Addressing the variety of financial challenges schools and districts face is an ever-present concern for administrators nationwide. Regardless of the cause of these issues — which often include dwindling state commitments to education funding and school funding formulas that likely need to be rethought — districts both large and small, rural or urban feel the pain.
To gain more insight, Education Dive asked five school and district leaders to share some of the greatest financial concerns they regularly deal with and how they work around them.
Glenn Robbins - Superintendent, Tabernacle School District (N.J.)
For the second consecutive year, our district has received less funding from the state, and will lose a total of roughly $2.5 million in the next several years. Being a smaller district, it certainly put a strain on our plans, especially when the state provided us a short window of time to cut the budgets during the summer. However, I often reflect on a quote I heard years ago: If you want to see what an organization's true plans are, tighten their budget.
First and foremost, we were able to save current jobs without laying off staff. We are proud that we were able to achieve this, however, we don’t know if we can say the same in the years ahead. We also had several construction projects — new boilers in one building, new cement walkways, and updating our waste water management plant — completed this summer that were part of our long-term plans. We (an IT team of two people, and myself) personally installed new security cameras in all schools, saving the district over $65,000 in labor fees. We purchased new Chromebooks and carts for our elementary students, and, once again, constructed the carts ourselves.
Our team will also be installing new security measures with an electronic check-in system that searches national databanks to ensure full safety of our students and staff. We installed a new Zen Den to continue our focus on SEL for not only students, but all staff as well.
We made a substantial move to increase our staff's professional development through the creation of new curriculum cohorts that will meet monthly over the year, as well as creating a free national conference called Rewire, where we will open our doors to all surrounding districts and states to receive some of the best PD in the country. We also are hosting a state ELA conference for two days at our district, which will allow our staff to attend for free.
Lastly, a group of our staff members were recently awarded a $27,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to host a PD conference in the spring. The best part about all of this PD is that we are recording the sessions and building a video database for our staff to use for years to come to fine-tune their craft.
Our administrative team is proud of all that we have achieved during these tough financial times, as we are staying true to our mission statement of being empathetic, innovative game changers for our staff and students to follow.
Suzanne Lacey - Superintendent, Talladega County Schools (Ala.)
The biggest financial hurdle currently in Talladega County Schools includes auxiliary services such as transportation, maintenance and school nurses. We are allocated funds from the State Foundation Program, but each budget exceeds the allocation. As a result, we have to utilize funds from our general fund budget to make up the difference.
Michael Hinojosa - Superintendent, Dallas ISD (Texas)
I see three major issues: are kids school-ready, are they college-and-career-ready, and (what is) the market share of students.
We have four strategic initiatives. One is early-childhood education — it costs money, and we have a fiscal note for that, but it’s so important that we fund that first.
For college and career readiness, we have a Collegiate Academy and Pathways in Technology, and a lot of those are STEM-related. We have 66 industry partners at 23 different schools. Our kids can get associate degrees for free while still in high school.
With the market share of students, we've opened up public school choice, and some of our parents choose to come to Dallas ISD because we're offering those things. But those also cost money to get off the ground.
We also have strategic compensation, where we pay teachers for how well they perform. And we pay more to the teachers in the toughest schools.
We have a strategy for all the issues, but they all have a fiscal note where they cost new funds. You hate to stifle this momentum that we have right now, but all these things cost additional dollars.
Jeffrey Dunn - Director of Office of Government Relations, Los Angeles USD
There are many, but in terms of what could be addressed by federal funding sources, special education. We spend hundreds of millions out of our general fund to support our special education program.
A structural funding deficit exists at both the federal and state level for our school district. In order to overcome this, we have been pushing Congress to increase funding for IDEA and to support legislation that mandates Congress provide the full 40% it promised when the IDEA authorizing law was enacted. This priority has never changed for our school district, and we will continue to advocate for its full funding.
Henderson Lewis - Superintendent, Orleans Parish School Board (La.)
Funding for early childhood programs and more pre-K programs is essential for our school district, but like many school systems across the country, it is chronically underfunded. Again, we always need more funding, and the federal government should certainly consider providing additional money for early education.
Currently, the amount of funding provided for public pre-K students in NOLA is half of what we provide for students in kindergarten and above. Some pre-K instructors earn 15% to 20% less than kindergarten teachers, [and] existing schools that offer pre-K often have to subsidize it with K-12 funding. This is unacceptable, and we are only hurting ourselves.
If we give the next generation a chance to learn and grow, they will show us the way into the future. But to get there, we have to start at the beginning with quality early childhood education. Millions more is required to meet the need, and everyone needs to be at the table, and that includes the federal government."