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Budgeting in the Accountability Age

Doing more with less has been the challenge for school districts in recent years, but now the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, coupled with shrinking resources, are making budgeting even harder. Included: Advice on budgeting strategies and tools from some experts.

The late winter-early spring rite of crafting school budgets never has been easy, but with school officials facing more demands, fewer funds, and louder critics, it's only getting harder.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires districts to test students annually in grades K-8, track individual student performance, and outline what schools are doing to help all students succeed. Not only are districts struggling to find money to cover all the federal mandates, but the public also wants districts to keep them up-to-date about where its money is going.

"There is a greater demand for more transparency in budgets; people want to know how much money districts are getting, how much is being spent, and how much is being spent on direct instruction," according to Dr. Bruce S. Cooper, chairman of the educational leadership, administration and policy division at Fordham University's graduate school of education. "There is a lot more information out there and a lot more accountability than ever before. The stakes are higher and the information is more readily available."


While unfunded state and federal mandates long have been problems for school districts, the No Child Left Behind Act has put more pressure on school budget-makers, said Reggie Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association.

"Generally, there has been a crisis called," Felton told Education World. "When the federal law [NCLB] was passed, they [school officials] were told funding would accompany the mandates. When that did not come, they became concerned. Clearly, it is our position that federal funding is not adequate."

"Every year, when federal funding is not at the required level, local school districts have to shift their own spending priorities to cover mandated programs," Felton said. "In many cases, they have to shut down or significantly decrease programs considered discretionary."

The increase in fuel costs has forced some districts to reduce staffing to put fuel in buses, and many districts that had reduced student-teacher ratios had to increase them again, according to Felton. "There also has been a shift on academic programs; they are investing more in reading and math, [because that is what is being tested] than the arts, but that is not something we recommend."

Superintendents are feeling the pressure of the double whammy of accountability and tight finances, said Paul Houston, president of the American Association of School Administrators. "The superintendents say they [federal officials] want more and more and are giving us less and less," Houston said. "They are taking money in the budget from areas not directly affected by accountability and testing and re-arranging the day."

Dr. Cooper, who trains superintendents in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and works with administrators to help them pass school budgets and bond proposals, said getting public approval also is getting tougher.

"More and more superintendents are having trouble getting budgets passed," he said. "They are trying to contain costs and make the systems more efficient. Technology is helping with that." More districts also are out-sourcing food, transportation, and custodial services to save money, Dr. Cooper noted.

Felton, added, though, that the association does not see accountability to the public, either for student performance or spending, as a bad thing. "School districts are committed to education; we don't object to being held accountable; we just think the accountability system should fairly and accurately reflect the performance of schools and school districts," he said. "Don't say a school district is not performing because 3 percent of the students did not meet the goal on a test."


Even with pressure from the public and state and federal governments for financial and academic accountability, "some districts are not as accountable as they should be; some districts do not budget down to the school level," according to Rick Wells, vice president, finance and consulting services, for EDmin.com, Inc.

EDmin.com is a leading provider of learning management solutions that enable school districts and teachers to accelerate student learning and improve performance. "[Although], in some places, accountability has changed the budget process," Wells added. "Educators can tell how much they are spending at the classroom level."


One resource to help districts produce more detailed budgets is In$ite, a software program sold by EDmin.com that allows districts to break down expenditures to the school level. EDmin.com is Education World's parent company.

By documenting costs at the school level, administrators can see how much they are spending at each school, compare schools, and assess how much they are spending per pupil, according to Wells. "They can see the differences in spending and determine how it is affecting student performance."

"In this NCLB era, site-based budgeting should consider the desired outcomes and address the performance and accountability issues," added Kristine Bergford, manager, In$ite consulting, for EDmin.com.

The states of Rhode Island, Nevada, and South Carolina use In$ite for their budgeting, Wells added. "Now looking at data makes more sense," he said. "They can compare different districts to see what they are doing and spending."

Rhode Island has been using In$ite for its educational data since the 1998-1999 school year, according to Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"We use it for public reporting; it provides a common set of charts and terms," Krieger told Education World. "It makes it possible to compare district-to-district, year-to-year. In$ite helps us to see inequities in spending, and it's easy to read. It [the data] has some effect as we look at aid and capacity."


Fordham's Dr. Cooper also encourages school administrators to start their budgeting at the school level and work their way up, as a way to develop budgets that are more comprehensive and easily understood.

"If there are 12 schools, there should be 12 budgets," Dr. Cooper told Education World. "Districts are looking at more site-based management. Start at the school level and build upward, instead of down. Start with each child and each school. Ask each teacher, aide, and assistant what they need. Then it bubbles up to the school level and the district level. Then you get to lay on the central district costs."

If school personnel submit "wish lists" of everything they might possibly want, have them re-do the lists and prioritize items, Dr. Cooper added.

While often personnel resources are budgeted at the district level, it makes more sense to account for them at the school level, he continued. "If you spend $50,000 to hire a teacher for a school and $20,000 in benefits for that teacher, show the benefits with the teacher so you know what the total cost is, and in which school the costs are occurring," according to Dr. Cooper.

Whatever the strategy, administrators already are making hard choices. "Certainly, we encourage districts to do the best they can," Felton said. "Some who have the authority to levy additional taxes will do it, or they will be working with state legislators so they [legislators] know how tight finances are and see what they can do to get more state funding. They really don't have much choice."


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World
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