Be careful to avoid these common pitfalls when tying your budget to your school district’s strategic priorities.
All school districts are facing times of tight budgets and want to ensure their spending is having the intended impact and meeting the changing needs of today’s students. But relying on the same budget process year after year tends to uphold the status quo rather than enable change.
So, how can you create a budget process that truly supports your strategic objectives? This is crucial to building a better budget, realizing your goals, and improving outcomes for students. While it may sound daunting, redesigning your budget process is not as difficult as you may think.
Here are some common pitfalls to avoid to effectively link your budget to your school district’s strategy.
- Don't expect to move forward on all priorities at once
- Don't assume that others understand your priorities
- Don't forget to explain the how behind the what and the why
- Don't use a one-off solution to deal with structural deficits
- Don't let silos get in the way
- Don't focus your communication on just balancing the budget
- Don't make new investments without measurable goals
- Don't leave Academic Return on Investment (A-ROI) concepts out of cabinet-level discussions
- Don't count on the best-case scenario
- Don't expect to use the budget process from another school district
Creating a new strategic plan for your school district generates excited anticipation for significant change on multiple fronts. But real change requires resources of time, money, and people, and there are rarely enough resources to push forward on all priorities at once. Don’t forget to create focus to achieve success.
Superintendents and district leaders often assume that they have articulated the priorities clearly and repeatedly and that the message has been well understood. But don’t forget that it takes relentless repetition to ensure that the majority of stakeholders absorb the message. A broad-based understanding is critical to success.
A strategic plan focused on vision and goals may help people understand what the school district is trying to achieve and why. But it is equally important to articulate the how. Translating vision and goals into the action steps that need to happen is essential to achieving your objectives.
When expenditure growth outpaces revenue growth, making cuts one year at a time under pressure generally does not result in the most strategic use of resources. Instead, step back to understand the changes needed to address your school district’s structural deficits and develop a multi-year plan so resources can be protected to support your strategic goals.
In many districts, the budget process promotes territorial behavior: departments feel they are battling each other for resources, and superintendents and budget officials are in the difficult position of being the arbiters. Having district leaders work as a team focused on district-level goals facilitates tradeoffs and helps achieve district objectives.
While communities appreciate the impact of good fiscal planning, they are rarely energized by hearing about the virtues of balanced budgets. Rather, even during hard budget years, focus communication on the school district’s goals and the specific actions that are being taken to help kids achieve.
To ensure that resources are being used effectively, set a district norm that every new initiative must have clear objectives, measurable outcome targets, and a means of tracking the associated costs. Don’t be too quick to layer in new initiatives without doing this work.
Too often, school district program evaluations take the form of lengthy reports on activities and include complex statistical language. When discussing programs, stay focused on the academic outcomes — by student segment, if possible — as well as the fully-loaded costs.
When building multi-year budget projections, be sure to model multiple scenarios for key sources of revenue and drivers of cost to understand both best and worst-case scenarios. Plan your responses to these various scenarios to ensure that your priorities are well protected and supported regardless of what lies ahead.
Every district is different. A culture of school autonomy calls for a different budget process than does a highly centralized culture; a district with a highly transient population may benefit from finalizing its budget later than most other districts. Budget processes need to be tailored to the characteristics and culture of your district.
A good budget process aligns with district strategy
In order to make your school district’s vision and strategy a reality, you’ll need a budget process that enables alignment. Don’t hesitate to disrupt the status quo by redesigning your budget process, and let these ten mistakes to avoid help guide your way.
Interested in learning about how to effectively link your budget to your district strategy to make the most of every cent for students? Check out these resources: