ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Achieving academic goals while cutting your budget
by John Asplund
John Asplund is superintendent of Lake Bluff ESD 65 in Lake Bluff, Illinois.
In today's economy, it is all too common to read about or know of school districts in dire financial situations. These situations often require the school board and superintendent to generate unpleasant alternatives for district taxpayers, parents, students and employees — alternatives such as school closings, consolidations, referenda, program cuts, and salary and/or benefit freezes.
In many instances, the school is the community's identity, and people fear that if the school is forced to cut programs or close, then the community will lose its ability to remain viable.
On the other hand, many schools have found it increasingly difficult to generate the requisite amount of local funds needed to maintain current programs. This has forced many leaders to consider budget cuts in order to manage that decline and minimize the damage to the district and its children.
If schools existed in a vacuum, cuts could be made without regard to what the community expects from its schools. Peripheral programs would be cut in order to ensure that the core academic programs remain.
But schools do not exist in a vacuum. Intense pressure usually exists to maintain all school programs, since each program is special to some group within the community and within the school.
Still, cuts need to be made...so what is a superintendent and school board to do? Here are some brief guidelines for districts that want to make academic progress in the face of financial hardship.
Focus the community on academic goals
When a board of education is forced to cut expenses, it is important to publicly state the district's priorities and attempt to achieve a unity of purpose while trying to financially retrench the district. The district's mission statement would be a proper tool to use when determining what cuts should be made. A continuous process of program evaluation can determine the effectiveness of all district programs. If these programs still further the mission, then they should be kept. If they do not further the mission, they should be changed or eliminated.
During retrenchment, difficult decisions need to be made regarding the future of many district programs. If district leaders have done their part to keep the district mission at the forefront of the stakeholders' collective conscience, more meaningful discussion and analysis can be undertaken. There will be fewer distractions, and the district can move forward with less harm to students. The decisions made will more than likely be decisions that are based more on fact and less on emotion.
When a community group places pressure on the board to commit resources to a particular program or set of programs, that public desire must be compared with what the district has declared is important. In the absence of a public declaration, it can be assumed by the public that changes can be made to any plan, as long as enough pressure is placed on the board.
That places the district in a precarious situation — attempting to please everybody without a plan for addressing any issues. When priorities and missions are publicly stated, those priorities can form the bedrock of whatever changes have to be made. While the community may not agree with what the board has to say, the board can at least show that it is operating under a planned course of action, and anything that is suggested that goes against that plan will not be considered at that time.
Boards of education and administration need to establish a regular practice of communicating with internal and external publics. These decision makers should create policies whereby community relations is a constant topic of conversation. The community should be involved on a regular basis, whether through school improvement teams, ad hoc finance committees or other forums that the board deems acceptable and useful.
The board and administration need to take an active role in cultivating relationships with external and internal publics so that knowledge can be more easily disseminated and regular input can be considered. Taxpayers don't typically understand school finance unless it is explained to them. In the absence of information from the school, people will make their own assumptions.
Decision making vs. conflict avoidance
Schools and school districts are typically a combination of many different interest groups who co-exist peacefully as long as no group is individually threatened by change. When financial difficulties arise and action is required, change is inevitable. It is then up to the district decision makers to make reasoned, rational decisions.
Unfortunately, reason is often disregarded in favor of conflict avoidance, as administrators and boards come under increased scrutiny during times of financial retrenchment, because some program within the school district is inevitably going to absorb a larger impact of any set of cutbacks. In order to avoid conflict, decision makers work around or ignore any situation that could cause potential harm or humiliation. In the case of school districts and retrenchment, this could emerge when budget items are discussed as potential cutbacks.
Chris Argyris, an organizational theorist, said these avoidance attempts are carried out in four distinct behaviors:
1) Bypass embarrassment or threat whenever possible.
2) Act as if you are not bypassing embarrassment or threat.
3) Don't discuss #1 or #2 while these decisions are happening.
4) Don't discuss the undiscussability of the undiscussable.
Essentially, what Argyris is saying is when confronted with difficult decisions, it is of paramount importance to the organization to work around or ignore any situation that could cause potential harm or humiliation. If a problem is being ignored, it just might go away. As we all know, however, problems do not just "go away" and decisions still need to be made. So, how should we make those decisions?
Author James March spoke to this issue in 1994 when he discussed making decisions in the face of an uncertain or ambiguous future. In particular, he illustrated three distinct biases that affect how human decision makers interpret history:
- They tend to hold onto rigidly held beliefs, even though their collective past experiences should have caused them to question some of those beliefs.
- They also tend to rely only on those experiences that actually happened, rather than contemplating how reality could have been different if different variables were in play at the time.
- And, finally, these decision makers tend to believe in a world as it has been created by a collection of certain activities that were strictly controlled by human beings, rather than seeing life as a random sequence of actions that may or may not have been controlled at times by men and women.
According to March, then, decision makers tend to not be very inquisitive folks who tend to see life as a linear process and who also tend to believe that they know what to do, in most cases.
He goes on to say that the decision maker is further doomed because they have more than likely risen to their position due to prior successes in their professional life. This success then causes decision makers to further blind themselves from any contradictory evidence that may come their way, as success tends to confirm beliefs and make them less vulnerable to contradictory evidence.
Planned success or chance?
Success also tends to make it easier to see history as lawful and determinate rather than as chance. And success tends to reinforce the notion that history is due to human agency. Thus top-level decision makers are particularly likely to exhibit these interpretive biases, which may result in blinding themselves to possible alternative solutions.
Robert Quinn, a "change" expert and professor at the University of Michigan, believes organizational and personal growth seldom follows a linear plan. This is an important principle to remember. When people recount a history of growth, they often tell it in a linear sequence, suggesting a rationality and control that never really existed.
So, to briefly summarize, people, in general, believe that they can realistically predict what will happen based on what has happened in the past. In reality, it would be much better for decision makers to realize that learning must take place all along any process of life, including times when decisions must be made. Quinn refers to this process as "building the bridge as we walk on it."
So, when you consider the works of Quinn, March and Argyris together, the role of the decision maker is often filled by people who have an unfounded faith in their own abilities. They are often people who believe they can base decisions on past actions and that those past actions were rational and controlled by people.
In reality, these decision makers are plagued by a narrow view of the situation, whereby they ignore potential consequences of past action and behavior. This often leads to a culture that is not based on organizational learning, but rather on organizational defense mechanisms that place a high priority on minimizing embarrassment or threat from the internal or external public.
Effective leaders, then, would create a culture where organizational learning and adaptation would be ongoing and embedded in its daily operation. Decisions would be made by considering all potential outcomes, not just the same outcomes that occurred the last time a problem of this nature was confronted.
In the end, very few people, if any, truly wish to go through the process of financial retrenchment. If the organization adopts the principles listed above and creates a culture whereby organizational learning is ongoing, internal and external communication is ongoing, and the organization's guiding principles are stated and known by all, the process can ultimately be meaningful for all involved. And the school district will be the better for it.
Chris Argyris, On Organizational Learning, Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers, 1992
James March, A primer on decision-making, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994
Robert Quinn, Deep Change, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1996
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