ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Practical PR: Strategic budgeting involves community in annual process
by Brett Clark
Brett Clark is executive director of communications and strategic planning for Glenview School District 34, North Central Regional vice president for the National School Public Relations Association and a member of the Illinois chapter of NSPRA.
School districts cutting budgets has become as common in Illinois as Cubs fans talking about next year in July. What isn’t as frequent are school districts engaging the community in those decisions and implementing reductions with a strategic lens.
That engagement process was recently completed in Glenview School District 34, a K-8 school system with approximately 5,000 students and an annual budget of nearly $68 million. Fiscal year 2010-11 showed a $400,000 deficit in the operating fund, with financial forecasts of a structural deficit through 2017.
Rather than make a reactionary decision in June 2011, the board approved a strategic budgeting process outlined by the administration that would take nearly a year to complete. The strategic budgeting process had five steps, including several opportunities for community and staff input into the decision making.
The first step brought together more than 40 community members, parents, teachers, support staff, administrators and board members. Known as the Budget Alignment Advisory Committee (BAAC), they were asked to identify, sort and prioritize present and known potential costs relative to their degree of direct alignment to, or impact on, district goals and the strategic plan.
The group was split into the following role groups:
• Community (parents/community members)
• Operational (teachers/support staff)
• Tactical (administrators)
• Strategic (superintendent/deputy superintendent/board members)
Each group received more than 100 cards classifying the budget into understandable expenditure categories like “kindergarten,” “food service” and “field trip transportation.” The groups were asked to categorize every district expense into one of three categories:
1. function could withstand little (if any) change or the function could be expanded
2. function could withstand a medium amount of change
3. function could maintain a lot of change
Each group provided a perspective to the full team. A final report then highlighted areas where three or more of the groups agreed as to where a function should be placed. This report was presented to the board in December.
The second step involved another group, the Citizen’s Finance Advisory Committee (CFAC). This long-standing board financial advisory group reports annually on financial matters important to the district. CFAC includes six community members with financial backgrounds, in addition to the teacher union president, a board member and four administrators.
This group was charged with providing financial projections and reported to the board in January. The report specified the projected deficit for the current year and beyond. It also outlined each of the assumptions built into the creation of the projections. This was helpful when questions arose later about what was included in the financial projections.
Next, cabinet-level administrators took the work of the two committees and developed an initial strategic budgeting scenario. They also developed additional scenarios as part of this third step in the process. These were lists of changes that could be considered to help balance the budget. While most of that list included reductions, there also were additions based on the work of the BAAC. That report from cabinet was presented to the board in February.
In step four, the district took the administration’s work to the community and staff for feedback. Several sessions were held to hear reactions to potential budget changes. These sessions were promoted through multiple sources and were held in the evening and on a Saturday to help encourage attendance.
Attendees received an overview of the work and then were allowed to ask questions. Everyone received a feedback form to complete. One of the most helpful questions asked respondents to list any potential reductions they didn’t want to see implemented as well as what similar cost reduction might replace it. The feedback form also was available on the district’s website.
Based on feedback, the initial scenario was changed considerably in step five. That recommendation included (for the most part) reductions, although one program was expanded, for a total reduction of nearly $1.8 million for 2012-13.
As with any reduction, there was not universal agreement on the final decision. However, the board did listen to concerns and made adjustments based on feedback from the community. In a parent survey following the reductions, 76 percent of respondents said they felt the strategic budgeting process provided opportunities for parent opinions to be considered.
While budget reductions are difficult, several positives resulted from the process. Foremost, the community made an impact in the final recommendation by providing their input throughout the process. Additionally, by engaging the community in the decision, many more parents and community members today understand the financial challenges facing District 34.
They also have a deeper understanding of the cause of those challenges. And that understanding is not limited to just those who attended the meetings. Everyone in the community could follow the process and provide input through the district’s website.
Since many of the charts can be difficult to understand without a context, videos were produced throughout the process and were included on the website to help with understanding.
For additional information about District 34’s strategic budgeting process, visit http://www.glenview34.org/board/strategicbudgetingprocess/index.asp
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