unnecessarily high. The district’s leaders then reassigned the printing allotment to each principal’s budget—instead of the central district budget—to transfer ownership and incentivize savings. The district also implemented a simple, low-tech print-tracking program in their schools using pre-loaded money on each teacher’s school ID. Now teachers must swipe their IDs when printing and request additional funds once the original allocation has been used. This small inconvenience successfully reduces printing as the district saved $156K in printing and copying costs within the second year of the program.
To replicate this at your district, first identify an outlier source of spending by looking for costs that are easy to measure, have an outsized per student spend, and are not aligned with the district’s SMART goals.
Another strategy relies on a gainsharing policy to avoid unnecessary “use it or lose it” spending or carry-forward policies that result in hoarding. One district implemented a 50% maximum on any surplus rollover and stipulated that principals must demonstrate a use case for the following year’s surplus that directly advances the district’s goals.
Another district—located in a state with a “use it or lose it” budget policy—proactively identifies surplus spending priorities by collecting principal wish list items related to district priorities and that ideally benefit teachers (e.g., classroom technology, school space improvements, etc.). The district’s leaders then use these wish lists to plan ahead for the best use of surplus funds that support strategic goals.
By embracing a goal-based approach to your district’s budget and finding ways to reduce unnecessary spending, your district can make progress towards achieving strategic priorities even during the current economic downturn.