Having a plan to tackle your school district’s critical problems doesn’t mean you have the money to pay for it, and many districts find their best-laid improvement plans can fall apart with just one state budget cut or failed local bond issue.
That’s why a growing number of districts nationwide are working to bring together educators and budget officers early and often, to make sure budgets support the most critical priorities.
“One of the hardest things is when you talk about academic [return on investment], educators are not used to putting a dollar sign on students; they look at quality education and what’s best for the kids,” said Claire Hertz the Beaverton, Ore., district’s chief financial officer. “And I look at dollar signs, but I don’t necessarily know what’s most important instructionally,” she said. “We each bring a strength and a source of data to each other.”
Beaverton is one of a rapidly expanding network of districts in the Smarter School Spending coalition, which uses so-called “continuous improvement” tools to integrate budget and academic staff and planning in schools. Instead of a small circle of staff poring over spreadsheets in marathon budget meetings once or twice a year, the districts involve everyone from finance officers and principals to teachers and janitors in ongoing conversations about solving instructional problems in sustainable ways.
The network expanded from a 2013 pilot by the Chicago-based Government Finance Officers Association in four districts, to more than 60 districts nationwide. Through joint training, model budgets, and other activities, districts use the network to bring together budget and program staff to learn how to identify educational priorities, align spending to support them, and then test how well those investments are sustained and pay off.
Matt Bubness, the senior manager of the school-spending network for the finance association, said this more holistic approach to budget planning helps districts cope with both state and federal budget cuts and the “continuous improvement plans” several states now encourage under the.
“We found pretty early on that it didn’t really matter so much whether they were large or small, or even whether they were a high flier or maybe two steps away from a state takeover, there were common budget challenges” across districts, he said.
Building a Plan
Before joining the network, staffers from Fulton County, Ga., public schools met each quarter to adjust funding streams to schools.
“We realized we had 72 different formulas for allocations; that’s a lot,” said Marvin Dereef, Fulton County’s deputy chief financial officer. The formulas governed everything from textbooks to teachers, but in discussions that came after joining the network, Fulton County’s budget team found that some funding formulas in the $1.3 billion budget had nothing to do with the district’s priorities. Often principals weren’t even sure why they received the money they did.
“It came up a lot: ‘I don’t know why that’s the formula; we’ve just been doing it that way for the last 30 years,’” Dereef said. “We realized we were not really evaluating the formula. ... We were just getting someone’s opinion that they need more money.”
Instead of funding based only on the formulas, a working group including budget staff, administrators, and curricular leaders have been looking at the historical costs of each program funded and how well it aligns to district goals and federal or state requirements. For all funding streams or programs that have been in place three years or more, or those that had been changed during administrative transitions, the team is evaluating their effectiveness and relevancy over time.
“It’s a work in progress,” Dereef said. “We’ve got the pillars, the big framework, and now we are at the point of moving on our new strategic plan.”
In another network district, Columbus, Ohio, Scott Gooding came in as budget director in 2014, on the heels of a turnover in superintendents and a very difficult and failed tax referendum. The district had typically based departments’ future budgets on what they had received the previous year—a common strategy but one Gooding said tended to encourage schools and programs to be territorial.
“We get so focused on the ‘how much’ that we lose sight of what those dollars are being spent for,” Gooding said. “It’s a very different conversation if someone asks, ‘Why is your budget going up by $15 million next year?’ ... if that is going to ensure all of our 3rd graders know how to read.”
In Columbus, Gooding said the process has made budget discussions more inclusive and helped head off problems. During one recent budget meeting, a high school administrator wanted to create a computer lab in an unused classroom. The district’s buildings manager, who was also on hand, pointed out that the room had not been wired for the electronics, and the group was able to brainstorm ways to adapt the room and work around the issue. If the wiring issue had been discovered after the computers had already been ordered, Gooding said, it would have been more costly and harder to fix the problem.
Gaps in Implementation
Understanding budget priorities also, another member school system, focus more on implementation, according to Corey Golla, the district’s curriculum and learning director.
“When you know how expensive it is to change resources or change curriculum, we start thinking, have we really given what we have a fair shake?” he said.
For example, Golla noted that the school board voiced disappointment in a new math curriculum, which hadn’t led to improvements in student achievement in the three years since it had been installed.
“Though we’re seeing improvement in some areas, we’re flat-lining in some. That’s the time when most districts would be looking around to see what else is out there,” Golla said. “We chose to look at the consistency of our implementation, and we learned that, in some cases, 20 to 25 percent of the curriculum wasn’t even being taught. And I’m confident we can get better results because we had teams that were getting better results.”
Instead of buying new textbooks, the district has focused on more professional development on the existing math program for teachers.
In Columbus, the new process has also helped the district win more support for its $1.4 billion budget for fiscal 2018 and voters passed new levies and bonds for the district’s operating, capital, and school improvement budgets in 2016.
“We had a history of budget cuts after budget cuts after budget cuts every year,” Gooding said. “Instead of selling incremental budgeting, 3 percent for the next five years, we could tell voters exactly what would happen when, and why.”
Beaverton, like many network districts, reached out to the group in 2013 as it struggled with how to meet a critical goal—raising the district’s 77 percent graduation rate—while also having to cut 15 percent of its teachers in response to shrinking state and federal funds.
Instead of just putting money toward existing high school programs, a team of 13 educators, administrators, and finance staff met weekly and monthly to review data and find the “root cause” of the poor graduation rates. They found, for example, that special education students did not enter 9th grade ready to pass grade-level algebra and physics classes. They needed to build a stronger math foundation in middle school, but general education math teachers did not get sufficient training on supporting students with special needs.
As a result, the district invested in co-training of general and special education teachers in lower grades, and piloted three secondary programs to help students stay on track to graduation. Within three years, the district identified one particularly effective program and rolled it out districtwide. Four-year graduation rates are now at an all-time high.
Coverage of continuous-improvement strategies in education is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at
Coverage of continuous-improvement strategies in education is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as Educators and Finance Officers Team Up for Better Budgeting