Exerting Leadership Through the Budget-Building Process

James BirdBy James J. Bird, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, jjbird@uncc.edu 

New superintendents quickly realize that the budget is pervasive. If it is not the subject or verb of every sentence of conversation, then it is the object. Therefore, the manner by which new superintendents approach the fiscal responsibilities of the office presents both a challenge and an opportunity with concomitant risks and rewards. 

Building a budget is not just another task; rather, it is the fundamental task upon which all other district operations depend. New superintendents must be aware of and focus on the importance of budget-building leadership along several dimensions: positional nexus, expertise factors, board governance and political contexts.  

Positional Nexus

From a teacher needing staples in the classroom to a trustee casting a vote of approbation in the boardroom, people make countless decisions every day concerning the use of district resources. If we had unlimited resources these decisions would be less important. So, someone must take control of the decision-making process and guide it along consistent, rational and predictable means. 

The superintendent is the only one responsible for the total district – all instructional levels, all employee groups, all disciplines and all constituencies. Other participants can argue for their piece of the pie at the expense of others. Only the superintendent has access to the perquisite vision-setting, goal formation, implementation directives and evaluation processes necessary to keep the organization functioning along some intentional path. 

This is not to say that the superintendent acts alone, nor does this imply that the superintendent is omniscient. On the contrary, several other key actors offer their unique and specialized expertise through the budget-building process. The chief financial officer maintains the books; the building principals have enormous instructional and managerial responsibilities; and, teachers, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers and food service staff members directly serve the clients. But it is the superintendent who must coordinate all of this distributed activity, making sure calendars mesh, communications occur, and compromises are struck. Only the superintendent can be the mediator across the gaps in the governance latticework of board-administration, school-parents, or district-community relationships.

Expertise Factors

In my naiveté as a new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, I thought I was supposed to know more than everyone else about what was right for instruction across the district. Taking on that burden made me ineffective. Rather than utilizing the talents of colleagues and allowing them to problem solve, I tried to secure control through less dialog and more directives; dispense answers rather than generate questions; and seek premature closure instead of necessary debate. As a generalist, I was miss-focused on the product rather than the process.

A parallel situation exists between the superintendent and the budget-building process. The superintendent needs to become a process expert in order to get the budget formulation and approval accomplished. Starting with the product in mind, the first question should be, “How do I win board support for this budget proposal?” I believe any governance board requires two factors before granting approbation: understanding and trust. Setting this ground work takes time, consistency and integrity. It also requires genuine trustee involvement throughout the year, not just during raucous late-night June board meetings.

The same can be said about the important cadre of school principals. They, too, need to understand the budget and they need to trust the superintendent. Their genuine involvement in submitting data and ideas on issues is essential. They present the face of the district to their staffs and their students’ parents. You need them on your side as ambassadors in support of the budget. 

The superintendent will probably never know more about school finance than the chief financial officer. That’s okay; that’s their job. The superintendent must clearly (and widely) communicate that it is the CFO’s responsibility to manage the budget and it is the superintendent’s responsibility to lead the budget-building process. 

Board Governance

Board members come in all shapes and sizes, but they also come with undeniable reasons for holding their positions. They are keenly interested in school operations; they are connected in some way and to some level of community involvement and power bases; and they have chosen to exercise their advocacy in a public fashion amidst all of the pressure and exposure that entails. 

New superintendents should think of the boardroom as their classroom and think of their trustees collectively as the co-owners of the enterprise. They should teach them the structure and functions of the budget-building process and ensure board members understand and support the budget. This effort has to be initiated and sustained by the superintendent. It does not start and stop with new board member orientation and it is not done by other board members without the superintendent. It takes time and it may be unpleasant, but it is worthwhile. 

Political Context

Because education governance flows from our nation’s structure of federalism and schools exist in the public sector, our activities will always be conducted within a political context. In addition, our profession’s lack of agreed-upon goals and weak cause-and-effect relationships ensure we remain in the political arena. 

For the superintendent, the politics of education are multi-layered. A clear example of this complexity is the reaction to this spring’s release of stimulus funds. State legislatures wrangle over gubernatorial budget proposals and local school boards try to deal with the uncertainty of everything. New superintendents need to take advantage of established information networks like professional associations, state departments of public instruction, intermediate school districts and state education lobbyists to keep abreast of this ever-changing playing field. 

