Schoales: 7 Principles for School District Budgeting in a Time of Financial Armageddon

Colorado school district boards are about to make the most difficult financial decisions of their lives. Never have school boards or district financial leaders been asked to make such deep cuts in their budgets.

School district budget decisions in the next month will have a profound impact on students for decades to come, given the value of a quality education. Education matters a great deal in terms of its lifetime impact on an individual, and it will likely matter even more when we emerge from this recession (hopefully not a depression). State education budgets will take a hit not just this year but likely for five or more years, if the experience of the last recession holds true. Federal stimulus funding will likely only be a short-term, partial fix for this year.

We know that districts with low-income students and children of color already get significantly less funding than those in white, wealthier areas, and within districts, the most vulnerable students have far less per-pupil funding, as well as less experienced teachers and larger class sizes. The COVID-19 crisis is hitting low-income and other disadvantaged students the hardest and worsening inequities that existed for high-poverty, special education, emerging multilingual, homeless and other students even before the pandemic struck.

Rarely has a Colorado school district had to slash 3 percent, let alone 10 or 15 percent, from a budget that until a few months ago was expected to grow significantly from the previous year. That pain will be compounded enormously with escalating costs from COVID, increasing pension costs and growing personnel costs, with far fewer teachers leaving the profession for financial reasons.

So, what should be done?

1. Districts will need to put everything on the table for discussion. There should be no program, school or employment contract that should not be explored.

2. Districts need to translate their budgets and projections into understandable information so the public can grasp the magnitude of the problem and all options.

3. A set of principles must be developed to guide decision-making, with student health, safety and education at the center — not the adults — and special attention to the most vulnerable children.

4. All adults in the district must commit to making sacrifices for the good of the students and understand that some will sacrifice far more than others.

5. Board discussions will have to be frequent, transparent and accessible.

6. Community feedback will need to be gathered through conversations and polls.

7. Lastly, and most importantly, school boards will have to be politically brave to use all this information to build a budget from the ground up, using students as the focus.

There will be no easy answers. Many in the community will be negatively impacted, especially students and their families. Many adults in the school district will lose their jobs or take significant salary cuts. But exercising cost-cutting options now to save money could help avoid more disruptive, widespread layoffs later.

Making these decisions will no doubt be the hardest thing that most school board members will ever have to do. Many will have to get up to speed on school finance at a level that was never required prior to this crisis.

While some may say this will be the worst moment of being a school board member, I say it should be thought of as their finest hour, because of the magnitude and importance of these decisions.

Many board members will likely pay the price in the next election. But staying committed to what is best for students should be the reason why they ran for school board in the first place.

Van Schoales is the chief executive officer of the nonprofit “action tank” A+ Colorado. He has 30 years’ experience leading education reform efforts from the classroom to the statehouse. He has also helped found a number of other nonprofit groups, including the Odyssey School, Denver School of Science and Technology, Democrats for Education Reform Colorado, Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools, and Chalkbeat Colorado.

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