Participatory budgeting is a relatively obscure process that allows residents to vote directly on how public dollars are spent.
While it’s generally used in municipal governments, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval, the manager of family and community engagement in Arizona’s Phoenix Union High School district, has championed this approach in K-12 to empower students and give them an active role in decisions that shape their schooling experience.
Under participatory budgeting, any student can submit a proposal for how to spend a small chunk of the district’s $150 million budget that goes to their school building. Students vote on their favorite proposals, and principals and the district are then required to implement the top vote-getters.
With Tercero-Sandoval’s leadership, Phoenix Union has become the country’s first school system to take student participatory budgeting districtwide.
Students have brought new filtered-water stations to schools, along with rooms where those feeling stressed can retreat to relax. They’re now wrestling with how to spend $500,000 in school safety funds after the district ended its contract for school safety officers with the Phoenix police department in 2020.
Education Week spoke to Tercero-Sandoval, 53, a 2023 EdWeek Leaders To Learn From honoree, about the process and how schools and districts can put it to work.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you introduce and implement participatory budgeting in Phoenix Union?
I learned about [participatory budgeting] from Stanford Prescott, a Phoenix Union board member, who took a class with Daniel Schugurensky [a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in participatory budgeting]. I just thought it’d be such a perfect way to allow students to learn democracy by doing.
I started small, with five campuses, then brought on another five, then 10, and 15.
When you’re taking something that happens in municipalities and putting that into a school day, things were going to look different. It probably was easier for me to do because of my history in the district: I had served on a campus and at the district level. When you are a district administrator, you have a little more authority to make things happen quicker than just a person on a campus.
What was a major challenge you encountered as you began implementing participatory budgeting?
The first year, I didn’t realize [that] as much as we built relationships, there were still some students who kept thinking, “Are they really going to implement what we vote on?” As we started to implement projects, students were like, “You’re really doing it!” They were going along for the ride and they were hoping. Seeing the ballot was another step. But until that first year, when things were being implemented, there was a little bit of a doubt.
A lot of people were frustrated. It was at a time when school budgets were being cut. One person who approached me in a direct way out of anger said, “What are you thinking? This is so irresponsible. We already have cut funding, and you’re giving money to students? What do they know?”
Lots of people would be skeptical that giving students the reins would be productive. How did you counter those concerns?
I share data and talk about the benefits of student agency and connectedness and highlight how participatory budgeting provides students with the opportunity to learn democracy by doing and includes components of project-based learning. After our first year, I have so many success stories that I can share, so that really helps.
There’s this misconception that our stakeholders are only parents and staff. I keep saying: “Students are our primary stakeholders. They’re using our campuses in ways that staff never do.”
One of the most popular projects [in] year one or two were hydration stations. Some folks were like, “We have water fountains.” But a lot of them didn’t work. Our staff didn’t know that because they never went to get a drink out of the fountains.
The students also had amazing ideas about why they needed to be placed in certain ways. The students at Central [High School] wanted one near the athletic field so the community could use it for exercise. They wanted another one at the light-rail station in the front of campus, so anyone riding the light rail or experiencing homelessness could get cold, filtered water.
How did you ensure that your efforts to reach students were succeeding?
Early on, we had schools recruit a group of students to serve as the steering committee. We identified student leaders and brought them in, but I wanted to make sure that we had counselors recommending, club sponsors recommending, also just through announcements and messaging and posters. If we just go to our student government, we are already marginalizing so many students who would want to be involved in this.
There’s this misconception that our stakeholders are only parents and staff. I keep saying, 'Students are our primary stakeholders. They’re using our campuses in ways that staff never do.'
Within the first few weeks of our recruitment strategy, when you’re saying you want to be part of participatory budgeting, the name didn’t really connect with what the work was about. We quickly did a 360 and then changed the recruitment. I just switched that to, “Do you want to have a voice? Do you want to be part of the team that decides what changes?” After the first year, we had no trouble.
I have hosted a few student panels when we were expanding to new campuses to allow staff and students to hear from students themselves. One of our students shared that she had never participated in a club or felt connected to school until she got involved with PB.
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