In most states, there is no new money coming to K-12 education and in many areas enrollments are flat or declining–not a pleasant combination for school district administrators. A growing budget covers many ills; a shrinking budget limits options and aggravates sore spots.

Health care, the justice system and infrastructure will keep eating a bigger chunk of state budgets. Charter, private and home school enrollments will continue to grow slowly. Concurrent college enrollments and nontraditional providers (particularly in states experimenting with education savings accounts) will chip away at enrollments.

Because there are as many non-teaching adults as teachers in American education system, there is an opportunity for innovation and reinvesting in classrooms. It’s not the budget crisis we faced in 2009, but it’s a drag on the system that makes it harder to invest in improvement and innovation, and likely to persist and worsen for the next two decades.

How can school district leaders get out in front of this problem of declining budgets and give their schools the best chance to be successful? Drawing on lessons from dynamic organizations and Silicon Valley start-ups, there is a lean district opportunity that leverages design thinking, iterative development and platform strategies to promote efficiency and effectiveness.

New learning and organizational models suggest that layers of hierarchy are wasteful and unnecessary. Successful organizations have a clear mission-focus and are responsive and adaptive in pursuing key performance objectives. They push decision making as close to the customer as possible, often drawing the customer into the organization platform and feedback loops.

  • Cloud-based subscription services.
  • Services informed by artificial intelligence (increasing the likelihood that they’ll get smarter and better over time).
  • Working and learning in a network of schools on common service platforms.

The first step is to make the big decision about how the district is going to work. There are three general operating models for school districts:

  • Enterprise districts (like managed school networks) share goals and the learning model (curriculum, assessment, teaching practices); the school model (structure, schedule, staffing); information systems, learning platform and access devices; and professional learning opportunities.
  • Portfolio districts are more like an authorizer than an operator. Most budget and operating decisions are made at the school or network level.
  • Shared decision-making districts are a mix: central office makes some decisions, schools make others and some are negotiated.

Most small districts are enterprise districts–they use a common curriculum and shared tools. Most medium districts are some version of shared decisions. Most big cities have a mixed portfolio of schools, although the school district may not operate like a portfolio.

The following are 12 typical school district functional areas where there are usually opportunities to boost efficiency and effectiveness. Approaches will vary based on the district strategy (enterprise versus portfolio). A few areas of opportunity are noted for illustration.

1. School funding: Weighted portable and actual cost funding. High challenge schools get more money, students get more opportunity and hidden inequities (senior teachers make more than junior teachers) are addressed.

Weighted funding can be combined with efforts to push most support services budgets to schools that have demonstrated readiness. A decentralized budget is particularly important in a portfolio model where schools operate more independently or in networks.

Weighted funding might be the most controversial item on this list, so build a strong rationale for boosting investment in struggling schools and learners and hold community conversations.

2. School staffing patterns: Support flexible staffing with a particular focus on leveraging teacher leaders. Opportunity Culture is a network of 110 schools that use a variety of strategies to distribute leadership and extend the reach of excellent teachers (see 13 school models).

3. School support and supervision: Portfolio districts often improve school supports by leveraging networks. Denver has grown a series of managed network (DSST, Strive, Rocky Mountain Prep, Beacon Network). El Paso has encouraged voluntary networks (New Tech Network).

To take on additional budget planning and service delivery responsibilities, schools need a designated business official at each campus.

4. Curriculum and instruction: Leverage open educational resources and tools. Schools that join or are developed with/by a network share in curriculum, tools and support services–a great way to achieve what Doug Knecht from Bank Street calls a coherent throughline from the central office to teachers and students.

5. Recruiting and onboarding: Implement smart platforms to improve the efficiency of recruiting, matching and onboarding.

6. Professional learning: Adopt blended and personalized learning models. Incorporate micro-credentials and open resources to professional learning.

7. Transportation and scheduling: Support school choice but within zones like Denver. Subsidize youth access to public transportation. In purchasing bus fleets, prepare for self-driving vehicles which begin changing transportation options allowing both a reduction in cost and increase in choice.

8. Maintenance: Monitor employee and team productivity and compare to industry benchmarks. Give schools some control over the time (e.g., when to mow the lawn) and nature of services.

9. Facilities: Surplus excess property. Consider sale leaseback facilities options to boost flexibility (these arrangements are common with charter school networks). Partner with municipalities and nonprofit groups (see Gary Comer High and Youth Center in Chicago).

10. Nutrition: Look for ways to improve food quality, increase participation, and cut costs (and contribute a surplus).

11. Purchasing: Use a purchasing platform that creates efficiency, independence and supports accurate tracking.

12. Information systems: Transition finance and operational systems from server-based to cloud-based services. Avoid building and customizing software. Transition large systems support teams into lightweight project management organizations.

Getting Started

Kick off the process by clarifying how the district should work (in particular how much each school will have in common and who makes what decision). Then clean up your chart of accounts and make sure you’re accurately coding expenses to schools.

Don’t try to do everything at once. Pick a couple categories where you’re most likely to have a positive school impact. Pick a partner that brings content expertise and project management capacity. Set goals for cost cutting and service delivery improvement.

Check out Smarter School Spending, Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO) and AASA for financial planning and budgeting tips. Read The Superintendent and the CFO from former Spokane superintendent and Whitworth University CFO Brian Benzel.

A couple EdTech tools include:

  • Abl Schools: School scheduling
  • Allovue: Financial software and services
  • DREAM: Lets you explore resource allocation options (from ERS)
  • DudeSolutions: Maintenance and energy solutions

With a couple cycles of efficiency boosting changes and more accurate accounting, you may be able to cut by a third the percentage of your budget devoted to central administration. More importantly, you’ll empower school leaders with bigger budgets, more flexibility and better tools.

Given the cost saving potential in the dozen categories above, a big revolving loan fund that allowed districts to borrow funds to initiate restructuring work would help advance the work and build a market of technical assistance and EdTech providers.

For more, see:


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