School Budgets: Advice for District Administrators

We wanted to find out what works when it comes to providing students with the things they need to succeed while still keeping our schools on track financially. So we turned to top district administrators from three districts for advice on school budgets. Here, they share their biggest challenges, best practices and successful strategies.

 This article first appeared in The School Leader’s Guide to Planning for a Positive Learning Environment. Download the full guide here.

John Gahan

Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer, Pewaukee School District, Pewaukee, Wisconsin. 2,800 students

What strategies have you used to stretch your district’s dollars to provide for the needs of students in the classroom?

We made a commitment to infrastructure within our district. By doing several improvements, we have been able to reduce our operating costs and free up more resources to meet student needs. In our combined high school and middle school building, we’ve taken out the old mechanical boiler system and gone to heat recovery units. Using a different technology to heat and cool the building, we dropped our consumption of energy over the past nine years by 25 percent.

Also, we use data to track the type of calls, repairs and fixes we need to make and then allocate the staff appropriately to reduce time to complete those tickets. For example, through data tracking we found the mechanism in our lockers was causing our custodial staff to spend a great deal of time un-jamming lockers. We went to locks for each individual locker and greatly reduced the time spent by staff on un-jamming.

Is there a lot of competition between different divisions for money and resources? What do you do about it?

Using the data from student achievement and where our kids are at, our administrative team can develop a budget with priorities by building. After we identify how these priorities tie to the strategic plan, as a group, we can work together to figure out where we don’t have the resources to meet all the needs and then target the resources for the greatest impact. You have eliminated those silos.

What have you learned over the years that you wished other district administrators had told you early on about what helps schools stay on budget?

Having the voices of administrators who are going to be executing the strategic plan at the table to collaborate about what is the best way to allocate resources is invaluable. Start by giving them the big picture of resources, identify strategic areas of where they need to target to them, and then work as a team to make the two match.

What are your top tips for other district administrators who is new to a position like yours?

Communication is always the key. In the finance area, there are a lot of formulas and complex calculations that determine the amount of resources. Being able to talk in layman’s terms — like a person on the street—so they can understand it and be able to communicate effectively, is one of the skills that I think is critical to success. We have created FAQ pages on our website. We monitor and track the calls that we get to determine the questions with the highest frequency and put the answers out there. For example, with transportation—understanding routing, what happens when there is a snow day, and how you will be notified.

 How has the way you worked with school and district administrators on your budget changed over the years?

The level of collaboration needed has changed. Twenty five year ago, it was more about focusing on the numbers and making budgets balance. Now you have to become more of a practitioner of the entire process. Now I have a much greater perspective about what is happening in the classroom, and how services are delivered. Our entire senior leadership team participates in what we call “learning walks” in our buildings once a week. The principal gives us a focus and says  “Here’s what’s happening in these 10 classrooms today and let’s go out and monitor and see what this looks   like.” So we spend about a half hour in the classroom and then we debrief with the principal and give feedback. It’s given me a much better perspective about what’s happening and what are those challenges that are faced every day.

 

Kristy D. Varda

Purchasing Supervisor, Frederick County Public Schools Winchester, Virginia. 13,000 students

What is the hardest challenge you face in your job and how are you handling it?

Breaking back from the mentality that “This is the way it’s always been done.” As technology improves, we are becoming much more transparent, so it’s tantamount that all i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed so we can ensure the public we are doing the right thing. We are starting to implement a new financial management system that will change the way a lot of our businesses processes happen. I plan to create a procurement manual that goes out to end users and lists specifically, “If this situation, then go to this memorandum.” It will explain step by step what to do. I will make it available both in print and electronically.

What strategies have you found to stretch your district’s dollars to provide for the needs of students in the classroom?

Recently, when one contract was up for renewal for office supplies, I had the current vendors send lists of the top 100 items we ordered and reached out to two other cooperatives for pricing and was able to get some money savings. On another contract for instructional supplies, I reached out to the local procurement community and with discounts and rebates saved our district about $20,000 a year. With custodial supplies, rather than getting quotes for buying one item at a time I worked with departments to place orders for larger volume discounts for overall savings. It’s trying to make people look at the big picture for comprehensive savings versus that individual item.

Is there a lot of competition between different divisions for money and resources? What do you do about it?

