The faraway storm clouds that signal the end of federal COVID-relief money are starting to come into view.
Districts have slightly more than one month to commit money from the second round of federal aid (known colloquially as ESSER II) to particular expenses. By the early weeks of next school year, 2024-25, they’ll have to do the same for ESSER III, the biggest set of funds.
Cuts will be inevitable in many places. Some districts will be able to shift initiatives paid for with federal relief dollars to other funding sources. But others will have to make hard decisions about which initiatives and staff members are most and least essential.
So far, a key theme emerging from early reports is that districts are looking to the central office as an area ripe for cuts. But is that the right approach? What can districts do to manage the fallout from those decisions? And what other obstacles outside their control stand in the way?
Education Week asked experts to weigh in. Here are a few key questions they believe district leaders should be asking as they ponder a post-ESSER budget.
Is the district actually spending too much on administration?
Critics of public education spending often point to the highest salaries in the district as a prime source of budgetary bloat. But most districts wouldn’t make much of a dent in their overall budgets if they reduced spending on administrators—those positions typically make up roughly 7 percent to 10 percent of a district’s overall operating budget. The vast majority of school district budgets go to compensation for teachers and other instructional staff.
Is there any benefit to cutting positions besides cutting costs?
Districts may be tempted to cut administrative positions purely to demonstrate that they’re reducing costs. But administrators perform valuable functions that can’t easily be replaced. If districts aren’t thinking strategically about other reasons why having fewer administrators make sense, they’re doing more harm than good, said Jonathan Travers, the managing partner at Education Resource Strategies, a consulting firm that works with large school districts on budget and school finance issues.
What other duties could an administrator do?
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, some districts hired additional administrators to help with the unusual circumstance of simultaneously providing instruction in school buildings and remotely.
Hybrid learning is a thing of the past in many of those districts. But administrators hired for that purpose could serve other functions, like lifting burdens on overworked teachers, developing new partnerships with local community organizations, or dealing with student behavioral challenges, said Angela VonEssen, the assistant superintendent of business services and operations for the Shoreline district in Washington state.
Is the state paying its fair share?
Some states fall short of ensuring that all districts receive an adequate sum of per-student funds with a combination of local tax revenue and state aid. Those concerns have prompted political agitation and lawsuits in states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.
Budget planning could include lobbying for more state aid to offset increasing local costs.
Does cutting these positions align with your district’s core values?
It may be tempting to cut some high-paying positions in an effort to redirect that money to other initiatives. But district leaders should really assess whether the position they’re considering for elimination contributes meaningfully to what they’ve identified as their core values, said Brent Jones, the superintendent of the Seattle school district. Has your district made a commitment to diversity and inclusion while also looking to cut a diversity, equity, and inclusion coordinator?
A school district’s budget is its “moral document,” and spending should align with its mission, Jones said.
What does the community want?
Part of the budget process should include an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the areas where they want to see bigger—or smaller—investments.
District leaders should give community members ample opportunity to provide feedback at in-person forums and in writing, Jones said. Some school districts have even started giving community members a slice of the budget pie to allocate as they see fit.
Those conversations are especially important when there’s a budget shortfall, but keeping a finger on the pulse of what parents feel is important can (and should) help guide difficult decisions, Jones said.