Better Budgeting: Make Change Feel Normal

Apply better budgeting strategies to make changes to spending less controversial and more easily accepted within the school district.


Author Nathan Levenson focuses on a strategic and process-oriented approach that anticipates roadblocks and challenges as well as provides real-life examples of mistakes and successes.

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A Better Way to Budget (Harvard Education Press, 2015), by Nathan Levenson, provides practical, innovative advice on how to overcome the political and social pushback that often prevents district and school leaders from shifting scarce resources to the most student-centered uses. Filled with advice gathered over decades of work in schools, Levenson shows how school leaders can uncover the sources of potential conflicts and create a budgeting process that normalizes change, minimizes pushback, and builds public buy-in for needed reforms.

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Make Change Feel Normal

When I saw on the nightly news the fall of the Berlin Wall, I commented to a friend, “The world changed today.” What I meant by this was that something rare and important had happened. Something that would have lasting, widespread impact — the end of the Cold War, peace between nuclear powers, and much relief for the federal budget, as military spending would be scaled back. Sure, I turned out to be wrong in many ways, but it felt like something monumental had just happened.

The next time I heard this phrase uttered, with the same wondrous appreciation of the moment in time, was when a principal heard that I wanted to change how we served students participating in an integration program. For the principal, the announcement was full of shock and awe. For me, it was unexciting, obvious, and bordering on the mundane.

The facts, as I knew them, were easy to understand.

We served one hundred students from a nearby city, who started in kindergarten and stayed in the district through graduation. The district had been busing in students voluntarily for nearly forty years and the students fared terribly:

• Upward of 50 percent were placed on IEPs (individualized education programs).

• Very few went to college, despite the fact that nearly 95 percent of their classmates did.

• Even though they had attended district schools since kindergarten, more than half failed multiple courses in high school.

• Climate surveys indicated that most of the students felt unwelcome and unwanted.

I certainly expected — welcomed, actually — an energetic back and forth about what to change, and how to change, but never anticipated resistance as to whether to change a program that so underserved one hundred of our students. The district leadership team spent months debating if the program should remain as is. Oddly, no one disputed the horrific outcomes or doubted the lost opportunity to help one hundred students who rode a bus for more than an hour each day for thirteen years. Everything centered on whether we could change a program that had been in place, unaltered, for so long. I dismissed this concern as a mix of cowardice over addressing an issue involving race, face saving by not admitting we had failed many children for decades, and a general comfort with the status quo.

Hardly for the first time, and certainly not for the last, my cabinet was wiser than I was. I pushed forward because the facts demanded we change. We would shift extra help services from paraprofessionals to teachers; add a late bus so the students could more easily participate in after-school programs, athletics, and clubs; and bring in expert college counselors to shepherd students through the application, selection, and financial aid processes. To pay for this, we would reduce the number of administrators overseeing the program and shift money currently dedicated to professional development conference fees.

I was completely unprepared for what happened next. The day I announced the plan, a Fox News TV crew showed up at my house, hundreds of angry parents and teachers came to the school board meeting, and the press called consistently. Long before I finished sharing the stats, and before the plan was fully outlined to the public, a supporter on the school board kindly suggested that the district wasn’t ready for changing this program. So we didn’t

I learned three lessons from this disappointing situation:

2. Don’t dismiss the anxiety of principals.

3. The less things change, the harder it is to change things.

As we conducted a postmortem on our failed attempt to help these one hundred students in need, we realized two things about our district. Staffing seldom changed unless forced by budget cuts, and programs were seldom formally reviewed for effectiveness. This had created a culture — shared by parents, administrators, and teachers alike — that placed a high value on stability.

In education we talk about change a lot. Pick your favorite saying:

• “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

• “They keep moving my cheese.”

• “This too shall pass.”

• “The only constant is change.”

• “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.”

We have too much change, we need more, or with a sigh and a shrug we acknowledge that we seem to be on a merry-go-round that won’t stop. Change is thrown at us from many directions, including new state regulations like teacher evaluation and Common Core, new federal programs driven by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) or NCLB waivers, grant requirements, the latest collective bargaining compromises, shifting priorities from an ever-changing school board, or morphing student demographics. Outside pressures force change on school districts. In many districts, the budget is a counterbalancing force. Developed in large part by district leaders, it can be a tool to provide stability to a workforce that works hard and is tossed around by external pressures.

Every caring organization should value providing stability and peace of mind for its staff, especially when the state, the federal government, and others seem to keep shifting the ground underneath them. While district budget builders can’t set how much money the district will spend, they recommend to the school board how to spend what dollars they have. In good times this often meant adding new programs to address student needs, in many cases layering them on top of the existing programs. Seemingly, children got what was needed and adults achieved stability. It felt like a win-win.  

In the current era of tight budgets, some yearn for those good old days. When we look back on them, however, we see that this “add through layering” approach might not have been the best strategy for raising achievement. The very reason a new program was needed may have been that the old one wasn’t working. Holding on to the past commits some students to ineffective efforts. Also, in a relatively short school day, every minute counts, and keeping past efforts further splinters a student’s time.

