For Already Burdened Principals, Budget Control Remains Elusive
Researchers who study school finance have long argued that principals should have more control over how money is spent in their buildings because they are closest to their school, staff, and students and in a better position than central office staff to make spending decisions.
But the majority of school districts still sideline principals in major financial decisionmaking. Only a handful of largely big districts—among them Boston, Chicago, Nashville, and New York City—give principals broad powers over their budgets.
And some principals are ambivalent about that kind of expansive autonomy, or even pretty sure they don’t want those added responsibilities given everything else they are already juggling.
“The reason is that I have enough on my plate,” said Jennifer Molino, the principal of Heritage Oak Elementary School in the Dry Creek Joint Elementary school district in Roseville, Calif. “I don’t have an assistant principal. I have a lot going on.”
She added that while principals in her district interview potential staff, they do not have to handle the budgeting that comes with that. “It’s just one more thing that I don’t want to have to deal with,” Molino said.
Additionally, much of the money that flows from the school district to the school has strings attached that do not allow principals a lot of flexibility at the school level, she said.
How much say principals have over budgets can vary widely, even within the same state, and is often guided by local traditions and policies set by the school board. Most principals have full autonomy over only a sliver of the total sum that it takes to run their buildings. In some cases, it’s as small as between 1 and 5 percent.
Even so, in a recent Education Week survey, 40 percent of principals and district administrators said that principals had some autonomy over their budgets, while 25 percent said they had a lot of autonomy over how money is spent. Only 5 percent said they had no budget autonomy.
Regardless of how big a slice of the pie principals control, some leaders say they are often not even involved in the early discussions about budget allocations on the district level—before the district starts slicing up money on a school-by-school basis, said Adam Ezring, policy director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a consulting group.
Many principals also say they do not have training in school finance or budgeting to fully participate in those discussions or to be champions of more funds for their schools, he said.
“Regardless of the amount of discretionary spending [principals] might control, they’ve never had the ability to really direct the resource allocation that goes into their building, which would dramatically affect school improvement, interventions, and staffing decisions,” said Ezring.
This year, his group sponsored 13 principals from across 10 states to participate in a school finance certificate course at Georgetown University to help them become better advocates for their schools.
“It’s not a question of whether it’s 3 percent or 8 percent or 5 percent,” Ezring said. “It’s hard for a school leader to direct real efforts toward improvement and change when you are unable to control the majority of your budget or you don’t have the training to direct the majority of your budget, or you put those two things together.”
And while that has always been an issue, it will become an even bigger concern this school year as more states comply with a federal requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act to report publicly school-by-school spending. That kind of school-level spending data will allow the public to see how money is spent across schools within the same district and at schools with similar demographic profiles across the state. Principals will need to understand the dynamics of school funding to be able to use that data to lobby for additional resources, if necessary, and explain spending decisions to their communities, experts say.
“I think we are going to have principals more engaged in what’s happening, from a financial perspective, in their schools,” said Jason Leahy, the executive director of the Illinois Principals Association. “They are not just going to be able to defer to central office. They are really going to have to have deep knowledge about what’s being spent in their building, and why it is being spent, and be able to answer articulately to that.”
Daniel D. Krause, the principal of Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Ill., said that his district is already having those conversations with parents to prepare them for variations they may see between the district’s two high schools.
Krause also is not the typical principal. He teaches public school finance to principal-candidates and has completed the coursework needed to become a chief school business official. He’s involved in the development of the budget, both at the school and at the district level for the 4,000-student district.
Krause already knows that on the surface his per-pupil spending will appear higher than at the other district high school, Addison Trail High School.
Making the Case
Part of his job will be explaining that spending data is just a snapshot of what happens in the school, and there are reasons why it will appear that his school is getting more money per student. They include more special needs students and special academic programs that Addison Trail does not offer.
“The simple dollar amount is much like associating test scores to the two buildings—it sometimes oversimplifies the conversation, and it’s our responsibility as school leaders to speak to the details behind those numbers,” he said. “Because the details behind those numbers are the programs that support our students.”
Principals like Molino said that while they may not have a say over every dollar, they don’t feel cut out of spending decisions, and they’re in regular discussions with the staff who manage district budgets. Molino, who is in her second year as principal at Heritage Oak, said her district’s arrangement works for her.
She has relatively unrestricted use of more than $100,000 annually. There’s an additional $12,710 for facilities, $6,336 in supplemental grants, and another $46,483 in lottery funds.
“When I am given that money, as long as I follow the rules for that pot, there is a wide variety of things I can do within that framework,” she said.
The district’s chief business officer visits the school once a month to review the budget and see how she is spending money, she said. There are also discussions with Molino and other administrators about the “big picture” spending on the district level, she said.
