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School district budgeting — your strategic “game plan”

I rarely use sports metaphors despite being an avid sports participant and fan. However, when it comes to your school district budget, thinking of it as a “game plan” might be helpful and appropriate in several ways.

In the first place, no successful coach or team shortchanges time spent on game planning, whereas I fear that many North Carolina school boards and superintendents spend too little time evaluating and analyzing their district budgets in terms of priorities. In its purest sense, a budget is simply a prioritization of available resources. The easiest and quickest way to prepare a budget is to start with the previous year’s budget and make changes only when increases or decreases are known to be required and when additional resources are available. However, I think it is attributed to Albert Einstein as saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Most school districts and many schools in North Carolina need different results.

School district officials, from boards of education down to school principals, make the mistake of starting their budget preparation process with what was done the previous year, when the only way to have an effective budget game plan is to start the process by determining what you need to accomplish.

Once the desired outcomes are determined, the available resources should be focused on activities designed to achieve those outcomes, preferably activities that have been proven to have positive results. This type of budget process takes more time and often requires that effective evaluation systems or processes be in place, but the results are worth the extra effort.

Sports coaches know that “match-ups” are another important part of their game planning. A certain team member might be very effective against one opposing team but not as effective against a different opposing team due to the player-to-player match-ups. The successful coach knows when to play a player and when not to play that player. Too often in school districts, we budget to protect our current players even if one or more of those players has lost their effectiveness due to a lack of “match-up” of actual skills with needed skills.

To have an effective budget (game plan), you have to have staff (players) with the skills necessary to accomplish your desired outcomes. Otherwise, Albert Einstein’s quote applies. Whether that means building new skills within existing staff or replacing staff with folks that have the appropriate skills, this is a crucial budgetary decision for the administrator (coach) to make.

Finally, a sports game plan is only effective if the team “buys into” the game plan as being their best chance at success (a win). I once coached a youth basketball team that earned a spot in the league championship game, but unfortunately our four best players on our nine-player team could not be there for the game. That meant we had no substitutes and were playing against a much taller and better skilled team with all of its players available. The “advisable” game plan for a situation like this was to tell my team to “slow down” the game, to keep control of the ball for as long as possible before taking the best shot possible. My thought about that strategy was not only would we still lose the game, but that my players would have no fun at all playing the game. So my “game plan” was for our small-but-athletic team to run the ball down court at every opportunity, shoot before the other team could set up their defense, play a passive zone defense (could not afford to have anybody foul out), and box out for rebounds.

I would like to say that we won the championship, but we did not. However, we kept the game close throughout and lost by only five points. Every parent and spectator in the building that day, even those pulling for the other team, was effusive in their praise for our team and amazed at their competitiveness. The players, though somewhat disappointed in the loss, had a great time playing the game and were thrilled by the attention their efforts received. I know that most coaches say there are no moral victories, but I beg to differ. Doing the best you can with what you have is always praiseworthy and usually recognized as such.

The point of that somewhat long story is that an effective budget (game plan) must be one that your staff (team) buys into as providing your school district or your school with its best chance for success (a win) and one that they will enjoy putting forth effort to achieve. They might not have to be heavily involved in the budget (game plan) creation but they must believe that the ultimate budget is best for the district or the school. Otherwise, their maximum effort will not result. Therefore, sharing and open, honest discussion of budgetary goals and information is an important part of every year’s budget process.

Bottom line — budgeting should not be viewed and treated as a necessary evil to be completed as quickly and with the least amount of effort by as few people as possible. Budgeting should be how you put your strategic plan into operation, how you focus your district’s monetary and people resources toward your ultimate goals, how you ensure that you are constantly striving for improved results. Shortchanging your budget (game plan) process is a huge mistake that ensures less-than-hoped-for results.

Kerry Crutchfield

Kerry Crutchfield has been the budget director for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools since 1981.