As our school district begins the annual process of developing a budget for the year we will hear all of the same messages that we hear every year at this time. People will go on about how the legislature has cut funding, they will claim that they want to protect the classrooms from budget cuts, and they will describe programs and initiatives that are too critical to cut.
I don't want to make folks' eyes glaze over with the tiny details of the budget, so I hope those who follow it much more closely than I do will forgive my describing it in very broad strokes. A lot of the budget isn't really available for re-allocation. There are all kinds of laws, agreements, grant restrictions and such that obligate the District to spend its money in certain ways. There is, however, some discretion. In the past, the board has sat passively and waited for the superintendent and the staff to bring them a budget proposal. That didn't work out so well, so now the Board takes a more active role in budget development and regards the budget as a governance tool. The Board has started their discussions, so now is the time for people to pay attention and speak up. Soon it will be too late.
There are actually four or five budgets, but I'm going to focus on the operating budget. The capital budget is a whole other fight, and no one pays much attention to the ASB budget, the debt service budget, or any other budget. It is important to remember that the District cannot freely transfer money between these budgets. General Fund or Operating budget money can be moved to other budgets but not the other way around. It's like blood transfusions - some can donate and some can receive, but not necessarily vice versa.
There are three or four primary spending decisions made to allocate the operating budget. The first is to fund the schools. It didn't used to be this way. The central office budget used to get done first and then any money left over was available for the schools. That was one of the things that the board changed when they first stepped in a couple years ago.
The schools get funded in three or four ways. First and primary is the Weighted Staffing Standards (WSS). This is the money that the District says is needed to fund a school regardless of which students are there. For example, each school needs a principal and a secretary. The WSS describes the staffing needs of elementary, middle, K-8, and high schools each broken out by size. An elementary school with over 450 students, for example, gets all of the same staff as one with 400 students, but it also gets an assistant principal. The WSS provides the school office staff, nurses, counselors, and it provides classroom teachers based on a student ratio formula that varies by grade. The District Leadership sets these staffing standards, but they must comply with state laws and collective bargaining agreements. This allocation is completely transparent. You can readily calculate the WSS allocation for any school if you know the projected enrollment.
Second, the District provides additional funding to low-performing schools. This money comes to the school through the District's Performance Management initiative. This money goes primarily to schools identified as Level 1 or Level 2 in the District's School Segmentation scheme. They are supposed to use it to boost student academic achievement. The District Leadership directs this money. They decide how big the pie will be and how it will be divided. The division of this money is murkier than the WSS. Moreover, some schools spend the money differently from other schools. Some spend it on coaches. Also, the District doesn't give schools freedom to spend this money as they choose. Some schools can only use the money on a limited menu of supports, some are told how it will be spent. This was the "earned autonomy" that comes from success. The better a school's outcomes, the less money they get through this funding plan, but the more freedom they have to decide how it will be spent. The worse their outcomes, the more money they get but the District decides how it will be spent.
Third, schools get state and federal money earmarked for special needs students. This includes funding for staff to meet the needs of the students with IEPs and English Language Learners. It also includes additional funding to the school for students living in poverty, Title I funds, and LAP money from the state. The District leadership doesn't have as much control over this money as the WSS and Performance Management. They have no say in the total dollar amount and limited say in how it can be spent. In the Dr. Goodloe-Johnson administration, the District (rather notoriously) used about 30% of the Title I money to fund the Performance Management budget. That practice, when it came to light, was not well-regarded. There is some gray area about the extent to which the spending of Title I money can be directed by the district and to what extent the decisions need to be school-based.
Fourth, schools can raise some money on their own, but this funding doesn't come from the District budget and doesn't get discussed in the Budget Development process.
So the bulk of school funding decisions for the District Leadership comes down to dividing the spending they control between the amount allocated for WSS and the amount allocated for Performance Management. How much goes to all schools, and how much goes to "struggling" schools only. It is seen as a zero-sum game. Every dollar they use to fund Roosevelt through the WSS is a dollar that can't go to Rainier Beach through the Performance Management spending.
The District Leadership can make a lot of funding decisions about schools when they set the WSS and the Performance Management budgets. They can decide, for example, that every high school should have an academic intervention specialist and provide for that position through the WSS. Or they could decide that some schools don't need someone in that role and shift the funding for that position from the WSS to the Performance Management spending. They could then insist that this position be staffed with that Performance Management money. That change would save the District some money, but it would remove that staff person from the Level 3, 4, and 5 high schools.
This is the discussion that is starting now. This is the time to chime in on it. It will soon be too late. If you wait, and don't come to the District with input on WSS and Performance Management spending until they have proposed numbers in front of them, they will tell you that it is too late to make any meaningful changes. The budget train must arrive at the station on time - without fail. They will not stop or slow that train because you didn't get on. All aboard!