When administrators empower those in their districts to take ownership of their budgets, it maximizes student outcomes and positively impacts those involved. Read on to see how one principal uses Balance to substantiate the decisions made at her school and improve the working relationships between members of her staff.
Meet Christine Collier.
As a principal at the Center for Inquiry School 70, I have many responsibilities, so it’s vital that I have easy access to crucial pieces of information promptly, especially when it comes to my budget. Before Balance Budget, our school built our budgets in Excel spreadsheets which were challenging to update and share. At times, a new fiscal year would introduce a new category that wasn’t included the prior year so we would put a lump sum of money into “instructional supplies,” for example, and then sort it out by account numbers later. That made budgeting confusing and made it harder to remember what our allocation plans were. Additionally, in Excel I couldn’t take detailed notes reminding me what my thoughts were behind the numbers I was inputting, so I had to use a separate notebook. We needed something live, editable, and a tool that could easily be shared and updated in real-time. Balance Budget was just the tool we needed.
In Balance, I can look at my live budget and have my detailed notes in the same program. I really enjoy that it’s broken down by the same account numbers that are in MUNIS so I will know the exact amounts I allocated into each account and be able to view each line item, instead of just seeing a big bucket of money. Balance has simplified my day-to-day responsibilities because I now have really clear notes and accurate accounts. This also helps me better communicate with my administrative associate and makes it much easier for her to support me.
Building the Budget
Before I started building my new budget in Balance, I took a hard look at where we spent money last year. Even though I had budgeted in the previous year, it was all paid out of big buckets of money, so I needed to see where it all ended up going. I created a PowerPoint presentation that I shared with my staff where I listed all the major purchases we made throughout the school year and the funding source. I thoroughly explained the locked and unlocked budgets and highlighted any other residual pools of money. Then, I showed what we had paid for thus far this school year, and asked my staff to work in groups to prioritize the remaining budgeting decisions.
If we needed to make cuts that year, I asked them to prioritize their must-haves and listened carefully to the reasons behind their decisions. I synthesized all their responses and worked on the process further within our leadership team meetings. This was not a simple task, since we quickly realized that the “must-have priorities” varied wildly between the groups. But it was vital for my leadership team and I to have this input and glean insights from the staff so we could best support the budgeting decisions for the school.
I think it’s prudent to always include the staff in the budgeting process because very often teachers will ask, “Hey, do we have money to buy this? Or, How can I get that for my classroom?” Providing them with the proper context of what things cost and how we pay for it helps them to keep their requests in perspective. So if a request comes in for a software program, maybe for remediation work or something that supports reading and math, having that background budgeting knowledge helps teachers consider the price of the software and seriously evaluate how often they will utilize it in the classroom. If they realize they aren’t going to use it that often, they can see that it may not be worth the investment. This gives them ownership over what we’re spending, and they can see for themselves the effect it has on our school’s overall budget.
Once we finalized the final budget, I went back to the staff with Balance on hand to share our final decisions. I showed them what funds were available in which budgets and demonstrated using Balance the funds that could be shifted and the ones that could not. This was a beneficial exercise made a lot easier than previous years because of Balance.
A Collaborative Approach
Like many principals can attest, it’s not always smooth sailing after you finalize your budget. Our school district eventually postponed our budget referendum, and there may be a $24 million deficit. Fortunately, instead of our superintendent requiring that all the principals cut their budgets by a certain percentage, we were asked to work in groups to decide and recommend where the budget cuts should come from. This collaborative approach allows for us to agree on what budget items are negotiable and which are non-negotiable, which benefits everyone within the district.
In our district, transportation is a significant percentage of the district’s expenditures. Our schools arrange for buses to transport handfuls of students daily to participate in off-campus extracurricular activities. My working group suggested cutting these extracurricular bus trips and recommended that each school cover the full costs of any field trip, including the bus transportation. My school takes a lot of field trips; each classroom takes up to four field trips per school year! So if that recommendation gets approved, I will need to figure out how we are going to pay that added expense. Using Balance, I can quickly revise my budget as I need to with minimal effort, a task that was much more challenging last year when our budget lived in Excel. If we decide to seek funding from the PTSA or an outside grant source, I can shift the budget accordingly and easily view my new planned, allocated and encumbered amounts. I can then have my leadership team view and approve the changes in real-time, and share any updates with my staff at the push of a button.
Even though I don’t log in to Balance every day, I make it a point to stay abreast of my budget so I can make strategic decisions for my school. As we worked to close out this fiscal year, we looked for opportunities to pay for the needed items for the next school year in advance from current on-hand funds. This has helped to reduce a few of the pain points caused by the deep budget cuts passed down to schools in next year’s budget. Balance allowed me to see the data quickly and helped us make informed decisions for our school.
My staff has expressed how appreciated they feel now that they are included in the budgeting process. Having the opportunity to be involved and have their input considered in the outcome has improved morale throughout the school and strengthened our professional working relationships. Being able to ask my literacy coach, for example, to work with the primary grade teachers on how to best spend our Title I money to support students is empowering. I can quickly give her access to her specific budget with confidence, knowing that the data in Balance is accurate and up-to-date.
Balance allows me to create an effective budget and allocation plan with a purpose. If you don’t have an effective plan to spend your money, pretty soon you’ll find that you don’t have funds available to do the things you wanted to do. The Balance software is so easy to use that I can teach my staff and within minutes, they can fully grasp how to move money and access and view the budgets. It’s such an intuitive and user-friendly product that makes my job so much easier.
About the Author
Christine Collier has been a prinicpal for the Center of Inquiry at Indianapolis School 70 for two years. Prior to that, she was the principal for four years of School 84 in the same district.