The Downside of Humble Frugality

By Ken DeSieghardt/School Administrator, September 2015

If there is a school district leader who thought while growing up, “Boy, I’d like to work in education someday because I really want to try and make the most out of ever-shrinking funding,” I have yet to meet him or her

Yet make the most they routinely do, often out of public view, because it is just part of the job. But keeping those efforts in the background actually does more harm than good in terms of nurturing stakeholder relationships that become critical when funding challenges become acute.

I recently conducted research of public school patrons for a modestly sized urban school district that wanted to ask for a healthy increase in its operating levy because their ongoing cost cutting soon would be leading them to cutting into bone. They had found ways to quietly minimize the pain so far and to limit the impact on the classroom, and they had chosen not to bring their community members along on this journey. As such, the research showed the patrons were shocked to learn the district was facing financial difficulties.

These data pushed the planned ballot measure back several months to allow the school district to bring the public up to date before talking about the benefits of such an increase. The revised strategy ultimately worked, but it cost the schools several months without the additional funding.

Humility Hurts

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common situation. Districts make do and try to keep the patrons from worrying. But while humbleness about the district’s efficiency may seem like the right course of action, it makes it more difficult than ever to all of a sudden get the message across that “We’ve done our best for many years. Now we need your help.”

In the research our firm has done on behalf of schools, school districts clearly get no credit when they say, for example, “How would it affect your vote on a bond issue if you knew we have not raised taxes in 16 years?” The general reaction? Meh. In short, “You took good care of the money you got from me. That is what you are supposed to do, isn’t it?”

So all that good stewardship buys a school district little to nothing in the area of goodwill if the district doesn’t make a point of finding strategic ways to work the frugality message — and the impact of funding challenges on education — into its everyday communication. How to do so?

Do what you do best: Educate. There will always be patrons who will not know what bond issues can pay for versus operating levy funds, and so on. What makes it worse is when one ballot issue follows shortly on the heels of another. This often leads to “Didn’t we just vote for that?” comments. That situation can be helped with a few regularly offered, well-placed, “As a reminder, bond funds cannot be used for teacher salaries”-type phrases in your routine communications.

Show how you are making do with less than you need. It makes good strategic sense to highlight the student impact of your financial challenges by saying, for example, “Due to funding shortages, only 30 students have been able to take advantage of our culinary program this year.” Always focus on how shortfalls impact students, not the district.

Have an “abstract” and “detailed” budget. Make the high points — the abstract, if you will, available in various forms, 365 days a year. Give patrons an easy way to look at the budget headlines (punctuated with “What this means …” explanations) while also providing greater detail on your website for those who want to do a deep dive.

Constant Reminders

We have long since passed the time when a school district could simply rally the troops to get something passed. Needs, and the budgets that fund them, have to be at least a parenthetical comment in every school district communication.


Ken DeSieghardt is CEO of Patron Insight in Stilwell, Kan., and author of School Communication That Works. E-mail: Twitter: @KDeSieghardt