(1) Hire the Superintendent (unless they serve in one of the 37 counties where the superintendent is elected),
(2) Hire the Chief School Financial Officer (CSFO), and
(3) Approve the School Budget.
Arguably, all three of those are extremely important tasks. But since it’s now school budget-approval time, here is your chance to learn what your board’s budget priorities are.
Allocating Resources for Board and Community Priorities
Budgets reflect priorities. A board should set priorities for spending community funds long before school officials start forming a budget.
The budget is the tool through which the board wields the ultimate power that it has: allocating resources to specific programs and projects that reflect the board’s priorities.
This is where a board member can really step up and represent the community’s wishes and desires for the children in their schools to ensure priorities are addressed.
The budget is the plan through which the board and district can achieve those priorities.
The budget hearing is the single best opportunity board have to question the superintendent about what is in store for the children in your school district for the coming year.
The budget hearing is where school officials are supposed to share the current state of financial affairs and whether tough choices will have to be made. And if those tough choices are to be made, among what kinds of choices and alternatives are they choosing?
The budget should be clearly connected (whether on paper or through discussion) to the programs for which a school community’s money will be used to make priorities a reality.
How Do Board Members Know Which Questions to Ask?
How is a board member supposed to look at a $20, $50 or even a $200 million budget to see how the board’s priorities are being implemented? How do they know which questions to ask?
In the “School Board Candidate Questionnaire“, a joint publication of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The National Chamber Foundation, and The Institute for a Competitive Workforce, the question of how potential board members might deal with budgets is put this way:
What experience do you have with complicated budgets?
When you are given a 400-page budget for the district, what will be your to process to determine if it is a good budget for the system?
So it is reasonable to assume that those serving as school board members should have not only some experience with budgets, but will also be a part of a process to determine whether the budget is a good one.
For many board members, it appears that the process is a simple superintendent recommendation.
But given the financial struggles that many school districts are facing, the importance of questioning those budgets cannot be overstated.
The board MUST ask the tough questions of the superintendent to ensure whatever budget the board approves reflects the priorities of the full board of education.
The Questions….Just a Few for Your Consideration
So here are a few questions a board might consider asking about the budget….at the public budget hearing of course, where other board members and the public can hear the discussion.
First question: How does this budget implement the priorities the board has set for our community?
About Teachers and Other School District Employees
How many folks are working in our schools?
How many of those folks are funded totally with local funds?
How much of our local money do we use to pay the difference in the state’s minimum salary schedule amounts and the salaries we choose to pay?
Can we afford to give our employees a raise?
Do we have employees whose jobs have changed to the point that they are no longer needed?
About Revenue, Expenditures and Allocations
Is our local tax revenue enough to support what our students need? If not, what are we going to do about it?
What does our spending look like compared to other districts?
How do we decide what amounts to send to our local schools?
Where do we spend too much money and where do we spend too little?
Are we considering outsourcing or privatizing any services?
If we are already outsourcing or privatizing any services, is that the best option for our students?
What capital needs will we face in the short-term and long-term?
What is the forecast for revenues and expenditures for the next five years?
Are there areas where we budgeted a lot of money for the current year but didn’t need it?
Are there areas where we didn’t budget enough money for the current year? How did we make the adjustment?
Is our debt, long- and short-term, going to impact our operating expenditures now or at any point in the next five years?
About How Spending Affects Families and Students
Are we using the money given to us by our community to give our students the education our community expects?
How much do our families have to pay to take courses in our schools? Is that a reasonable amount?
How are we ensuring that children who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals have equal access to co- and extracurricular opportunities?
And the final question: Does this budget reflect the ideal level of spending for our students to receive an excellent education?
We Need to Aim for This Level of Engagement in School Budgeting
Check this out. This school district, of 150,000-plus students, 200-plus schools, and a $2.8 BILLION budget, took the time to ask the community what questions they have about their school budget.
And school officials actually ANSWERED the questions!
This document reflects the questions answered for the FY15 Budget. Look at the level of detail in the responses from school officials.
Specifically, look at the thorough response given, in writing, to the question of specifically how the budget addresses each of the board’s budget priorities for FY15.
Images below because I really want you to look at this. Click any image to make it larger.
That level of engagement, asking questions and getting answers, allows for buy-in not only from the board of education, but from the community at large.
But Isn’t This Micromanaging?
Asking questions like these isn’t micromanaging if the board has set budget priorities and is asking how those priorities are being funded and where specifically those funds are in that budget.
In fact, budget season is really the only time board members should be asking these types of operational questions. The board’s job is to approve the budget and then get out of the way.
The board should monitor the budget and get monthly updates on how their spending plan is working out. Variances should be analyzed to determine where projections went wrong.
What Are Your Board of Education’s Budget Priorities?
Do you know what your local board of education’s budget priorities are? I went digging, but could find no board of education with anything titled “budget priorities” other than the State Board of Education.
Many districts have a Strategic Plan, but don’t connect that plan to budget priorities.
Go to the Budget Hearing
If your board of education hasn’t yet approved a budget, find out when the next budget hearing will be held and GO.