Focus: School Finance

Do’s and Don’ts in Harsh Budget Seasons

by PAUL C. GAGLIARDUCCI

Budget-building time will return before you know it. All indications suggest the national economic situation will force us again to muster all our skills to prevent the dismantling of our districts. While some help arrived in the past year in the form of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, that money has strings attached and won’t necessarily help us during the coming season, especially in states suffering from sharp drops in revenue.

Paul GagliarducciPaul C. Gagliarducci


I’ve faced many challenges during the budget-planning cycle in our district of 3,600 students in western Massachusetts. A regional school district in New England carries added complexity because a superintendent must stay politically neutral while being sensitive to the affordability of the school budget in each member community. It’s a careful tightrope walk, for sure.

My suggestions for coping start with communication. An effective superintendent will ensure that difficult budgetary decisions become more inclusive. Put yourself on the frontline and involve those in the community willing to contribute their best thinking.

A Fine Line
My recommended steps based on personal experience follow.

•  Differentiate between talking and communicating. A fine line exists between providing good, solid information and sounding like a broken record. You need to be communicating at all times. Identify the power stakeholders and keep them informed. Take advantage of every opportunity to state your case: PTO meetings, school councils, open houses and faculty meetings.

Avoid the “sky is falling” approach. State the issues simply and concisely. Remember what you say and when you said it. Always be clear.
Communication is either your best friend or your worst enemy.

•  Set the priorities and pursue the course. Using district administrators, staff and school committee members, develop a plan that has a vision and sets clearly defined priorities. Begin the process by deciding what is important to your district. No two districts are exactly alike so it isn’t helpful to follow the path of your neighbor.

Whether you build a budget from zero or reduce from a level-service budget, know your objectives. Once you have set your course, use good data to guide your budget. Critics cannot argue against solid facts on class size; local, state and national test scores; per-pupil expenditures; budget history; and local tax rates. All can be helpful pieces of information. 

•  Be creative. Look for solutions that maximize people and their talents. Sometimes downsizing can lead to more efficiencies and improved operational strategies.

If your budget process yields a good idea, implement it as soon as you can. The federal stimulus funds have provided opportunities to be creative. As you build new programs, use current staff in different ways that could free up funds for new or different purposes. Review job descriptions and revise them with improvements in mind. You might surprise yourself that in the face of adversity, you have created a new initiative that enhances your district’s vision.

•  Don’t be afraid to describe the difficulty of your budget crisis. If your facts support your case, use them. Stay informed by reading the newspapers and skimming the electronic media. Solicit feedback and ideas from colleagues. Networking is important in the budgeting process. Use your state and local professional groups. Unless you know the governor personally, you will need information from others to learn state and national issues.

If you have planned properly, your recommendations will hold. Your school board may not accept everything you pre-sent, but you have the satisfaction of knowing you did your best.

•  Don’t ever say “Never” or “Maybe next year!” Inevitably, once you make a presentation about the next budget, someone will ask you to reduce even more. If you claim you cannot cut more and subsequently you do, your credibility walks out the door. Make your cuts, explain the impact and use supporting data. No one can argue you did not follow a process when you use your best judgment.

Budget reductions that result in layoffs become a highly personal experience. It does not make the task easier if you promise the staffing cut will only be for a short term or you will restore a position the following year. You do not control tomorrow so you need to be leery of making promises you cannot keep. The key to next year’s budget is this year’s credibility. 

•  Don’t ever assume people understand the impact of budget reductions. A good superintendent needs to be the budget expert in the district. Make presentations thorough with full explanations of all implications. Solicit questions and always respond honestly. Every part of the budget needs to be on the table with no favorites hidden. If you start protecting or limiting areas of the budget, you raise suspicion over your motives. Remember, cutting a budget is sometimes like playing chess — you always need to think several moves ahead.

Reality Reigns
As a superintendent, I’ve not always liked the school district budget I prepared or presented. Economic realities often controlled my destiny. Following some simple guidelines can make the process more successful.

Paul Gagliarducci is a recently retired superintendent from the Hampden/Wilbraham Regional School District in Wilbraham, Mass. E-mail: ridgetopview@charter.net