Controlling the purse strings

Controlling the purse strings

Kedro, M James

During the past 10 years, more than one-third of the U.S. school districts implemented some form of school-based, or sitebased, management (SBM). Variations on the SBM theme continue to flourish. Whatever their format, however, at center stage are the watchwords staff empowerment and shared decision making (Holloway, 2000). Other important elements include managerial knowledge, access to information, and rewards for performance.

When we look for a star in the SBM script, research consistently identifies on-site budgetary control. How school-based budgeting is cast, however, differs widely among districts and sometimes among the schools within a district. And like other programs, proficiency in using SBM to search out and acquire resources depends upon active principal participation. Ongoing analysis of school finances is essential because SBM is a living process, everadjusting to the changing needs of the school and its community.

For example, the board of education for the city of St. Louis initiated its SBM policy during 1996, and it is still evolving. Originally piloted at 6 schools, the program is now in more than 100 elementary, middle level, and high schools. Although some are still struggling to carry out the transition to SBM, the program is a way for schools and neighborhoods to come together and make decisions about education that directly affect them. Assisted by the district’s SBM facilitator and other support staff members, concerned principals and working councils focus on ways to improve local school management, albeit with uneven progress.

To give SBM a boost, St. Louis seeks new ways to strengthen school leadership and the recruitment, preparation, and support of principals. In 2002, the city’s schools received a WallaceReaders Digest Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts (LEAD) grant. Among numerous targeted objectives, St. Louis hopes to integrate SBM with LEAD to further its concept of distributed leadership. A LEAD team administered by Madye Henson, a former school board member, formulated a wellorganized strategic plan. The team focuses on creating powerful learning communities of staff members, students, and citizens around each school.

The superintendent, Cleveland Hammonds Jr., anticipates that leadership development coupled with greater stakeholder involvement at the school level will strengthen innovations, accountability, and morale, and thus, improve teaching, learning, and academic outcomes. The St. Louis Board of Education voices an ongoing commitment to local school management: “To empower principals, teachers, staff, students, parents and the community with the appropriate authority to work collaboratively to improve student achievement” (St. Louis Public Schools, n.d., online).

Nevertheless, it seems that answers to some important SBM questions have been left up to individual schools and principals. Principals ask, What is “appropriate authority”? How much of it has been given to my school? And how and by whom will appropriate authority be administered? The answers to these and other questions can place considerable influence in the hands of principals who participate on SBM councils, even with the constraints of outside federal, state, and district pressures.

School-Based Budgeting

Under SBM, the handling of school finances can take many forms. For example, Lawler (as cited by Wholstetter & Mohrman, 1996) reports that school-based budgeting within a high-involvement framework presents an ideal situation. It gives true budgetary power to stakeholders at the school site. This seldom occurs, however, because four primary domains of authority must shift from the central office to the schools.

In a high-involvement script, the SBM governing body controls staff recruitment and selection, substitute teacher and utility expenses, the source of services and supplies, and the carryover of unspent money from year to year (Hentschke, as cited by Wohlstetter & Mohnrman, 1996). This is not the case in many districts that use SBM practices. Most schools don’t even want to deal with utilities. And when a district has a large number of schools that are challenged by relatively high rates of staff turnover and student mobility, as schools in St. Louis are, appropriate centralized fiscal oversight is imperative. Research says that schools rarely receive real on-site control of all budgetary allocations.

Perhaps a more realistic aim of on-site authority is to provide individual schools with the ability to redirect particular resources whereby schools identify their individual needs and use discretionary funds to support improved student achievement at the site (Myers & Stonehill, 1993). Certainly, staff recruitment and selection is at the forefront of quality teaching and improved achievement, and St. Louis principals have a degree of input in this area. But personnel stipulations that come from the central office and the teachers union also play a role, as they do in most systems. So where is the on-site fiscal control?

Like schools in Denver, CO; Milwaukee, WI; and Rochester, NY, St. Louis schools have discretionary funds within their budgets based on districtwide ratios and allocation rules. Site-controlled discretionary items relate primarily to overtime pay for security and custodial staff members, custodial supplies, day-to-day substitutes (not continuing substitute teachers), and parent-involvement activities. However, funds must be spent within the district’s business calendar year; St. Louis has no year-to-year carryover. This is a hurdle, but effective principals take it in stride. To do so, it’s imperative that productive plans are in place and sound alternatives are already in mind to use funds when they become available.

