Spending dollars to make a difference

Make a stronger case for greater resources by first doing a deep dive on how you’re using resources already on hand.


School superintendents rarely get fired for moving too slowly to improve student achievement. However, when it comes to financial mistakes and improprieties — or the perception of them — they tend to lose their jobs in a hurry. No part of their work is more visible to the public and more inviting of criticism than the ways in which they spend and allocate money. But while the use of school system resources is the most heavily scrutinized of the superintendent’s roles, it affords them the least amount of autonomy.

From teachers and parents to elected officials, community leaders, employers, and on and on, everybody has a stake in decisions about their local school budget. Even the most apathetic and unengaged of citizens tends to keep an eye on education spending and the ways in which it might bear upon their daily lives. Which is to say that in most school districts, the annual budgetary process provides a great opportunity for all sorts of people to engage in political theatrics.  (To give you a flavor of just how large a cast of characters can be involved in school budget negotiations, consider this: When I was superintendent in Stamford, Conn., a city of just 125,000, I had a nine-member board of education, a six-member board of finance, and a 40-member board of representatives. By contrast, Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million, has a 50-member city council.)

In most districts, personnel costs swallow roughly 90% of the budget, leaving scant discretionary funds on the table. But even those few remaining dollars can be enough to trigger a frenzy of hyperbolic wrangling among local stakeholders, each of whom has a passionate interest in a particular cause or educational program. And in the diverse urban/suburban school systems that I’ve led, the process is further complicated by fierce debates about race, entitlement, and the extent to which public education ought to be treated as a private commodity or a public good.

Faced with these sorts of overheated political conflicts, what can school system leaders do to ensure that resources are allocated effectively and equitably?

Most important, before they request any new funds, they should be very careful to make sure that they have already tapped into every other resource at their disposal, including not only fiscal resources but also the time and talent of local educators, employers, community members, and others. They should ask themselves, is the district truly making the most of people’s contributions? Do all employees have an appropriate workload? Could the school day be rearranged in ways that allow people to be more productive?

In Stamford, for example, we discovered that some high school department heads weren’t teaching their contractual load of three periods a day (compared to the five periods typically assigned to subject-area teachers). This wasn’t entirely surprising since department heads set the teaching schedule, and principals do not necessarily check to see what classes they have assigned themselves. However, it cost the district roughly $20,000 per year to put a teacher in a single high school class.  And every time a department head chose to teach less than the required three periods, the school had to fill the missing slot, which cost significant amounts of money. When I went public with the fact that some people weren’t pulling a fair load, it didn’t exactly endear me to the union (or to a number of embarrassed department heads), but the budgetary implications were just too important to let this practice sneak by under the radar.

Similarly, when my staff and I looked more closely at scheduling in the high schools, we found that some of the most experienced teachers were being assigned only to honors and AP classes, while the least experienced were asked mainly to work with  9th graders and/or struggling learners. It would have no effect on the budget for schools to require their teachers to take on more varied course assignments, everybody serving a wide range of students. But, we realized, this would be a much more equitable way to use existing resources, giving many more students access to the most seasoned teachers.

Further, we discovered that in some AP courses, student enrollments were changing significantly between September and November. In our high schools, the typical class size was 25 to 30. But after the first test and major assignment of the year (which tended to be much harder than subsequent assessments, suggesting that they were being used to weed out all but the most well-prepared students), some classes suddenly shrunk in size by half or more. And, no surprise, teachers were quick to justify the advantages of smaller enrollments, arguing, for example, that teaching AP French was so much more demanding than teaching Honors French 4 that it would be impossible to work effectively with more than eight or 10 students at a time. By making these data public, and by specifying the minimum enrollment needed to offer an AP class, we were able to justify a more efficient use of resources, which also led to creating space to increase the number of non-white students enrolled in the AP program.

While I firmly believe that public education needs more resources overall (and the 2016 PDK poll results show that the public agrees), I would urge local leaders to ensure that their own house is in order before they go after more funds. Too often, leaders bring a give-me-more-stuff attitude to budget negotiations, claiming that they can’t possibly make positive changes without a funding increase. Sometimes this may be true. But sometimes it rings hollow, coming across as an excuse to avoid having to make difficult decisions.

Indeed, having easy access to resources sometimes even creates a disincentive for school leaders to build better and more coherent programs. For example, I know of districts that had well-funded literacy programs in place, supported by local tax dollars, but which, nonetheless (and because they misinterpreted the Title I supplement-not-supplant rule), used their Title I funding to purchase additional literacy intervention programs. Not only were the new programs unnecessary but the quality of instruction suffered as a result, given that the schools ended up with a confusing hodgepodge of approaches.

Supporting families

If district leaders have a secret weapon to deploy during budget negotiations, it is the request for funds to support family and community engagement — public officials tend to be very reluctant to say no to proposals that hit so close to home. Even here, though, system leaders should be careful to do their homework before asking for taxpayer dollars.

For example, they might look to see precisely how many school system staff are already engaged in this sort of work and whether they share a coherent vision for how best to serve families. Every district has employees (e.g.,  guidance counselors, assistant principals, and school secretaries) who interact regularly with parents and community members. And many districts employ parent coordinators and social workers to work closely with vulnerable students and their families (and, whether or not it’s part of the job description, serving as intermediaries between the school and non-native English speakers). Also, special education staff, especially paraeducators, tend to be in close contact with families. And even bus drivers — the first school system employee a child sees every day — can play an important role in mediating between families and schools.

Yet, while every school system interacts regularly with families, how many systems have created a truly coherent approach to family and community engagement, complete with standards, professional learning opportunities, assessment tools, and accountability metrics? Before going public with a request for tax dollars to fund such work, system leaders would be wise to take a very close look at the resources already on hand, asking whether they can take better advantage of existing programs and relationships.

(That said, we also know from the annual PDK poll that engaging with families leads to greater likelihood that a parent will give their child’s school an A or B grade and support an increase in local taxes directed toward schools. So investing in family connections can be a win-win for school districts.)

Again, I have no doubt that public schools need and deserve more generous funding. With more resources, districts can increase teacher pay, reduce class sizes, strengthen professional learning, overhaul business operations, invest in infrastructure, and take many other valuable steps to improve services for children and communities. At the same time, though, system leaders must honor the sacred trust that taxpayers put in them; they must be willing to show the results that such expenditures produce; and they must ensure that the lion’s share of public resources are directed to those who need them most. These demands often come into conflict and cause political turmoil. But if educational leaders start with a careful analysis of the existing system, they should be able to find creative ways to serve and support all children, without losing the support of their own political sponsors.


Citation: Starr, J. (2017). Spending dollars to make a difference. Phi Delta Kappan 98 (5), 72-73.

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

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