Dealing with your Local School Budget
Posted by: Mark Nichols
11 Jul 2011
Serving on a local board that sets the city budget can be a stressful experience. The school board will ask for some large % increase in their budget, and any attempt to give them less than what they ask for brings lots of scorn. Here are the standard outcries:
- They're going to have to cut kindergarten!
- Say goodbye to the football program!
- We're going to have to cut teachers.
So here are ways to either save some money or to cut through all the misdirection hurled your way.
1. Save Money: Cut an Assistant Superintendant - the Curriculum Director
What does a curriculum director do? eHow says they don’t do squat. Well, almost. They “plan and manage the coursework from which students learn”. They may also help train teachers and determine how the school is conforming to regulations and standards.
Curriculum directors make a bunch of money. But there are accreditation boards meant to help determine if a school is meeting “regulations”. There is testing already in place meant to show whether the school is meeting “standards”. Teachers regularly complain of having to “teach to the test”. If that’s the case, what curriculum needs to be set? Isn’t the job already done? (And by the way, why aren’t test scores improving if that’s all you’re focused on?!)
Instead of paying for a curriculum director, establish a committee of teachers, and have them work a little extra throughout the year. You won’t have extra benefit payments to make, and the teachers will encourage buy-in to the guidelines they set. Or do you already have department heads in your system? Shouldn’t curriculum development be a natural responsibility for that position?
2. Save Money: Stop Comparing Yourselves to Other Districts
“Our school is historically underfunded. We need more money to spend.” Well, that’s a statement that requires a lot of research and even then is really difficult to substantiate. Some in my town began looking at the percentage of the city’s budget allocated to the schools. Then they’d look at other towns and see a much larger percentage. There are many reasons for that. The city-side of the budget incorporates many expenses that are normally paid for by the school, such as field maintenance, some benefits, some insurance, etc. All told another 4% of the total budget was actually going to the school rather than the city.
School districts are different. Each has its own specific needs and makeup.
- programs can vary (larger ratio of special education enrollment?)
- demographic makeup
- population density (less dense means less policing, which means a greater % for the school)
- number of actual school buildings, etc.
Comparison can also lead a district to hire unneeded staff (see the curriculum director above) or overpay for staff. If a neighboring town pays a superintendant more money, it’s tempting to equal it under the guise you have to “compete” with the other district. If you don’t, the danger is you become a career stepping stone - a pit stop for someone before they move on to a higher paying job somewhere else. Oh well. The hiring process should find the right “fit” - like when a grad student doesn’t get accepted to a program because their interests don’t line up with any particular professor. Find someone who will take the lower pay and care about the community enough to stick around. Do you really believe someone won’t perform the job well for what you’re offering? If you’re a smaller district with less overall responsibility, you shouldn’t pay as much for a super anyway.
You can compare in broad strokes to other districts, but it’s best to focus on your own inefficiencies and needs. Don’t get too caught up in comparing to other districts.
3. Save Money: Combine Benefit Plans
A large portion of any local budget is for health insurance. In my town we had two separate policies - one for school employees and one for every other city employee. When we combined those policies and switched to “self-insurance” we ended up saving a million dollars (out of a total $35 million dollar budget!). Being “self-insured” is like finding an agent to help us get the best deal through our current policy holder, but we take on a little more risk (if everyone gets sick this year). Even with this new arrangement, if we max out the policy we’ll at worst pay what we were already going to pay under the old plan.
The principle behind combining benefit plans is akin to regionalization. Merge what’s similar between departments or communities in order to save money. It makes sense and saves cents.
4. Save Money: Limit the Empire Building
Be wary of empire building. Anyone in charge who feels the need to build up the administration around him or her should be replaced. You don’t need a superintendant, three assistant superintendants, and two administrative assistants for each of those positions. You don’t need an assistant principal (or two), a dean, assistant dean, and then an administrative assistant for each.
