No Free Pass

from Technology & Learning

When faced with funding decreases, every budget item must go under the microscope.

Stymied by how to manage anticipated funding decreases and spiraling costs? Bleak funding projections can result in significant reductions or elimination of programs, regardless of their impact on student achievement. Why? One culprit is the tendency to use past practices to define future spending.

Because educators often use previous years' budgets as a starting point, many budget items become entrenched with limited discussion about whether or not these are funds well spent. This approach is particularly detrimental for innovations that are initially supported through special funding sources. Unless successful new initiatives are institutionalized through reallocation of more secure funds to sustain these new programs, they often fall by the wayside when the special funds dry up. For example, instructional technology programs across the country face the chopping block every time Title II, Part D funds are threatened.

In recognition of this problem, some districts are taking another look at modified zero-based budgeting. The underlying philosophy of zero-based budgeting is that no item can be included in a new budget unless the expenditure has been reviewed and justified; there are no automatic rollovers from previous budgets. Public schools and districts cannot build pure zero-based budgets because they must comply with ongoing mandates that have associated costs, such as providing special education services or meeting annual requirements for instructional days. However, districts do have some latitude in how these mandates are met. In addition, expenditures not related to mandated costs can (and should) be regularly reviewed and justified. This is where modified zero-based budgeting comes into play.

This process takes time to fully implement and must have full support from school leaders if meaningful decisions are going to be made. In addition to increased time requirements, it's a labor-intensive approach to budget planning and development. Experts recommend reviewing programs and services in phases to avoid becoming overwhelmed. All budget items should be directly aligned with site and district goals, not included just to maintain the status quo. To ensure this is the case, staff needs to iden-tify performance measures to use during the review and justification process.

Susan Brooks-Young is an educational consultant and writer.