Response to Readers: How to Address the “It’s all for kids so it is all important” Mentality

From a reader

I am a business official in Arizona and I really enjoyed your article in the September ASBO International School Business Affairs publication. I agree with much of the process you described in the article. I have been working for school districts for over 20 years and have always struggled with the program prioritization process. I often run into the “it’s all for kids so it is all important” mentality. Unfortunately, when you try to use quantitative data alone you also get skewed results. 

I was wondering if you could share more detail about how you implement this process?

Thank you in advance for your time.

My response

The article was intended to provide suggestions over the general process and some factors to consider during the process. That said, I agree with you wholeheartedly that the devil is in the detail. Of the six factors, alignment with district priorities is probably the most problematic. As you pointed out,  “it’s all for kids so it is all important” is often times used to, genuinely or arguably, advocate for or defend the necessity of certain programs or initiatives. At the same time, it is very difficult, if not totally impossible, for leaders to argue that one need is greater than another need or one program is more aligned with district priorities than another program, especially when priorities are so general most of the time.

Overall, I feel that “alignment” is a concept that theoretically makes sense, but problematic in implementation. I would suggest to put the focus and energy on stopping bad or ineffective programs from continuing rather than preventing them from being approved. When the goal is to prevent a bad or potentially ineffective program from being approved, which is preferred and should absolutely still be attempted, the burden is on the opposers to argue that the program is either not aligned (or not closely aligned) or unlikely to work. For either argument, unfortunately, the opposers usually do have much powerful ammunition. When money is available, it is very difficult to stop some new ideas from being funded, no matter how many flaws those new ideas might have.

When the focus is put to stopping a bad or ineffective program from continuing, the burden is shifted onto the advocate to demonstrate that the program is actually helping improve student achievement it intends to accomplish. At this point, bad data will hopefully carry the water although the program might be aligned with district priorities, genuinely or arguably.

To make this shift, some changes are necessary in the budgeting process as well as how each approved program is managed and approached. One model we developed here in my district is called Cycle-based Budgeting (CBB). The main idea is to treat some spending items as investments and put specific expectations on them (measurable goals as well as time frame for delivering the results). After the changes are made, a bad or ineffective program might still get funded. However, since all tracked investments are routinely reviewed, the burden to defend and justify an ineffective investment will become heavier and heavier as the program continues.

There are ten key ideas behind CBB. I describe the first five in this blog Ten Key Concepts of Cycle-based Budgeting: Part I, and will work on the second half once I find some time. There are some tools on this CBB Toolkit page, which you might find helpful.

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