As in other urban districts, attracting and maintaining parental participation is no easy matter in St. Louis schools. Efforts to bring parents on board continue with a variety of programs, but as Annie Chambers, a middle level school principal, remarked, “Parent participation remains troublesome. It’s my content-area teachers and grade-level teams who regularly review budget matters. They use our funds for learning and teaching aides upon which there’s agreement … materials that will help our students move toward performance standards.”

St. Louis also operates 16 community education centers (CECs). At these schools, parents and neighborhood citizens have a larger role. They are directly involved in extendedday and after-school programs and services for students and adults. For example, the principal of a CEC middle level school facilitates data-driven links between her day and evening staff members. Student assessment materials are shared so support and tutoring services remain focused on individual pupil needs. The principal uses a seamless budget to make the connections among multiple services more meaningful:

“It allows us to look at everything as one program,” says Bland-Whitfield. “Collectively, we can look at the whole picture of services offered during day and extended day and decide how we want the program to look and how we want the experiences to be integrated.” Unmistakably, the involvement and leadership of the principal is required to reach this level of information exchange and budget utilization. (Hall, 2002, p. 4)

From yet another perspective, when SBM is well implemented, teachers, parents, and involved citizens are more likely to become aware of the school’s financial situation and spending limitations. As in the case of the above middle level school, community awareness regarding finances, in turn, develops a more concrete understanding of the costs of the essentials needed to produce academic results in the school.

Interestingly, shared financial awareness may have an effect beyond improving teaching and learning in the school. When the St. Louis Public Schools pushed to pass a bond issue to air-condition the schools, especially important for the summer program that provides inquiry-based instruction to thousands of students, active SBM councils turned out in support. In concert with strong central office leadership, which was guided by the superintendent, the need was effectively communicated to the public. Schools in St. Louis are being air-conditioned.

At the school level, financial awareness hinges on the principal’s direct or shared oversight of fiscal responsibilities, allocations, and outside funding for school initiatives. Obviously, some principals are more adept at this than others. Because a school’s financial situation can be complex and unstable, research advises considerable training in budgetmanagement practices and much time working through the school systems budgetary processes to achieve real efficiency (Lawler, as cited in Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1996).

Knowing the ins and outs of your district’s budgetary system, a process that emanates from a centralized database, may present another hurdle. For example, when St. Louis schools upgraded to a “more efficient” computerized program for tracking allocations and submitting requisitions, even with training, bugs in the system made for stressful times in school offices. A few principals, uncomfortable with the new program, delegated some budgetary tasks. This may relieve concerns about spending long hours at a computer away from an instructional leadership role. As principal, however, you must retain budgetary accountability, be fully knowledgeable of your school’s fiscal position, and be completely confident in the staff members you’ve selected to handle budget responsibilities.

Given the complexity of SBM budgeting, principals must receive professional development training that focuses on fiscal control, building management, and instructional leadership, among other areas. New principals, in particular, need a helping hand. Without purposeful training, it’s less likely they’ll engage in activities to find meaningful resources or become efficient in allocating discretionary funds. In this regard, the St. Louis LEAD project is laying the foundation for ongoing, targeted instruction.

It’s important, too, that when SBM becomes a system’s or a school’s practice in budgetary and other matters, that decisions will be adapted to the school’s needs and not simply answer perceived problems spawned from the outside. As one St. Louis administrator has said, “That doesn’t mean the system won’t seek strategies that others have found successful; it will. But the one adopted will have to be customized to the unique situation of the system” (Hutchins, 1996, online).

Resource and Program Acquisition

Similar to most urban school systems, there are limits on the extent of decision-making responsibilities delegated to the schools in St. Louis. In any district, the central administration’s SBM guidelines (and behind-the-scenes turf wars or power plays within the school) can restrain a principal’s free hand in finding and allocating resources.

It’s hard work to take advantage of on-site opportunities that may lead to the placement of useful assets in schools. It’s even harder in a dysfunctional SBM environment, where the principal may be unwilling (perhaps justifiably so) to collaborate fully on matters of school finance. However, as the St. Louis SBM facilitator Danny Franklin says, “Principals cannot enter into combat with teachers…. Staff must be aligned. All must work together to rectify their school’s shortcomings.”