Closer to home, savvy superintendents value community partnerships and the possibilities of grants. Again, superintendents find others to do spearhead this work, but are clearly supportive of their efforts. 

In direct activity, the superintendent leads the effort to communicate the goals and needs of the district to the community through open forums and informational meetings with school staffs, parent groups, service clubs and anyone else who will listen. This direct face time and the pressing of flesh are time consuming but worthwhile. Superintendents want their fingerprints all over the budget-building process. 

Remember, the supported budget is the budget that has been built through genuine and transparent involvement. Involvement increases the possibility of the budget being understood and trusted. Superintendents who do not have the trust of the community will not hold the interest of their board for very long.

Research Findings

My colleagues and I collected data from 145 practicing superintendents in a mid-western state and a state in the southeast describing their budget-building practices, career patterns, organizational parameters, and district characteristics. Among our findings (Bird, Wang, & Murray, 2009a and b): 

  • Age at first administrative positions and career path differences were not found to be connected to transparency of budget-building processes, information management strategies or staff cohesiveness.
  • The years of experience, levels worked and years as a superintendent were not related to budget-building practices.
  • Information management strategies were significantly and positively related to transparency of budget-building processes.
  • Transparency of budget-building processes was not related to staff cohesiveness.
  • The concepts of transparency, information management and staff cohesiveness had no relationship with the school setting variables of free and reduced-price lunch levels, student academic achievement or student per-pupil expenditures.
  • Most (> 90%) respondents agreed that they learned their current set of budget-building strategies from on-the-job training.
  • Their budget-building strategies have changed greatly from their first year as superintendent.
  • They devised their methodologies from a variety of experiences, the least important of which may be their university training.
  • Almost half of the responding superintendents have worked with their most senior current high school and middle school principals and business managers for only 1 or 2 years.
  • The resultant staffing volatility portends a need for high levels of staff inservice activities to ensure team effectiveness, consistency and teamwork. 

The picture is more eclectic than patterned and the practicing superintendents responding to our study paint a wide variety of approaches to fulfilling their fiscal responsibilities. This is both good news and bad news for new superintendents in that present practice gives leeway for creativity but not much guidance. It also calls into question the utility of professional preparation programs in university graduate programs of educational leadership.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is no cookbook capsulation as to how superintendents should operationalize their budget-building processes. My advice is that new superintendents find their sea legs quickly with intentional structure, transparent processes and political acumen. 

With the end in foresight, superintendents should create conditions whereby genuine and diverse involvement is solicited from relevant stakeholders so they might develop understanding and trust. A digest of all of the above into a dozen superintendent school finance leadership tenets would look like this: 

1. All the right numbers in all the right places is necessary but not sufficient to the development of a good budget.

2. The budget-building process should create a forum for transforming ideas into reality.

3. The budget-building process must provide access, involvement, known procedures, representation, communication and documentation.

4. The budget must be tied to the assessment and instructional processes of the district.

5. The budget operationalizes the district’s philosophy, vision and mission.

6. The budget accentuates and clarifies the communication and leadership decision-making systems within the district.

7. Questions about the budget are encouraged and no question goes unanswered.

8. There are many horses in this field but only the superintendent has the reins.

9. All of the slices have to fit before the budget is complete and whole.

10. Budget building is a daily activity, not a seasonal activity.

11. The annual external audit is required but must be augmented by daily scrutiny to ensure that all transactions are beyond reproach.

12. First among all equals in a superintendent’s world of stakeholders is the elected board of education. (Bird, in press) 

As expectations increase and resources become even scarcer, superintendents who seize the opportunity through thoughtful and dynamic leadership will be superintendents who best serve their clients. 


Bird, J. J., Wang, C., & Murray, L. (2009a). Building budgets and trust through superintendent leadership. Journal of Education Finance, 35(2), 140-156. 

Bird, J. J., Wang, C., & Murray, L. (2009b). Role interdependency between superintendents and school business officials in budget building leadership practices and strategies. Manuscript submitted for publication. 

Bird, J. J. (in press). Building budgets and trust through the alchemy of superintendent leadership. Management in Education, 24(2).