Decentralizing budget decisions to individual schools is a reform strategy that has been growing in momentum for years in cities such as Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago. As the trend continues toward decentralization, principals are called upon to assume leadership roles that have been historically left to central office staff.

Though principals are now asked to broaden their responsibility into budgeting, studies confirm that principals may ignore this charge and focus instead on areas where they have more experience and expertise. Unless the district office and school sites push the normal boundaries of cooperation, giving principals more authority over resources may not improve student outcomes and could end up wasting precious time and energy.

Why Decentralization Is on Rise

In today’s volatile political environment, there seems to be alignment between principals’ interests and the political winds in statehouses across the country. Principals have always advocated for greater control of resources. According to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 9 out of 10 school principals nationwide believe that they should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in their school. Today’s principals embrace this responsibility. As accountable school leaders, it is only natural that they seek control of key levers of influence such as school budgeting decisions.

The idea of local budget control seems to meld with the prevailing thinking at statehouses across the country. Changing demographics, along with the rural-urban divide, underscore the complexity of each local community and the limitations of one-size-fits-all policymaking. From a political perspective, the Republican Party—which is often aligned with the idea of local control becoming a greater part of the mainstream approach to governance of school systems—currently controls 70 percent of state legislatures. In all corners of our political life, there is a growing recognition that historical top-down leadership approaches do not meet the needs of a quickly evolving 21st-century learning environment.

When done right, budget decentralization and autonomy can unleash the creativity of teachers and the leader of the school. Maybe there is an SAT prep class that would help prepare students for postsecondary success. Perhaps a community could benefit from a Mandarin language immersion track, or, as a school moves to expeditionary learning, maybe more funds are required for field trips. All of these ideas require budget flexibility because district office staff are expected to allocate funds efficiently, not necessarily meet instructional needs.

Budget autonomy can create a world of opportunity for students and staff. After all, decisions should be made as close to the student as possible, not in a faraway central office.

How to Navigate Autonomy for Success

One of the first things you may notice if your district moves to a decentralized budgeting system is a struggle at the central office to operate in this new environment. Some principals may find that support to exercise autonomy from their superiors might be limited, especially in the early years of a transition. This lack of support is one of the key reasons that principals operating with budget autonomy generally keep their budget the same and do not take advantage of this new flexibility right away.

Professor Meredith Honig from the University of Washington notes there are a few key requirements for a district to reap the benefits of budget flexibility: appropriate training for school-based personnel with new decision-making authority and central office staff that actively supports implementation. The first condition is clearly within the sphere of influence for the principal; the second requires careful central office navigation.

Here are some ideas for principals to make decentralization work:

  1. Build your expertise. There is often a predictable knowledge gap for career instructional leaders when it comes to the nuances of public school finance. When leaders lack the information they need to make decisions, this often leads to frustration and disengagement. Principals should reach out to take advantage of district training resources, or in the absence of district resources, they should find ways to build the expertise independently. Tap into the expertise of a budget office insider in the district—or a budget analyst—and ask for help.
  2. Push the central office to put principals at the center of this process. Under stress, central office staff may revert to previous modes of operation and hope to wait out the storm of change. The same navigation skills that make you successful in the complex ecosystem of your school community need to be brought to bear to ensure that district leaders develop clear, transparent policies and processes governing decentralization.

There are a couple of key steps for principals to ensure budget flexibility is designed to serve school leaders. First, insist on principal participation in the design of the program from the very beginning. Second, make time for your team to understand the nuances of the budgeting process and the flexibility provisions. If it is part of their annual goal-setting and evaluation targets, they will understand its importance. Finally, engage the leaders in your community—formally and informally—in a candid discussion of how budget flexibility can better meet the needs of your students. Educate your stakeholders on the limitations in staff assignments, scheduling, and programming that could be alleviated if the principal had wider discretion over resource deployment. As they start to see the connections between budget flexibility and action, their willingness to advocate on your school’s behalf can be an important voice to key district decision-makers.

Driving Change

Principals who can use their informal networks to push for clear, detailed policy provisions concerning what is flexible and what is non-negotiable will be best positioned to take advantage of budget decentralization. Decentralization provides a unique opportunity to build the program your kids truly need. But it will not likely happen without your direct engagement.

Budget autonomy holds substantial promise to encourage local control and inspire school leaders to best allocate their resources to meet the unique needs of their students. To take advantage of this autonomy, principals must encourage the district office to support this work while simultaneously pushing their team to be prepared to embrace this opportunity. If executed well, you will drive change that improves outcomes for students.

Kenneth Zeff is executive director of Learn4Life, a nonprofit organization. Zeff has served several roles at Fulton County Schools (GA), including superintendent and chief strategy and innovation officer.

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