Spending Money Wisely
In Spending Money Wisely: Getting the Most from School District Budgets, authors Nathan Levenson, Karla Baehr, James C. Smith, and Claire Sullivan of The District Management Council identify and discuss the top ten opportunities for districts to realign resources and free up funds to support strategic priorities. Drawing on the wisdom of leading thinkers, district leaders, and education researchers from across the country, the authors at The District Management Council gathered a long list of opportunities for resource reallocation. To distill these down to the ten most high-impact opportunities, each opportunity was assessed based on its financial benefit, its impact on student achievement, its political feasibility, and its likelihood of success relative to the complexity of implementation.by Nathan Levenson, Karla Baehr, James C. Smith, Claire Sullivan
Calculating the academic return on investment (A-ROI) provides the answers to critical questions such as: How much does that initiative cost? How much learning is being achieved? Is there a more cost-effective alternative for achieving the same or better results? In a world of tight resources, persistent achievement gaps, and rising expectations, knowing the answers to these questions is essential to making the most effective use of funds.
2. Managing to Existing Class-Size Targets: Systems and Tools to Staff More Closely to Current Policy
Millions of dollars can be freed up with small increases in class size, but most discussions of class size spark heated debate. However, significant opportunities lie in achieving the class sizes that districts have already set, agreed upon, and approved.
3. Adding Precision to Remediation and Intervention Staffing Levels: Data-Driven Guidelines Improve Schedules, Building Assignments, and Workload
Principals often report a shortage of academic support staff such as reading teachers and special education staff; however, creating data-driven work load guidelines, taking a more active role in scheduling of services, and proactively reducing the time spent in meetings have allowed some districts to realize significant savings and improve equity of workload, all while delivering the same amount of services to students.
4. Finding Politically Acceptable Ways to Increase Class Size or Teaching Load: Freeing up Funds for Strategic Priorities
Class size is perhaps the single largest driver of school spending and research indicates that class size matters far less than the public thinks. Yet, raising class size generally generates significant resistance from parents and teachers alike. There are ways, however, to make increased class size or teaching load more palatable, and free up funds for strategic priorities.
5. Strategically Spending Federal Entitlement Grants: Making the Connection to District Priorities
Federal entitlement grants account for a significant portion of a district’s revenue, but ensuring that these funds are allocated thoughtfully and are leveraged to support strategic priorities is an often-overlooked opportunity. The myriad requirements of federal grants have tended to result in silo-like management dominated by fear of non-compliance and an overly rigid interpretation of allowable use.
Strong reading and comprehension skills are critical to student success; while quite a lot of resources within a district are directed toward reading, the efforts are often splintered and new efforts are layered on top of existing programs. Instead of searching for new funds to add new programs, a full accounting of all reading resources will usually reveal that there is already enough funding for a top notch reading effort; a strategic reallocation of funds can ensure that students get the most effective instruction and lots of it.
7. Improving the Cost-Effectiveness of Professional Development: Reducing Expenses While Increasing Impact
Teacher effectiveness is the most important school-based factor in raising student achievement, but providing effective professional development that actually raises teacher effectiveness has been difficult to achieve at scale. As most districts already spend a great deal on professional development (often $10,000 or more per teacher when costs are all counted), there is an opportunity to shift significant resources to more effective efforts.
All school districts spend a great deal of time and thought determining what the district should spend its limited resources on, but far less time and attention are devoted to how these items should be purchased. As public entities spending public funds, most districts focus great energy on compliance with purchasing regulations. Borrowing some practices from the private sector, where purchasing is more nuanced with more of a focus on value and fit, can help districts stretch their limited budgets, better meet the needs of students and staff, and save money for other uses (while remaining in compliance).
A longer school day or school year is a common-sense approach to meeting the greater needs of a student body asked to reach higher standards, but a common obstacle is the often-high price of more time. External funding has been a boon to kick-starting these efforts, but can create challenges in the long run. Planning for financial stability from day one and structuring extended learning time appropriately is critical.
As Secretary Duncan aptly noted, school districts are now facing a “new normal.” Improvement efforts are unlikely to be supported by new funds; the funding for these efforts require painful cuts to programs and staff elsewhere, and it can feel wrong to be investing in new programs and staff while cutting in other areas. However, with students’ futures at stake, it is imperative to invest and improve.