5. Save Money: Cut the Athletic Director
What do athletic directors do? They arrange schedules for all the sports programs, and perhaps are in charge of equipment purchases. They may teach a gym class or two, and they're probably the football coach, which is a fall sport only, so they might be an assistant track coach, too. A part-time position can handle the scheduling. The football coach can be part-time. There's no need for a full-time position if you're not getting full-time value. If you're going to keep a full-time AD, make them teach close to a full slate of classes - leave one class empty for purposes of scheduling and such. Pay extra for the coaching since that occurs after school hours anyway. Otherwise, get rid of the position and save money on benefits by keeping the positions part-time.
6. Save Money/Misdirection Detection: Transfers
Every school has a budget. There’s a plan on how to spend the money at the beginning of the year. That plan can change throughout the year, or special needs may arise that require a different allocation of money. Transferring money to a different budget line item usually requires approval from the board of education. In my town, the administration only needs board approval if the amount is over $5,000. So transfers under that amount happen frequently.
Then at the end of each year parents and administrators alike can complain that textbooks and paper weren’t funded at an appropriate level. Boo! Except hundreds of thousands of dollars were allocated but the money was transferred out.
It’s difficult to track all the money in a budget because there can be thousands of line items. Some line items may not be that descriptive (e.g., maintenance might include anything from desk replacement to floor cleaner). And you have to know the plan at the beginning of the year and then what was actually spent by the end of the year. There may be a legitimate reason for some changes, so you’d have to check meeting minutes as well as talk to those in charge. The whole point is to catch if there’s any funny business going on, and to be wary of comments such as “the textbooks line was underfunded.”
7. Misdirection Detection: “We’re getting our budget cut!”
My local school has asked for a 7% increase in their budget each of the past two years. When we’re debating what to give them instead, such as a 4% increase, it’s termed a “decrease.” This is misleading. It’s an increase over last year. It’s only a decrease from the imaginary number put forth by the school leaders. All news organization quotes will then frame the school budget as getting cut, which makes people think football is going to get cut. Reporters, please provide a little more clarity around this, or frame the budget as the increase it is. Thanks.
8. Misdirection Detection: “Please don’t cut kindergarten/sports/etc.”
There are two ways this could be misdirection. In my locality, our board sets the overall budget number but does not determine how that money is allocated. So we don’t decide to cut kindergarten or any program. The school board determines that. So it’s misleading if the process isn’t understood completely. This will depend on the town.
It’s also misleading because this kind of outcry is a tactic to increase public outrage, even though these programs would likely never be cut. It’s the easiest way to rile up more people against those in charge.
9. Misdirection Detection: “For only $19.99 a month…”
Framing the requested Board of Education increase as only an extra $20 a month for the average household is misleading. You might as well say, “For only 67 cents a day, your child can get so much more of an education, blah blah blah.” Break out the infomercials and the box of tissues. Since the budget will likely never go down (unless some awesome regionalization happens or we return to dirt floors and little slate boards for each student), it should be framed as, “Are you ready to pay an extra $240 every year for the rest of your life? And by the way, it’ll be $240 next year, but probably $400 the year after, and then $600 the year after, etc.” Unless the budget increases can be stopped.
Since a large portion of the budget increases go to salary and benefits, you end up paying more for the same or reduced service. It’s like you sign up for a cell phone plan for life. Then the next year they tell you they’re going to have to charge more to provide the same service, otherwise you’re going to have your minutes (or coverage or something) cut. But don’t worry, if you just pay this $20 more a month (for the rest of your life), you’ll have the same fine service we were providing originally. And by the way, we’re going to have to increase it every year for the rest of your life so you get the same service.
It’s just not a good way to do business. I just wish I had some ways to fix the problem, or to fix part of the problem. (Oh wait, I do. Read points 1 to 6.)
Dealing with school finances is no easy task, especially when trying to improve the quality of the education while holding down costs. Just don’t get caught making some of the errors above. Good luck out there sifting through your school’s budget.