School board work has been likened to jumping on a fast-moving train. If this is the case, the budget and budgeting process would be the rails upon which that train rides. A school district budget involves many different individuals and entities across several levels of government. Locally, budget discussions and work will involve school administrators—superintendents as well as business officials, school boards and school employees—with input available from community members. At the state or provincial level, the governor, legislators and state education agency are involved for their role in setting and managing state or provincial funding and policy. At the national level, the federal education department and members of Congress are involved for their work around education funding and federal policy, such as Title I and IDEA. Nutrition and transportation funds are also impacted from the federal level.
The Purpose of a School Budget
School districts operate with public money. The budget justifies the tax collection and expenditures of a district, as well as allowing for planning and prioritization. Citizens of a school district expect efficiency in the operation of their schools, and they expect their board and administrators to stand accountable for use of the district’s money. The community expects that its board will exercise the proper level of oversight to protect public assets and manage the school district effectively.
The two primary roles of a board, governance and oversight of management, become intertwined in the budget process. The most obvious role of a board in fiscal management is oversight, but there is more to a board’s role than oversight responsibilities. It is up to a board to set priorities that are reflected in the budget. How a district allocates its resources will determine how likely it is that it will realize its goals. In fact, how a district uses its resources sends a message to staff and constituents as to how serious a board is about its goals. The adage about “putting your money where your mouth is” may be a tired one, but it applies directly in this area.
Where Does the Budgeting Process Begin?
To return to our fast-moving train analogy, we would have to consider a circular track because many aspects of developing a budget are repeated each year—some with very little change. To choose a starting place, one would have to begin with goal setting. Some states require that boards set goals each year, while some merely recommend it. Regardless of what compels a board to set goals, there is little disagreement that this is not only the primary governance function of a board—it is the starting point of the budget process. The Center for Public Education has laid out what research shows to be the eight characteristics of effective school boards, and engaging in goal setting is the first one.
District goals can be short- or long-term and are focused on the results the district’s leaders would like as part of the effort in achieving the district’s vision. The goals address the issues the board would like the district’s staff to spend special time, effort and resources on in the coming year and in the long term. The board uses these goals to assess its decision-making. The administration should use the goals to set work priorities for itself and the staff to include allocation of resources.
When setting goals, it is important that the board look comprehensively at the needs of the district and choose priorities carefully. To do this, the board needs the input of the superintendent and staff when setting district goals.
As a primary factor in a district’s goals, the board should consider student performance objectives. These objectives are typically related to the measures in state assessments. While these student performance objectives reflect the board’s top priorities for the district, it is not uncommon for a district to have a set of operational goals. The operational goals may have to do with facilities, pay or ongoing maintenance efforts that the leadership team feels deserving of special attention.
For each goal that is developed, there should be specific criteria included. These criteria help clarify what is expected by those charged in achieving them. Without clear criteria for achieving goals, staff may be confused about what specifically is expected. Some boards make use of “SMART” goal formats (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound), while some use more general overarching goals that the administration will tie to goal progress measures.
Regardless of how the goals are developed, it is important that the board be fully committed to them. To ensure that the goals consistently represent the priorities of the district, it is important that the board take some action on them annually. This can include the board’s reviewing, revising and readopting the goals, as well as providing for the resources to see them come to fruition. In addition to annual reports, many boards look at progress in intervals such as quarterly.
It is worth noting, however, in times of crisis the leadership team should push goal discussions back until they have all the data. In fact, most major decisions should be paused—bond elections, leadership changes, facilities considerations—all probably need to be postponed in the midst of an emergency. Depending on the situation, boards may need to consider more devices and greater access to the internet as the case in the COVID-19 pandemic. In some school disasters, the shift may be to general cleanup or facility repair, while securing campuses and changing access might be the emphasis in other situations.
In adverse situations, having priorities derived from goal discussions already set will be an asset to the board. The goal-setting process described herein allocates long-term and short-term goals. When an emergency situation presents, some of the short-term goals may get new deadlines moving them to the long-term column. Additionally, some needs may emerge that need to be scripted into goals. As so many have said, the important thing about writing goals is not always the goal, but the process. Discussing the beliefs and priorities of the board allows administrators to make quick decisions in the absence of the board as well as providing a launching point when goals need to be realigned due to unexpected events.
In calm or crisis, school budgets allow districts to translate sometimes intangible missions, operations and objectives into reality by outlining and providing specific programs and funding/financial terms. A school budget helps bridge the gap that can exist between a district’s stated goals and resource allocation. The budget process forces the discussion that will inform choices among various programs competing for the limited available resources.
Components of the Budgeting Process
Often school boards feel they have little control over budget decisions. Fundamental operating costs are long established and difficult to alter. Community groups, employee organizations and others have learned to exert political influence on the budget process. When money is tight, people defend their turf and protect their programs from cuts. When money is available for growth or improvement, the same people then want a piece of the new resources.
While the concept of budgets is common across professional sectors and fields, the budget process in public schools has noticeable differences that impact how districts allocate and prioritize their funds. For example, while most public and private organizations and businesses have 35 to 40% of their budgets tied to personnel and benefits, the comparable number in public schools is, on average, more than double, between 80 and 85%. Further complicating districts’ ability to address budget priorities, the remaining 15% of their budgets is oftentimes impacted and limited by state, local and federal mandates related to everything from building codes to class-size requirements. This is why goal setting and developing priorities are crucial in the overall budget process.
Among the fiduciary tasks in budget development are the following:
- Adoption of a budget
- Adoption of a tax rate (if the district is a taxing entity)
- Monitoring district finances on an ongoing basis
- Making sure accounts are monitored by an external auditor
- Publishing an end-of-year financial report for the community
In general, the board delegates overall responsibility for annual budget preparation, budget presentation and budget administration to the superintendent. As part of this responsibility, the superintendent should provide a budget preparation calendar that ensures the district meets all the deadlines established by law. The budget must be presented in a summary format that is understandable by a layperson.
Tools Available to Support the Budget Process
With all the factors to consider, a board member can be easily overwhelmed. Budgeting is a tremendous responsibility, with more money flowing into and out of a district than probably nearly any corporation in the community. State statutes guide the process and tools are available from state education agencies as well as state school board associations. One tool that is easily employed by board members and administrators alike is an electronic tracking tool. If a district’s leadership team can electronically record its goals and related objectives, these can be tied to the budget. It is important in prioritization to have an idea of the cost of seeing a goal come to fruition. The goal-tracking feature in BoardDocs allows an administration to link agenda items to goals. The detailed agenda format includes budget-impact figures, allowing a board member to see both the progress and budget impact of individual goals in a collected location. Goal reports can be printed directly from the Strategic Goals section.
This fast-moving train isn’t slowing down for anyone. The best a board member or administrator can do is to jump on and follow the data until the cyclical nature of budgeting becomes second nature and board members can begin to rely on the structure to help with the recurring expenditures. Discussing priorities, allocating resources toward those priorities, and monitoring progress will help board members make the best budgetary decisions to propel them toward their goals.