Absolutely. In the middle of budget season there is a battle for funding—particularly when you are building new schools. The biggest thing that needs to happen is when you get an email from one person about something that affects another department is to then include the other department in the communication. And every time they take them off the email, adding them back to it. Make sure everyone stays in the loop that is affected so they can come together to find a solution.

What have you learned over the years that you wished someone had told you early on about what works when it comes to staying on budget?

Coordinating communication between departments needs to be established early. You have to have support of senior management. You can’t have one superintendent doing what they want and another dealing with the aftermath. They all have to be on the same page. They all need to work together and those department heads need to talk to each other.

Can you think of an example of something on your job that you expected would be easy but turned out to be hard—and how to overcome that?

The biggest thing to overcome is people and their relationships to certain vendors. With a government contactor and employee, there is a line between them. In school systems, that tends to get a little blurred, particularly when you have contracts for services, such as athletic trainers. Some people get attached to those providing services and because of that they want to make sure they get back to that vendor. I try to explain it’s a real fine balancing act.

What are your top tips for district administrators who are new to a position like yours?

Stay positive, don’t get discouraged. Come in with realistic expectations. Be flexible as much as you can, and still stay in compliance. Sometimes taking a hard line when you don’t have to — but just because you can isn’t necessarily the right way to do it. Sometimes it takes just a little bit of investigation to find a workaround to get back to where you want to be—it might be in the best interest of everyone to keep the relationship as well.

 

Marcie Abramson

Director of Procurement, Berkeley County School District, Moncks Corner, South Carolina. 34,000 students

What is the hardest challenge you’ve faced in your job and how have you worked through it?

The biggest issue for procurement is to have that balance between satisfying all the required laws and regulations and providing the best solution for our agency. Also, to get the mindset for our employees that procurement is a necessary part of the process because a lot of times they won’t factor that in. We are trying to get training out there so they have the procurement process in the forefront of their minds when they go to spend their dollars. At our summer leadership meeting with principals, I taught a breakout session on procurement. We do a bookkeeper training. Our maintenance and facility staff have safety meeting and I was invited to present at that. I give them an overview of my requirements so they have a better understanding of the  “why.” I tell them all the time:   “I promise, I don’t make these rules…it’s what the law requires when you are spending this much money; this is that I have to do.”

What strategies have you found to stretch your district’s dollars to provide for the needs of students in the classroom?

We attacked that when we went through the recession. Our goal was not to affect the classroom. We looked for ways to make sure we did everything we could so nothing was taken away from the classroom, even though our per pupil expenditures had been significantly decreased. We partnered with other school districts and developed cooperative purchasing for commonly used commodities so we could leverage a stronger buying power. We were able to get better pricing on furniture, P.E. and athletic equipment, instructional supplies, science supplies and playground equipment. Also, we evaluated our copier leases. We got rid of machines or replaced them with faster or more efficient machines. It’s something you take for granted, but it was a huge cost saving. Finally, we optimized our procurement card program. By moving more spending to the card, it helped reduce paperwork, streamlined the process and improved our rebate incentives.

What have you learned over the years that you wished other district administrators had told you early on about what works when it comes to staying on budget?

Procurement works under finance. For a long time, I had the mindset that I didn’t set the budget so if someone went over budget I’d tell them they need to find more money or they can’t do it. Over the years, I recognized that I’m really a vital piece of the budget process and stay informed.

Can you think of an example of something on your job that you expected would be easy but turned out to be hard – and how to overcome that?

Overcoming the perception that procurement is a hurdle. We are trying to rebrand ourselves as strategic partners and let the end users know that our job is to follow the laws of the state — and also we are a valuable asset. I try to promote the idea to talk to me ahead of time and keep me in the loop.

 What is the biggest challenge facing you now?

We are seeing an unprecedented economic growth because of new industry moving into our area. That will mean new communities and a higher demand on our district. We are working fervently to develop a strategic plan to keep up with the demands we know are coming. It will involve construction and trying to develop strategic sourcing to have the improvements in place.

What are your top tips for district administrators who are new to a position like yours?

Take advantage of education and training through your state and national association. I work with my peers in a group that meets quarterly to share ideas and learn from each other. Out of that group I’ve developed relationships and found some strong mentors with experience and knowledge who have helped me.

How has the way you worked with school and district administrators changed over the years?

I take the opportunity to work one on one with administrators. For example, when we were hiring architects and contractors to build a new school, it was an opportunity to work with board members and administrators. I laid a foundation and was able to build on that. When you deal with people, be positive so they continue to keep us involved.