I’ve seen firsthand how preserving the past can ease the way for the new but be detrimental to students. After an honest assessment of its reading intervention programs, a district concluded it had failed far too many students. About a third of the kids in its suburban elementary schools read below grade level, and 90 percent of struggling readers failed to make a year’s progress each year. They fell further behind when receiving intervention services. The district was trying hard and had four large-scale reading intervention efforts under way, each staffed by a different funding source. Opting to implement a general education–led intervention effort, district leaders decided that since they could afford the new and keep the old, they would. It seemed to them very unfair to eliminate the existing reading staff or bump them into new schools or roles. It would be better for all if they stayed put, the district figured. Then the unintended consequences started. In some schools students with IEPs were denied the new reading services, because there wouldn’t be enough work for all the special educators. In other schools children of poverty didn’t get the more effective interventions because Title I staff needed full schedules. Perhaps the oddest compromise was to provide some students both Title I reading and gen ed intervention (using different and conflicting materials), but this required pulling these struggling students from math three times a week, adding numeracy to their list of struggles.

As budgets have gotten tight, the layering approach is much less of an option, but it has often been replaced with another stability-enhancing strategy: across-the-board cuts. Part of the appeal of such cuts is that they make a small impact across a wide swath of the district. The change in any one school or department or program is small. It’s a way to minimize the amount of change and provide as much stability as possible given reduced funding. Unfortunately, the best use of limited dollars demands much more fluid use of funds. As enrollment shifts, as programs are evaluated, and as new needs emerge, dollars should be spent differently in response. The trick is to find ways to shift funds more often, while still providing peace of mind and a sense of stability to the organization. Fortunately, some savvy superintendents have done just this. They have systematically created cultures that accept more change without staff, parents, and the community feeling overwhelmed or attacked.

For more than fifteen years I have sought out superintendents and school districts that seemed to implement frequent, bold improvements to serving their students without raising staff anxiety and generating frenzied pushback. My conversations with these lucky or skillful superintendents, searching for their secrets, have often ended on an unsatisfying note. “It wasn’t all that special. It needed to be done and it’s just what we do in this district,” they say. I doubt that something in the drinking water made their parents and community members more passive than others, that the school lunches made staff more agreeable than most, or that contract provisions made their principals less protective of their staff than others, but these districts have had an easier time winning support for big, bold, student-centered shifts in spending, despite all the usual pain and suffering it has caused some staff, departments, or programs.

At first I credited this to the skill of the (humble and modest) superintendents: they must be politically astute coalition builders who know how to win friends and influence strangers. When I realized that these districts had a long history of such budget flexibility, stretching well before the current superintendent, I had to ditch this theory. Eventually I did figure out why these districts (some big, others small; urban, suburban; affluent or not) seemed to have more budget flexibility: their policies, procedures, and practices embedded flexible spending in almost everything they did. Maybe it wasn’t in the water or school lunches, but it was in the air and their DNA. I learned a valuable lesson and a disappointing truth: First, districts that shift funds with relative ease have normalized change in staffing levels and patterns through the use of staffing guidelines tied to enrollment and student needs. Second, most districts really don’t know what reasonable staffing levels are for many positions or what programs really help students. Professional judgment and historical staffing — rather than hard facts — guide many staffing decisions, which makes it easy for caring people to push back when changes to staffing are suggested for next year’s budget.

When I visited and interviewed leaders of districts that seemed to regularly shift staff, dollars, and programs each year; more easily cut programs no longer needed; and generally had smart, flexible budgets without overwhelming or angering most of the staff, I realized that over time they had created a virtuous cycle. Because they made changes on a regular basis, change didn’t seem riot-worthy — it seemed natural. These weren’t districts filled with adrenaline junkies who got a thrill from change. They were regular people who would have preferred more stability, but they just didn’t expect it.

The more flexible districts that had normalized change had clear enrollment- and need-driven guidelines for staffing, such as special education teachers provide twenty-five hours of instruction a week, art teachers teach twenty-eight classes a week, or English language learner (ELL) teachers support thirty students. These staffing guidelines were student centered, not school building centered. As a result, these teachers often worked in more than one school, and didn’t balk when school assignments changed as enrollment and student needs shifted. If a school that had twenty-eight periods of art one year (a full teaching load) dropped to twenty-four, the teacher (and principal) just knew — no fight — that next year’s assignment would include half a day in another school. In these districts, assignments changed each year, even during the year, as enrollment shifted.

Not so in other districts. One of the most striking examples of culturally induced inflexibility is staffing that took place in a large district facing draconian budget cuts. Faced with plunging state aid, this district with more than twenty-five thousand students had cut four hundred positions and had more cuts on the way. Benchmarking and time studies revealed that its speech and language therapy department was significantly overstaffed and its services very inefficiently delivered. Faced with this data and a multitude of other cuts looming, the district opted to reduce a handful of therapists.

No one was prepared for what ensued. With fewer therapists in the district, the remaining staff had to cover some additional schools. While the practice of working in more than one school was normal, changing schools was not. The anxiety, anger, and angst were overwhelming. Staff were infuriated that they would be dragged away from “their school” to work in “other schools.” The first compromise was to reduce the cuts to speech therapists (and increase them elsewhere) and then to assign less vocal staff to more schools. Within a year, this led to bitter complaints that some therapists had much more onerous schedules and caseloads than others, so more staff should be hired back. In the end, anger and frustration permeated the department, and further changes in special education staffing were squelched, despite ample opportunities for greater efficiency and deep cuts elsewhere. The district had violated a cultural norm, and culture trumped student needs. In a district that routinely moved staff as enrollment and students shifted, this would have been a nonevent, not a ruckus.

Looking at school districts through the lens of “do we normalize change?” adds a whole new dimension to crafting policies and practices that can make shifting resources either easy, hard, or nearly impossible. This viewpoint impacts the vast majority of the budget, from teaching staff to math curriculum to dropout prevention programs and even to busing, as well as the ever-difficult class size issue.

Reprinted with permission fromA Better Way to Budgetby Nathan Levenson and published by Harvard Education Press, 2015.