A vital function of the annual school district budgeting process is to identify programs and expenditures that are no longer viable. Re-investing the savings from such programs can help districts to meet student and district needs or launch promising new initiatives. Discontinuing self-defeating programs, ones that receive negative press, or are backed by the full support of the school board are relatively straightforward. It’s the viability of programs or expenditures that generate polarizing divides amongst district stakeholders or require a consensus that are more challenging to accomplish.
It is typical for school district leaders to receive push-back when proposing to eliminate a program or expenditure that misaligns with current district priorities, has minimal impact, or has a low return on investment. This resistance often translates into political pressures from various stakeholder groups and in response, some district leaders scale back or completely abandon the proposed cuts. Hence, the key to successfully discontinuing ineffectual spending is to understand the reasons why friction occurs and implement tactics beforehand to reduce resistance.
The source of much stakeholder pushback often comes from fear of the unknown and a reluctance to change, so district leaders need to strategize and plan ahead to address potential objections that would otherwise erode their efforts to redirect ineffectual spending.
Other sources of resistance generally derive from frustration and confusion over poorly communicated expectations created without stakeholder involvement. When leadership announces plans to discontinue or downsize a program’s funding without including clear and defined metrics or criteria to justify those decisions, stakeholders may be less likely to support the new initiatives or direction of leadership.
Program cuts are often perceived as taking services or resources away from students in need and this idea is further perpetuated in public forums and media outlets that spread this common misconception. However, many cuts are made with the sole intention of shifting resources away from investments that are simply not working. Refocusing the public narrative from making trade-offs based on needs, to a goals realignment that spurs practical and strategic spending can help to alleviate stakeholder pressure from community and parent organizations specifically.
Law without order
Creating and implementing a systematic approach prior to ending or reducing ineffectual spending affords a greater chance of success and often incurs less resistance from stakeholders. Without a clearly delineated process, decisions may appear to be last-minute or haphazard and will only add to stakeholder frustration. District leadership should aim to establish a process that clearly conveys expectations about both the goals and consequences at each phase of the program reduction or sunset, and should communicate that process frequently. Additionally, they should seek to create and drive new narratives amongst stakeholders regarding program trade-offs based on priorities and needs of the district, supported by return-on-investment data and metrics.
One way to establish that process is to adopt the cycle-based budgeting (CBB) model and start with new spending. CBB differentiates between expenditures that are necessary to operate a school district (operation expenditures) and expenditures that are intended for school and district improvement (investment expenditures).
The model then assigns each district investment expenditure an owner who is required to define success metrics (i.e., expected return on investment) and the investment cycle or time period necessary to meet the stated goals. Both the metrics and cycle are then communicated to all stakeholders. At the end of specified cycle, each investment is reviewed based on how well it aligns with current district priorities and whether the expected return on investment was achieved. The results are used to substantiate the district’s narrative about trade-offs and can help district leaders communicate the reasoning behind the decision to discontinue or downsize a program or expenditure in a transparent manner that should garner support from stakeholders.
Using the CBB model when considering the viability of struggling legacy programs provides an opportunity for the programs or expenditures in question to generate value for the district within the confines of clearly stated expectations and goals agreed upon by stakeholders. If outputs from these programs fail to meet stated objectives, it often becomes easier for district leadership and stakeholders to agree to discontinue or reduce funding.
Discontinuing programs or expenditures that are no longer viable is challenging. However, a thoughtfully designed and well-executed process gives school and district leaders a better chance of accomplishing it, so that limited resources can be best utilized to help students learn and grow.
About the Author
Dr. Bo Yan is the chief architect of the Cycle-based Budgeting (CBB) model implemented in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), the largest public school system in the state of Kentucky with more than 100,000 students and an annual budget of 1.5 billion dollars. During the past three years, Dr. Yan collaborated with his colleagues to develop and implement the CBB model in JCPS, which aligned $75.8 million investments ($55.4 million new spending and $20.4 million existing spending) with the district’s strategic plan and set a review cycle for each of the CBB accounted investments.
Stephen M. Leach is a program analysis coordinator in Jefferson County Public School’s Accountability, Research, and Systems Improvement Division working as part of an IES grant-funded collaboration with the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education. The collaboration centers on the development and validation of a measure of academic return-on-investment. In his spare time, he works diligently to finish his PhD in Educational Psychology Measurement and Evaluation at the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development. His research interests include quantitative methodology, especially psychometrics, and program evaluation.