Budget crunch: Selecting which K-12 programs ‘go’
While budget cuts are a reality in K-12 education, administrators and teachers can take steps to ensure their students receive a quality education. By taking proactive measures during the budgeting and resulting program-cutting process, educators can positively influence the end result, says Judith Frame Henderson, MAEd, a graduate instructor at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus.
Having spent nearly four decades in education serving as an advisor, teacher, assistant principal and, most recently, a school administrator in Los Angeles, Henderson says she understands the pain points all too well. The process of eliminating programs can be difficult, but a leaner, yet impactful, curriculum can be achieved as long as educators retain the ideal of “delivering the best education system you can with what money you have.”
Educators can make the most out of any imposed budget constraints by carefully balancing what she calls the more flexible categorical funding — music, art and physical education programs — with the curriculum needed to meet federal and state education mandates and funding criteria.
Choosing the right programmatic direction
Administrators need to be business-minded when devising their spending plans. Keeping it solely to the numbers — at first — makes it easier to leave emotions out of the process and to focus on what makes the most financial and academic sense, she emphasizes.
To make the budgeting process go smoothly, Henderson recommends school districts take the following steps:
- Establish a budget — Set a proposed budget that includes all of your district’s programmatic needs and desires while also establishing what the realistic available funding will look like for the budget year in question. Typically, this proposal looks drastically different by the end of the process since it more accurately reflects the available funding than the initial budget proposal, which resembles more of a district-wide wish list.
- Clarify district deliverables and standards — This step is significant, Henderson says. It solidifies what needs the district commits to meeting and it sets the stage for what programs may need to be pared down as the budgeting process progresses. This means organizing and writing down what programs, testing standards, mandates and other criteria must be met to utilize specific government funds. This also includes setting the district’s individual standards, such as curriculum focus and corresponding personnel needs.
- Get input — “Talk about it,” Henderson says. “You have to sit down as faculty or as administrators and review the guidelines and budget before you so you can start making the difficult choices. And that only happens when it is a function of compromise and consensus.” Administrators may get the last word, but they should do so, she says, after encouraging input from faculty, students, parents and community members about what programs help foster the academic standards of the district.
- Negotiate — “If you want a program badly enough, you try to figure out a way to take some of those available monies to not take it away completely. Something is better than nothing,” Henderson says. Compromise helps reveal which programs are truly needed and how administrators can adjust finances accordingly. Sometimes this can mean reducing personnel or enlisting the help of volunteer parents, parent-teacher organizations/associations or other external sources, says Henderson.
- Prepare for the worst — Propose the leanest programmatic cuts because that may be the budget’s bottom line. “There are certain programs and things you must do and certain things you would love to do,” Henderson says. “But if you simply don’t have the money to do all of those things that you love, then you’ll have to ask yourself: ‘what can we truly do?’”
- Hope for the best — Even after proposed budgets pass, Henderson points out that it doesn’t mean the budget is set in stone. One never knows when a budget surplus might surface and negate or alleviate some of the proposed program cuts, as has been the case for some fortunate California school districts, she notes. This year’s budget cut also doesn’t always mean the program’s value is lost forever. Remain hopeful, she adds, that “in better budget times, those [affected] programs and the personnel will have the support they need.”