Tips from the Bottom Line(2)

from Technology & Learning

A T&L columnist shares dollarwise highlights from the past year.

Revisit Past Funding Practices

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 zerobased 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 identify performance measures to use during the review and justification process.

Funding Sources for Instructional Technology

Districts receive 53 percent of their technology budget from local sources.

The loss of federal funds can be a challenge, especially for large urban districts with a high percentage of children from low-income families and for isolated rural environments that may have difficulty obtaining local resources.

The federal support of 13 percent for technology is higher than the overall federal support for education, which is about 8 percent. This study was conducted before the proposal to eliminate E2T2, which provides substantial funding to state departments and local districts for technology. Also, the percentage of support from state and local sources may be misleading since technology directors are not always aware that funds from the district budget may be supplied by the state.
—America's Digital Schools 2006

Get Your Facts Straight

Successful grant applications use data to build a solid case for why a proposal should be funded. There is no scarcity of data in most of today's school districts thanks to increasingly sophisticated management systems, yet educators often end up scrambling to collect data that should be readily available. Creating a data library is an effective way to prevent this frantic dash for information.

  • Identify commonly required data elements. Individual grant programs will have some very specific data requirements. However, there are certain data elements that are almost always requested. That data includes student and community demographics (ethnicity, primary language, participation in special education programs, parent education levels); attendance records; discipline rates; student achievement indicators (standardized test scores, grade point averages, graduation rates); staffing levels; equipment inventories; and titles for adopted curricula.
  • Collect and organize the data. Chances are the data you need is available but probably not in one place. Create a master chart that lists the common data elements you will gather. Next, collect and organize the information. Paper documents can be labeled and placed in a central location, and electronic files may be saved in one clearly named folder on a conveniently located computer. Add notations to the master chart identifying where the information is and in what format. If a special report needs to be generated through the student information or data management system, identify the name of the report and who can generate it. As updated data becomes available, add it to the library.
  • Keep staff informed. Building and maintaining a data library is not a one-person job. Plan to engage staff from the beginning to identify common data elements and collect current information. Once the library is established, distribute copies of the master chart to teachers, program specialists, and other staff, and ask for their assistance in keeping the information up-to-date.

A data library comes in handy for more than just grant proposals. Program evaluations, reports, and plans all require this same information. Save yourself time and energy by getting started on your data library today.

Draft a Year-Round Grants Team

Individual school sites often rely on one or two people to seek out and apply for grants or quickly pull together a writing team when a funding opportunity presents itself. But your school can pursue a more effective strategy. Establish a sitelevel grant committee that works throughout the year to bring additional dollars to the school's coffers. Use the remainder of this school year to lay the groundwork so the committee is fully operational next fall. Here are suggestions for designing a winning grant team.

  • Identify specific needs for your site. Most grants are designed to help recipients fill a gap. What challenges are you facing at your site and how can additional funding help meet those needs? Prepare a brief description of your school, including data that supports the statements of need. This will help the committee set priorities and focus its efforts on finding appropriate grant opportunities.
  • Establish a committee that crosses grade levels or disciplines and represents all stakeholders. You want good researchers, writers, proofreaders, and budget builders, but you also need buy-in from all stakeholders. Balanced committee membership can guarantee you get both. Plan to include five to seven members who are reliable hard workers and also have credibility in the school community. In addition to staff members, consider recruiting parent and community leaders.
  • Send the entire committee to a grant-writing workshop. Grant writing requires a specific skill set. An upfront investment in training the team will pay for itself many times over. In addition to learning grant-writing basics, this is an excellent opportunity for committee members to build working relationships that will strengthen the team and support collaboration.
  • Work as a standing committee. Meet regularly to research funding opportunities and to share information, and develop a plan for keeping the school community informed of the committee's activities. When it's time, write as a team. If possible, provide substitutes so teachers can work on proposals during the regular school day.
  • Most LEFs are launched for three reasons: to improve the quality of local education programs, to strengthen relationships between schools and the community, and to provide a source of additional funding for school programs. These foundations typically work with just one school district but are not actually part of the district. Instead, the LEF is a separate organization with its own board of directors, staff, and bylaws. The LEF bylaws determine whether or not school officials are involved directly in decisionmaking for the LEF, and to what degree. This means that all concerned parties must establish and maintain open lines of communication for the LEF to succeed.
  • Fundraising usually takes the form of special events (dinners, golf tournaments, auctions) or direct mail solicitations to community members. Some LEFs also procure funds through grant writing. The amount of money raised annually varies widely and generally reflects the socioeconomic demographics of the community. However, regardless of the community's level of affluence few report securing more than $100,000 in any given year.
  • These funds are used for a variety of purposes: mini-grants given to individual teachers, instructional materials, equipment purchases, and building projects. There are also LEFs that solicit in-kind services for the district, which take the form of donated services and/or goods. Though this may seem like a drop in the bucket, many educators report that the goodwill generated cannot be purchased at any price and that even small contributions help keep less-expensive programs afloat.
  • To learn more about establishing and operating an LEF, visit the National School Foundation Association or the Public Education Network.
  • Explore the possibilities. Begin by reviewing listings for local, regional, and state foundations in free online foundation directories such as the Northern California Community Foundation or Fundsnet Services Online. Once you have a sense of what foundations can offer, make a list of large businesses and corporations in your area. Visit their Web sites to learn about their policies and priorities for charitable giving, usually found through links called "Community" or "Corporate." Depending upon the size of the foundation, its decision makers will be looking for different things. Smaller, local foundations will be less concerned about large-scale replication of funded projects, but this is likely to be a major focus for larger foundations. Make a list of the best candidates.
  • Prepare your pitch. Foundations generally receive more requests than they can fund, but don't be discouraged. Foundations target creative ideas built on sound strategies. Prepare what Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning, calls an "elevator talk." Be ready to make your points about your idea in the time it takes to ride an elevator from the first floor to the top floor of a high-rise building. Be sure to include program evaluation as a talking point.
  • Contact the foundation before submitting anything. Making personal contact increases your chance of being invited to submit a proposal. Ask the foundations about what kinds of projects they're interested in to ensure that your project meets their funding priorities. Ask about guidelines for letters of inquiry and deadlines.
  • "Grants Concept/Proposal Enhancement Guide": The California Department of Conservation offers this concise, common sense guide for getting and staying organized throughout the proposal writing process. Fledgling grant writers will want to keep this four-page document within reach at all times, and experienced writers will find useful reminders as well. The guide addresses topics ranging from "Getting Started" to "Partnerships and Community Support." (You can access the guide via
  • "A Guide to Proposal Planning and Writing": Jeremy T. Miner and Lynn E. Miner wrote this 12-page guide that provides links to essential government funding sites and gives advice about how to find grants supported by private agencies. Be sure to read the suggested strategies for gaining a competitive edge, such as contacting previous grantees and proposal reviewers or speaking with the program officer. The guide also includes a sample proposal letter to use when contacting a foundation.
  • Writing Successful Grants KnowledgeBase: This site was established through a partnership between the former Region VII Comprehensive Center at the University of Oklahoma and Northrop Grumman Information Technology. Although the project ended in 2005, the wealth of information presented here makes it worth bookmarking and using. The Master Resource List provides links to checklists, tools, guidelines, and tips that will remain relevant for some time to come.
  • Nonprofit Guides: This site provides free grant writing tools for nonprofit organizations (including schools). Topics include general tips, writing preliminary and full proposals, sample proposals, and links to additional resources.

Susan Brooks-Young is an educational consultant and writer.

Excerpted from T&L.