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.

Successful bond campaigns begin with a vision, said Holt, who is the author of School Bond Success, soon to be released in its third edition. Also, the board’s decision to issue a bond must be unanimous; if even one board member opposes the motion, he said, that could sow the seeds of doubt among stakeholders.

Recruiting an active citizens group to support the bond measure also is a key to success. “Play it like the Amway model,” Holt said, meaning superintendents should let members of the community sell others on the idea.

One of the tasks of the citizens group should be to identify “yes,” “no,” and “maybe” voters and focus their attention accordingly. Don’t waste your time on the “no” voters, he advised; they’re unlikely to change their minds anyway. Instead, go after the “maybes.”

Donna Elder, an associate professor at National University in Los Angeles, recommended that school systems start an educational foundation to help bring in extra dollars for classroom projects.

“Starting a K-12 foundation raises revenues–but it also raises friends,” Elder said, noting that educational foundations can improve communication between a district and its community and build stakeholder support.

She added: “The nice thing about the money raised by [community] foundations is that there are fewer strings attached.”

U.S. citizens gave $306 billion to charities in 2007, Elder said. Educational organizations received $43 billion of this money, or about 14 percent. Education was the No. 2 recipient of charitable donations, behind only religion. Some 70 percent of Americans give money each year to causes that are important to them.

Though most donations still go to colleges and universities and not K-12 schools, this trend is starting to change, Elder said. School-based foundations have experienced strong growth throughout this decade, and three years ago the National Association of School Foundations launched.

“The Greatest Generation is about to pass on its wealth,” Elder noted–and an important question for schools is: How might they stand to benefit?

Resource development has been a long-standing practice in higher education, and K-12 schools can learn a lot from colleges and universities. As in getting a bond issue passed, developing relationships with what Elder called “key communicators”–the citizens in a community who are vocal in raising support–can pay huge dividends for schools.

(Editor’s note: For more real-time coverage of this year’s AASA conference in San Francisco Feb. 19-21, visit the AASA Conference Information Center page at eSN Online:


American Association of School Administrators

National Joint Powers Alliance

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