Saving school budgets in a recession

Buying from large group contracts, aligning budgets with school improvement plans, starting an educational foundation, and mastering the art of passing school bond issues were among the strategies for surviving the current fiscal crisis discussed at the American Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in San Francisco Feb. 19.

AASA Chief Executive Daniel Domenech said this year’s conference includes 14 hours of sessions devoted to managing school systems during a tough economy.

Despite an influx of $106 billion in federal funding from the recently signed stimulus package, “we are all experiencing an economic situation the likes of which we’ve never seen–and as a result, we’re going to be forced to make several changes,” Domenech said.

How to make those changes while protecting valuable teaching and learning programs from the budget chopping block was the focus of several sessions on Day One of the conference.

Mike Hajek, director of business development and marketing for the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA), discussed how his organization can help school systems buy goods and services in a more cost-effective way.

NJPA is a national contract purchasing organization that lets schools save money by leveraging the collective buying power of districts nationwide to achieve substantial price discounts on classroom supplies, administrative software, computer equipment, printers and copiers, furniture, carpeting, and more.

James Bird, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said making the budgeting process open and transparent can win you the support of key allies within the district and the community at large.

“The manner in which a superintendent leads his community through this process creates the potential for building trust,” he said, “or eroding it.”

Bird studied the budget-building process in several school systems and uncovered a strong need for better training within school leadership programs. Of the 37 participants in Bird’s study, 36 of them said they learned their current budget-building strategies on the job, instead of in the classroom.

Building budgets based on sound educational data, fostering close coordination among various school departments, and creating an assessment system to measure the impact of educational programs all will help superintendents gain the trust of their stakeholders–and the support of key educational programs, Bird said.

Communicating with stakeholders during the budgeting process is key, agreed Ralph Marshall, a former school superintendent who is now an assistant professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. Typically, school budgeting is a top-down process, Marshall said, and that needs to change.

Marshall recommended that superintendents align their budgets with their school improvement plans. He noted that Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, issued a budget guidance document to the city’s school leaders last year that asked principals to document the benefits they expect to see from each budget item.

Marshall also said superintendents should borrow concepts from the business world, such as cost-benefit analysis, as well as improve the ways they communicate their budget proposals to the public.

“In 22 years [as a superintendent], I never had anyone come to a budget meeting,” he said–yet for a budget referendum, the room is usually packed.

Carleton R. Holt, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Arkansas, discussed the keys to getting a school bond issue passed.

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