A trusting school climate appears to be a significant prerequisite to bringing outside resources into the school. SBM principals who acknowledge and reward effective teachers can capitalize on their staff members’ intrinsic motivation. With recognition and encouragement, teacher teams are more likely to use their capabilities to accomplish instructional objectives. They’re also more willing to heighten their visibility in the community in the search for needed support. or example, a recent survey of St. Louis Public Schools found that 80% of the staff at an area high school supported the school’s instructional program as appropriate to the needs of its students. The principal and administrative team, who practice SBM strategies, attract a variety of outside resources, and they know that resources can be more than dollars and equipment. The school established its own link with a high-profile computer manufacturer to acquire a wireless, traveling computer lab; the portable set-up enhances students’ research with Internet access from classroom to classroom. The principal and administrative team at this school crafted a partnership with a large insurance company, and the firm’s workers provide after-school tutoring to students at the school.

In a well-functioning SBM environment, the school community begins to think collectively. Councils, usually under guidance from the principal, engage in regular dialogue: “Within the parameters set by our state’s and district’s standards, let’s examine useful teaching methods and learning materials. What programs work and which can we afford?What stays, what goes?”

Exercising selectivity among program choices protects valuable resources. Funds are not diluted among disjointed efforts that lack systematic connection. Ideally, a coherent school framework gets top priority. This is difficult in the face of pet projects or, especially, if the central office mandates that particular programs must be implemented, regardless.

But the central office, let’s remember, can be a positive force for SBM. Large districts often benefit from centralized grant planning and appropriations. Administrators in this area acquire worthwhile resources for the schools. Nevertheless, to the advocates of on-site control these efforts could be perceived as either a blessing or a bane. Some principals in St. Louis can, and do, solicit outside funds for their schools, but most proposals for program acquisitions must be funneled through the district’s development office for approval. This is another hurdle that adds time and paperwork, but it’s not insurmountable for those who know the intricacies of how to get things done within the system.

For a number of St. Louis schools, community financial awareness generates support from local businesses. Sometimes a principal or an ad hoc, on-site committee explores grant opportunities. More often in big districts, large acquisitions and long-term programs flow through the central office. Resources can take the form of instructional technology, learning materials, school uniforms, or even entire school programs.

In one case, substantial corporate and foundation funds were infused into a project at a St. Louis elementary school. SBM is a centerpiece in its design. The goal is to stabilize the neighborhood, increase community participation in the school through adult learning, meet special staffing needs, expand technology-enhanced instruction, upgrade building facilities, and improve achievement (Danforth Foundation, 2000). In the face of limited means and heightened demands to improve academic outcomes, SBM can be the springboard to resources generated through school-business partnerships.

Because effective SBM calls for joint decisions, the principal must have faith in distributive leadership. Staff members, parents, and community members decide together how to advance the interests of students, which ultimately should benefit the school’s academic outcome. St. Louis’s SBM facilitator noted one dimension of this philosophy that relates to but goes beyond budgetary issues, “SBM councils work at getting teachers to stop doing things that are not connected to student achievement…. You need to see results with children that you can validate and verify.” If discretionary funds are applied haphazardly in program areas that produce no improved academic outcomes, adjustments need to be made at the school level.

Three to four years ago, for example, St. Louis identified schools that were not meeting standards on the state performance test. Special funds were allocated for teacher training and materials to implement instructional reform models (Stover, 2001). Under the SBM umbrella, each school had the opportunity to select their own model from a list that included such programs as Co-Nect, Direct Instruction, Modern Red Schoolhouse, and Success for All. After implementation of models had begun, however, some schools found that they had to make changes because of the principal’s retirement or move, staff turnover, ineffective services from model providers, or poor outcomes. In these cases, schools selected other models and redirected funds within their budgets toward other, more workable programs. If financial infusion gets no results, your SBM script needs rewriting.


Implementing SBM is a tough job. When it works, it creates a framework for responding to the unique needs of each school’s student population (Cromwell, 2000). Principals can acquire and spend specific resources to address identified weaknesses. But the bottom line in procuring and allocating resources is, of course, whether expenditures have improved student achievement. Staff empowerment and on-site budgetary control may result in a resilient school culture, but if the production has no positive effect on standardized test scores, our SBM script hasn’t played well.

On the other hand, SBM can breathe new life into a school when it’s properly cast, that is, when students and their achievement are spotlighted at center stage. As you acquire and distribute resources, you can’t lose sight of your basic goal, to advance student capabilities and successes. As Stephen Warmack, a St. Louis high school principal, expresses it, “The school mission is more important than any one person or program.”

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Jan 2003

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