A bigger issue for Molino is not how the district divvies up funds—with nine schools, she thinks money is fairly and equitably distributed among schools in the district. Her quarrel is with state legislators, whom she said are the biggest obstacle to school funding for not funding schools at higher levels and wrapping resources in layers of regulation.
“They regulate the heck out of everything,” Molino said. “We don’t want mismanagement. We don’t want people to be allowed to squander the people’s tax dollars. But there are so many rules that make it challenging sometimes for us to serve our kids in the best way that we as professionals know how to do.”
Similarly, in the Port Jervis City school district in New York, Principal Andrew Marotta begins “brainstorming conversations” with the assistant superintendent for business months before the local school budget is crafted and taken to taxpayers for a vote. It’s a collaborative process, with funding ideas based on the wishes of teachers, parents, educators and other stakeholders, he said.
“Those are exploratory conversations,” he said of the discussions that continue throughout the months-long budget process. “Sometimes, it’s like ‘if-you-had-a-magic-wand’ conversations.”
Like most principals, he gets a fixed sum over which he has total control annually for teacher supplies, conferences, travel, and professional development. If the district does not agree to one of his requests, he keeps making the case, he said.
“I have not had an experience where I’ve wanted something and the answer was a flat ‘no,’ ” he said. “Sometimes, it’s ‘Andrew, you have to go back and research that. Andrew, we need more information on this. Andrew, we just can’t do it this year. Hit the pause on that,'” he said.
“It’s my job to bring it back up the next year,” he said. “You have to be a consistent advocate for what you believe in.”
Where to Focus
Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, who has long argued for putting principals in charge of a bigger share of the money spent at their schools, said that the constant advocacy by principals over discretionary funds is not necessarily a good thing.
“Principals tend to spend a lot of their time on their flexible budgets because it feels like real money,” Roza said. “The problem is that they aren’t spending much time thinking about where the real money is—in the people.”
Roza highlights systems like Chicago’s, where principals operate like mini superintendents and are in charge of most of what’s spent at their schools. Seventy-four percent of all school-level spending in Chicago’s $6.2 billion operating budget for the 2020 fiscal year falls under the control of local school principals, said Nelson Gerew, the data policy director at the Chicago Education Fund, which focuses on training and supporting principals in the city.
Principals essentially get the money as cash, and they decide which staff positions to fund. (There are guidelines on class sizes and other rules that they must follow.)
That kind of autonomy allows principals to make key decisions to address the unique needs of their schools, like investing in software to allow teachers to explore personalized learning, adding after-school programs with an instructional focus in which teachers from the schools are the instructors, and investing in air-conditioning in their buildings long before the district committed to doing so, Gerew said.
And principals do not need to be budget or accounting whizzes to do that, he said. While there is central office support to help principals with some financial requirements and larger high schools may have a budget manager, what’s more important is that principals have a clear set of priorities for their schools.
Additionally, the city’s system of local school councils—the equivalent of school boards—must approve both the school’s spending plan and instructional plan, and that means that principals have to be able to communicate and get buy-in from the local school council, parents, and the community.
“What’s important is for principals to be able to have a real sense of strategy to make sure they know what everyone in their school is doing and how all the resources are pulling together in support of those goals,” Gerew said.
Using Their Autonomy
Districts may be hesitant to allow more budget autonomy because they think it’s onerous to train principals and there may be some fear that principals may make radical spending decisions. But Roza said in her experience principals have been very cautious when given that autonomy.
Optimally, Roza would like principals to be involved in every bit of spending and budgeting that affects their school. In smaller districts, that’s an ongoing conversation, she said. But in large districts, especially, principals are often operating in the dark in terms of how spending on their schools compares to other schools, Roza said.
In one of her training sessions Roza asked the principals to raise their hand if they thought their school got less money than the average school in the district.
“Everybody raises their hand,” Roza said. Mathematically, that can’t be possible.”
A few programs like Roza’s certification course at Georgetown University are adding sessions about budgeting so that they’ll be able to use the new school-by-school per-pupil spending data that all states are required to have in place by 2020.
Whether those principals will be able to use the data to advance advocacy and equity is an open question.
One of the participants in the Georgetown University school finance certificate course, Bryan Byerlee, a principal of Garden City School in Cranston, R.I., said he’d taken a school finance course during his preparation program. But he wanted to learn more about how principals can use the new school-by-school per-pupil spending data, which Rhode Island released for the first time this year.
He is taking “time to digest” the trove of data the state released, not sure yet what to make of it.
“I would think that with that type of new information in hand that school board leaders, district leaders, and principals would want to discuss the variations in the per-pupil expenditure per school,” he said. “That’s the kind of more nuanced resource allocation conversation that can happen with this new [data].”