Voices in Education

Be Strategic, Start Planning Next Year’s Budget Now!
It might seem crazy to suggest that September is a good time to start planning a budget that won’t be voted on until May, eight months away. I can hear the pushback in my head: “We need to focus on teaching and learning at the start of the school year. The budget will distract us soon enough,” and “We don’t even know how much money we will have to spend.”

At the foundation of this thinking is that the budget and the improvement of teaching and learning are separate tasks. Sure, building a budget often feels like it’s divorced from raising achievement and is mostly a painful exercise to balance shrinking revenues against growing needs, but it shouldn’t be.

When districts view the budget as a strategic tool to raise student achievement, it’s never too early to start budgeting, and an early start increases the chances that ultimately you will pass a budget that puts kids first. Here’s why.

Great budgets aren’t just balanced, they fund what matters most for raising achievement and implementing a coherent theory of action. The fall (or last spring, actually) is the best time to have thoughtful, calm discussions about what is most needed to support improved student outcomes. Gaining early agreement on this bodes well for smoother budget development later. Most budget fights are actually fights over what matters most.

Another benefit of an early start to deciding what’s really needed to move the district to the next level is that when the conversations aren’t colored by a tight fiscal reality, leaders think more boldly. I’ve noticed that early discussions might suggest an instructional coach in every school to improve core literacy instruction, but the same group of leaders might recommend a one-day PD session later in the year when they are acutely aware that every new dollar means a tough decision to cut elsewhere. They don’t really think six hours of training will dramatically improve instruction, but it’s the best they think they can afford. This is a form of self-censorship, and it’s rational, but not optimal.

Finally, perhaps the biggest benefit of early planning is that it gives leaders time to build support for their bolder, tougher decisions. Adding instructional coaches, for example, in today’s fiscal reality means shifting resources from other areas, be it slightly larger class sizes, fewer title 1 tutors, or other tough options. It helps greatly if stakeholders have months, not weeks, to hear and process why coaches are important, to ask questions, and for the district leaders to have time to thoughtfully research and share answers. All too often good ideas die during budget deliberations because misinformation or misunderstanding carry the day. Building understanding takes time.

Everyone wants the budget to fund what’s most important for students, but too often the emotions and politics of shifting funds undermines important new efforts. This can make any sane person want to delay budget planning for as long as possible, but an early start with a focus on funding key teaching and learning efforts can lead to a final budget that’s strategic and student centered.

About the Author: Nate Levenson is President of the District Management Council, a firm that helps school districts across the country raise achievement and make work easier for staff, in a cost effective way. He is a former school superintendent, school board member and private sector CEO. His most recent book is A Better Way To Budget (Harvard Education Press, 2015).