How to Discontinue Programs That Are No Longer Viable?


I was kindly asked by Allovue to write a blog piece for the Budget and Resources framework of Future Ready Schools. In this piece, I first discuss the root causes of some common challenges leaders face when they try to discontinue or downsize programs that are no longer viable, and then explain how cycle-based budgeting can help address those challenges. My colleague Mr. Stephen Leach contributed to this piece. A special thank you goes to Ms. Autumn Dorsey at Allovue for the editorial improvements.

A vital function of the annual school district budgeting process is to identify programs and expenditures that are no longer viable. Re-investing the savings from such programs can help districts to meet student and district needs or launch promising new initiatives. Discontinuing self-defeating programs, ones that receive negative press, or are backed by the full support of the school board are relatively straightforward. It’s the viability of programs or expenditures that generate polarizing divides amongst district stakeholders or require a consensus that are more challenging to accomplish. 

It is typical for school district leaders to receive push-back when proposing to eliminate a program or expenditure that misaligns with current district priorities, has minimal impact, or has a low return on investment. This resistance often translates into political pressures from various stakeholder groups and in response, some district leaders scale back or completely abandon the proposed cuts. Hence, the key to successfully discontinuing ineffectual spending is to understand the reasons why friction occurs and implement tactics beforehand to reduce resistance.

POOR COMMUNICATION

The source of much stakeholder pushback often comes from fear of the unknown and a reluctance to change, so district leaders need to strategize and plan ahead to address potential objections that would otherwise erode their efforts to redirect ineffectual spending.  

Other sources of resistance generally derive from frustration and confusion over poorly communicated expectations created without stakeholder involvement. When leadership announces plans to discontinue or downsize a program’s funding without including clear and defined metrics or criteria to justify those decisions, stakeholders may be less likely to support the new initiatives or direction of leadership.

PUBLIC NARRATIVE

Program cuts are often perceived as taking services or resources away from students in need and this idea is further perpetuated in public forums and media outlets that spread this common misconception. However, many cuts are made with the sole intention of shifting resources away from investments that are simply not working. Refocusing the public narrative from making trade-offs based on needs, to a goals realignment that spurs practical and strategic spending can help to alleviate stakeholder pressure from community and parent organizations specifically.

LAW WITHOUT ORDER

Creating and implementing a systematic approach prior to ending or reducing ineffectual spending affords a greater chance of success and often incurs less resistance from stakeholders. Without a clearly delineated process, decisions may appear to be last-minute or haphazard and will only add to stakeholder frustration. District leadership should aim to establish a process that clearly conveys expectations about both the goals and consequences at each phase of the program reduction or sunset, and should communicate that process frequently. Additionally, they should seek to create and drive new narratives amongst stakeholders regarding program trade-offs based on priorities and needs of the district, supported by return-on-investment data and metrics. 

One way to establish that process is to adopt the cycle-based budgeting (CBB) model and start with new spending. CBB differentiates between expenditures that are necessary to operate a school district (operation expenditures) and expenditures that are intended for school and district improvement (investment expenditures).

The model then assigns each district investment expenditure an owner who is required to define success metrics (i.e., expected return on investment) and the investment cycle or time period necessary to meet the stated goals. Both the metrics and cycle are then communicated to all stakeholders. At the end of specified cycle, each investment is reviewed based on how well it aligns with current district priorities and whether the expected return on investment was achieved. The results are used to substantiate the district’s narrative about trade-offs and can help district leaders communicate the reasoning behind the decision to discontinue or downsize a program or expenditure in a transparent manner that should garner support from stakeholders. 

Using the CBB model when considering the viability of struggling legacy programs provides an opportunity for the programs or expenditures in question to generate value for the district within the confines of clearly stated expectations and goals agreed upon by stakeholders. If outputs from these programs fail to meet stated objectives, it often becomes easier for district leadership and stakeholders to agree to discontinue or reduce funding. 

Discontinuing programs or expenditures that are no longer viable is challenging. However, a thoughtfully designed and well-executed process gives school and district leaders a better chance of accomplishing it, so that limited resources can be best utilized to help students learn and grow. 

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