As the year of 2017 is winding down, many districts will soon be or have been engaged in budget discussions for the 18-19 school year. One phrase that people will hear and probably use a lot is “funding priorities”. In this article, I discuss several confusions around funding priorities and lay out a path to successfully setting funding priorities that lead to strong budget decisions.
What they are
At the core of funding priorities are areas on which investment should be focused, such as equity, arts and music, culture and climate, and so on. This core should to be coupled with expected outcomes and timeframe for delivering the results. For example, a funding priority may be early childhood, with the expected outcome of more students achieving at the grade level by third grade after three years of investment.
Funding priorities not only provide the direction for people to propose improvement ideas such as afterschool programs, parental involvement, or adopting a new curriculum, but also serve as the basis for those ideas to be vetted and selected in the next phase of the budgeting process.
What they are not
First, funding priorities should not be a laundry list of new programs people would like to launch and implement. Rather, they should provide the direction and basis for such a list to be developed and later vetted. If a district’s funding priorities are a list of programs for which people would like to receive funding, the district has skipped a very important step to establish consensus over what is more important, what is not, what is most urgent, and what can wait. This will most likely lead to issues when decisions need to be made about which of the programs on the list will be funded and which will not.
Second, funding priorities should not be confused with improvement priorities. Improvement priorities are areas on which the district should focus for improvement. Some improvement priorities may require mainly attention and energy of the system without the need for additional funding support (i.e., new projects by existing staff), but some improvement priorities cannot be addressed without new or additional investment. In other words, all funding priorities are improvement priorities, but not all improvement priorities are funding priorities.
While funding priorities and improvement priorities will surely intertwine in discussions, it is important to distinguish and separate the two both during those discussions and when sharing the funding priorities decisions with stakeholders and the community afterwards.
SETTING FUNDING PRIORITIES
For a school district, decisions on funding priorities should be made through a collaborative process between the district administration and school board. As elected officials, the board members represent the needs and wants of the community. As far as setting funding priorities is concerned, the board’s main job is to communicate those needs and wants loud and clear to the district administration.
District administration has a deep knowledge of the ins and outs of school and district operations as well as challenges and opportunities the system faces. It is their responsibility to inform the board about the system’s capacity and limits, and engage the board to set funding priorities to meet those needs and wants of the community.
In the early phase of this process, there could be myriads of ideas from many places, looking at issues from various angles and using different languages. While all of these ideas should be acknowledged and respected, it is important to keep two things in mind about them.
First, not all of the ideas are funding priorities. As pointed out earlier, some of those ideas are undoubtedly improvement priorities about which something needs to be done. However, only improvement priorities that need additional funding support are funding priorities.
Second, many of these ideas might be based on or influenced by misperceptions and personal biases, and laden with assumptions. For example, people might raise the idea of spending more money in a certain area (e.g., student behavior or technology) without realizing significant investments have already been made in that area during the past several years, or assume that more intervention programs are needed in some schools while those schools are struggling with implementing existing ones.
It is critical for the misperceptions to be cleared and assumptions challenged before funding priorities decisions are made. To achieve that, data and discipline are essential.
In a famous scene from the movie Jerry Maguire, unemployed sports agent Jerry Maguire (Cruise) desperately reached out to Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Gooding), trying to hold on to his only client. In the scene, not only did Tidwell gyrate and repeat “Show me the money!” on the phone, but he insisted that Maguire scream it back at him.
Maybe one line board members and district leadership can use before discussing and debating funding priorities is “Show me the data!” The reason is simple. For example, without knowing how much investment has been made in technology to solve what problems and the return on the investment, how can a district be sure that more money should be pumped and for what purpose?
Setting funding priorities is not an easy task. Given its significance and the short time window to pull it off, discipline is required for the deliberation to stay on track and to be substantive. Specifically, for each funding priority candidate, the following five questions need to be asked:
- What are we trying to achieve (both expected outcomes and timeframe for delivering results)?
- What assumptions are behind the idea that more money will help us get there?
- Are those assumptions valid?
- How much has been invested in the area during the past 3-5 years?
- What is the return on the investment?
Using equitable funding as an example, the table below illustrates how a disciplined process can help district leaders decide whether it should be a funding priority. It may be quite a challenge for many districts to compile the data needed to answer the above five questions. That problem can be addressed by improving the budget request and approval process through a new budget request form (Check the blog post Why You Need a New Budget Request Form for detail).
Equitable funding as a funding priority?
At the end of the disciplined process introduced above, the board and district administration should reach conclusions about: 1) what areas are improvement priorities, but not funding priorities; and 2) what areas are funding priorities, together with the expected outcomes and timeframe for delivering the results following the investment.
The disciplined process delineated and illustrated here will allow the board and district administration to be confident and articulate when communicating, explaining, and justifying their decisions to constituents, other district and school administrators, teachers, and the community. This is not only critical for the funding priority decisions to be precisely executed but also important to gain support for implementation.
When leaders make budget decisions about which new programs to fund or which existing programs to defund, one fundamental question they will face and need to answer is “Based on what on are we making those decisions?” While many factors, such as evidence of effectiveness, program implementation fidelity, and individual school contexts, can and should influence the decision making, funding priority is of the most importance. In absence of funding priorities as the guiding principle, districts run the risk of making the dollars less impactful with the limited resources being diluted, or even spending money on things that are not important.
In reality, setting funding priority has not been established as a separate and intentional step at the beginning phase of the budget process in many districts. Rather, funding priorities and program decisions are often tackled together at the same time, sometimes in a single meeting. As each task is already challenging in itself, this approach makes things more complex and difficult. To further complicate the situation, instead of program decisions being guided by preset funding priorities, there is potential for funding priorities to be influenced and shaped by programs. In the worse scenario, funding priorities are not seriously discussed and simply a reflection of the approved programs as a by-product for communication purpose.
Budget decisions are among the most important decisions district leaders make. Sound budget decisions will not only make effective and efficient use of limited resource for student learning, but also improve culture and climate, and gain trust of the constituents and communities. The result of bad budget decisions is often more than money being wasted. Many times, it is very difficult, if not entirely impossible, to rewind and undo a bad budget decision, and can take a long time to reverse the negative impact or repair the damage caused by bad decisions.
Given its importance and significance, districts need to invest more institutional attention and effort to improve their budgeting process and capacity. Setting aside time and energy to decide on funding priorities at the beginning of the budget process in a disciplined way is a solid first step toward sound and strong budget decisions, which will help lead to better use of resources, and more important, improved student outcomes.
WHAT IS NEXT
Once funding priorities are set, the next step is to communicate them to the central office department heads and school principals, who will then, following the directions and guidance provided in the funding priorities, propose specific programs to compete for the limited funds.
There will be another process for both the proposed new programs and existing programs to be scrutinized and vetted, based on alignment with the funding priorities and other criteria. How to select which new programs to fund and which existing programs to defund will be discussed in another blog post.