Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Electronic Workbook Bares Budgets in Seattle

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Seattle principals, teachers, parents, and community members can soon find out via the Internet how much money their schools receive, how it is spent, and how those resources might be allocated differently.

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An electronic workbook called the "Budget Builder," devised by the school district, the University of Washington's graduate school of public affairs, and the Chicago-based Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, was scheduled to be unveiled this week.

Although the program currently contains detailed budget information solely for the Seattle public schools, the basic template could be used by any school system in the country. It is becoming available at a time when many districts are moving to give schools greater control over spending.

"Urban school budgets have long been seen as something only the 'experts' could understand," said Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign, a nonprofit group dedicated to raising achievement among urban youths.

"Hundreds of pages of indecipherable codes have created an enormous barrier between many school communities and the funds they need to improve schools," she added. "The Seattle public schools have taken a bold and unprecedented step to break through this barrier."

Pivotal Moment

The new system, developed over the past year at a cost of about $100,000, enables educators or anyone with access to the Internet's World Wide Web to view a school's current budget and its projected budget, based on student enrollment. It can build alternative scenarios for operating a school and quickly calculate what the changes would cost.

The program will be particularly useful in Seattle, where the school board last month approved a new funding formula for the 47,000-student district. The plan is designed to send more money to schools with large numbers of hard-to-educate students and to give schools unprecedented control over spending.

It calls for each school to receive a basic allowance for administrative staffing. The remaining funds will be allocated based on student enrollment, with more dollars following students who are poor, disabled, still learning English, or low achievers. Principals, teachers, and others at the school site can decide how to spend the money.

This year, for example, the Marcus Whitman Middle School, which serves about 1,160 students, received about $3.4 million. But only about $173,000 of that amount is controlled by the school itself, said Principal BiHoa Caldwell. But as she builds the budget for next school year, the school theoretically has control over the entire amount.

"Principals will now have a lump sum of money out of which they must design the strongest educational program for their individual schools," said Joseph Olchefske, the district's chief financial officer.

"We knew we had to do a lot of principal training to be proficient in budgeting," he added, "and we felt we had to make a commitment to tools to help them get there."

Schools also will face some hard monetary choices: The school system must trim its budget by $35 million over the next three years.

A Helpful Tool

The Budget Builder will link each of Seattle's schools to the central office's budget information. Schools also will have access to individual examples from public schools in Seattle and elsewhere for options about different ways to spend their money. Schools can decide at which point during the budget process they will make the information widely accessible on-line.

For 1997-98, schools are completing their budget plans without the new system. But starting next year, principals will use it to draw up their budgets, and they will be able to submit their budgets to the district electronically.

Andy Gordon, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington, headed the technical team that created the program. Financial support was provided by three Seattle-based groups: the Boeing Co.; SAFECO, an insurance and property-management corporation; and the Seattle Foundation, a local philanthropy.

The Web address of the Budget Builder is http://sps.gspa.washington.edu/sps/.

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