Value Based Budgeting

Budget Priorities: What You Value Most

Spring brings April showers—and enrollment projections, staffing allocations, and budgeting decisions. Essentially, we are doing three jobs at once: finishing strong, celebrating with grads and retirees, and hiring for the coming year. As one colleague puts it, “God blesses educators with a forgetful memory; otherwise, we would never go through spring again.”

As many of us face tighter budgets due to continued enrollment uncertainties, budget constraints loom large. Budget priorities are a challenge. Everyone wants their portion of the budget protected.


This is an adaptive challenge. There is no simple technical solution. It is messy. Finding the right answer will require lots of people, ideas, and solutions. So here are 12 ideas for sharing, socializing, and solving budget challenges—by engaging stakeholders.


The superintendent and the board need to be the strongest advocates and voices for student learning. How much of your budget do you set aside to invest in growing your capacity—the ability to keep improving equity and excellence? Set the amount early and fight to defend it. There will never be enough (any) “left over” at the end.


Work hard on rationale and come back to it again and again. I like COPE: Create Once, Post Everywhere. People need to hear it until you are sick of it; that’s when it finally begins to sink in. My mantra is five Ps: People, Purpose, Plan/Process, Product.


Outline a process in advance and continue to socialize it. Use COPE here too. Keep referring to it at every opportunity. “Here is what we said. This is what we have done. Here is what comes next.” Post it on your website and keep updating it.


Core values are—or should be—at the heart of budgeting. What do you value most: people, class size, curriculum, PD, maintenance? Choose your words VERY carefully; they will come back to haunt you. (e.g.: “Yes, we want to ‘do what we can’ in a difficult time to support good learning. We also know cuts of this magnitude will require reductions in every aspect of what we do. We will work with our labor partners to minimize the number of layoffs where possible. And our focus on equity means that we will strive to support those students who rely on us the most.”)

Engage people

All of the above are just words. Ask for ideas. Circulate the list. Make it a forced choice: “Please propose X% (5%?) cuts in each area.” So, yes, they can say cut administration and suggest places to do so. But they also have to suggest cuts in their own area as well. Then when final, you can show you cut admin by more than 5% and teaching by less than 5%. Come up with a process you model for principals, and then ask them to do the same with their faculty and staff.

Check for Understanding
Follow these four steps to build clarity, coherence and commitment:

    1. Have a half-dozen people from a wide range of job roles review your rationale. Is it clear? Make revisions. Think about your naysayers as your audience.
    2. Ask your leadership team, “What did you hear? Is the message clear?”
    3. Ask leadership for understanding. “Do you agree? How can we improve the message/process?”
    4. Ask your leadership team for commitment. On a scale of 1-4, how supportive are they? What would increase their level of commitment?


Use state formulas to benchmark your district spending. This shows what your district values most and least. How much over or under formula are teaching and IT, security and SpEd? How much under formula are admin, substitutes, maintenance, and custodial?


Think about this year and the next, and the one after that. Can you go without admin, curriculum, ending balance, or maintenance forever? If not, be careful about cutting too deeply in specific areas (unless you expect a windfall of money in the future). You may well have to do this again. If you have already cut admin to the bone, you won’t be able to do more in the future and it will look like you are picking on some other area and not doing your part.

No surprises

Set up a regular schedule that fits your timeline. Meet with your top stakeholders regularly: union heads, principals, PTSA. Keep them apprised of process and progress. Make them part of your insiders. Ask them for advice. And then do an “all call” on the day of announcements. Invite them on a set schedule: 10:00, 11:00, 12:00 … just before your rollout in a cascading sequence of emails 15 minutes apart. Make sure the board is not surprised (maybe with embargoed email until a date and time certain).


Communicate regularly with your broader audiences. Use paper, social media, email, and texts. Make links back to your website: one central place where everyone can find all updates and a calendar of past events. The number one goal is to reach every interested stakeholder. The number two goal is to keep your process transparent.


Look for creative ways to soften the impact on people. Invite early retirements as a way to save more jobs by attrition. Find out how many elementary resignations happen over the summer and authorize early hires for 90% of that number. You may be able to achieve efficiencies by allowing shared positions, staffed on your average monthly attendance (not the high-water mark of October 1st); sharing specialists between buildings; transferring staff to balance enrollments in the fall; and/or inviting leaves of absence. All of these represent potential opportunities to save critical long-term positions and reduce layoffs.


Make sure the board understands and supports this process along the way. It can be disastrous if the board second-guesses any or all of the process, especially publicly. If this happens, it undercuts trust and empowers every interest group to come to the board to protest their cuts. Ask the board for approval (formally or informally) at each stage: “These are our values. These are the stakeholders we will ask. These are the A, B, C priorities that are emerging.”



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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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