School Budgets: The Most Powerful Instrument for Building Trust in School Leadership

The term budget is best understood as intentional, thoughtful, and responsible planning. Every leader must determine how to allocate limited financial, physical, and human resources to most effectively deliver the school’s programs and services. The developing, managing, and diligent implementation of the budget is the single most vital, and yet nearly invisible, means by which school leaders build trust.

The school district’s budget is the proverbial tail that wags the dog. Not a science, but an art, budget development is the school system’s roadmap to success… I have seen budgets make the school systems the success they are known for, and I have seen budgets throw school systems into a tailspin. I have seen budgets that created a sense of trust and camaraderie within the community, and I have seen communities wrought with anger and mistrust, diverting the focus from student needs to adult issues that should have never surfaced. (Malinowski, 2014)

The budget is perhaps the single most powerful instrument for either supporting high levels of credibility in school leaders, or in destroying their credibility. Although he is addressing public school funding, William T. Hartman, author of School District Budgeting, makes the following observations about the definition of budgeting, which is true for all schools.

Budgeting is both a planning and a political process… At the practical level, it is a search for the delicate balance between the willingness and the ability of taxpayers to fund school programs and services and the needs for the education of the next generation. (Hartman, 1999)

Within the private tuition-based school setting, if the word “parents” is inserted in the place of “taxpayers” in the preceding quote, the definition still rings true.

TrustED School Leaders recognize that budgeting is a process of planning and stakeholder positioning.

Through budget preparation, school leaders manage their limited resources in a way that ensures the continued support, and literal buy-in, of those paying the tuition fees or the taxes.

The budget’s role is quite diverse. There are multiple and fundamental purposes of a school’s functioning accomplished through both the budget process and the actual budget itself. The budget can be viewed from four distinct angles:

  1. The budget is a policy document.
  2. The budget is a guide to operations.
  3. The budget is a financial planner.
  4. The budget is a communications tool – articulating the values and priorities of the school.

School leaders need to recognize the multiple functions and influence of the budget, and employ all four strands in providing the resources for others to do their work.

The contents and function of the budget document provide school leaders an opportunity to engage in a physical and programmatic planning process, which has a tremendous impact on faculty and staff throughout the school year – as it reaches into every area of the school. The areas addressed in the budget are all-encompassing. They include but are not limited to, personnel, curriculum, curricular and extracurricular activities, purchasing, facility maintenance, professional and physical plant development. Complete and appropriate budgeting provides the leader with a path to address all of these, and has a direct connection to the level of trust placed in those responsible for budget development.

TrustED School Leaders view the budget as their most powerful tool in driving mission fulfillment.

Budgeting is key to successful school improvement when led by an administrator who understands the value of the budget, and is skilled in the ability, of both continual evaluation and change management. The successful use of the budget and budgeting process by a trusted leader will continually move the school forward in pursuit of its mission. If the school remains stagnant and unchanged, then a fundamental opportunity has been missed; an opportunity through the budgeting process to accomplish the school’s mission and current priorities to a greater degree, which always includes ensuring that faculty and staff have the resources they require to be more successful.

Former U.S. President, Harry S. Truman, is quoted as saying that, “Budget figures reveal far more about proposed policy than speeches.” Another better-known saying is the rather crude expression, “Put your money where your mouth is!” Both of these communicate a fundamental truth. When stakeholders view the school budget, their trust in the leader is primarily measured by where and how school resources are allocated.

For example, for some years now, I have served on External Review Teams for AdvancED SACS (The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools); assisting in the evaluation of schools throughout Latin America to determine if they should receive accreditation. On one visit to a large South American city, our team was thoroughly impressed as we arrived on the campus. The school’s facilities had a feeling of a cross between Hogwarts from the Harry Potter novels and Disneyland. The playgrounds and their accompanying equipment were immense, colorful, and featured the latest designs and elements of age-appropriate structures and child-safety.

The school’s exteriors were decorated with beautiful, stimulating, colorful, and well-designed graphics featuring its mascot. Exploring the hallways was like walking through one of the best children’s museums in the world. Each one featured a themed mural throughout that provided a stimulating visual experience as you walked past. One long hallway was designed as a small town, with each classroom featuring the design of typical Main Street buildings (e.g., bakery, town hall, bank and ice cream parlor). Another hallway was the exterior of an old-fashioned railroad passenger train, with each car (i.e., classroom) possessing a unique, fun, and imaginative design. It was amazing! I could continue with descriptions of their elaborate athletic facilities (which rivaled a university campus), student computer lab (designed like the interior of a spaceship), standardized testing area (a replica of the Jeopardy television game show set), state-of-the-art robotics lab, theaters, and a library that looked like it belonged in Oxford.

However, as we went through the first day of our visit, it did not take long to identify that despite their elaborate and fantastic facilities, their primary commitment was not to “contributing excellence in education.” (That was one of the expressed purposes in their mission and vision statements). Our time throughout the week observing dozens of classes, interviewing students, teachers, and parents; studying their curriculum; examining their PD, financial and governance operations, etc. revealed that they were a hugely successful business. The school was very much a profit-making organization, but its classrooms were full of teacher-centric lesson plans, worksheets, memorization, and rote learning practices, which modeled very little evidence of anything we could identify as current best practices in education.

My role on the team was specifically to evaluate the school’s leadership, governance, and financial operations. As stated, they were financially successful and provided students with the latest in facilities, but their investment in teachers and the school’s actual product (i.e., high-quality education) was quite limited. An examination of the school’s budget identified its level of commitment to educational planning. Slightly under 1.6% of the overall budget was committed to developing and supporting the educational program (i.e., curriculum, instructional resources/equipment, and professional development combined).

President Truman was right – budget figures do reveal more about proposed policy than speeches, and far more than school mission statements, websites, promotional videos, magazine ads, and other enrollment tools.

If you want to know the level of a school’s commitment to educational quality – just ask for a copy of the budget!

©2019 Toby A. Travis, All Rights Reserved

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