Reading the Tea Leaves in Tight Times

Posted by Bob Blackney on January 30, 2013

Image of scissors For school districts, this year could see the worst budget struggles in California’s history.  Most districts used up their reserves long ago; the rest have scant reserves left.  Districts have tapped categorical funds in historically-unprecedented ways.  One-time funds and the American Renewal and Reinvestment Act money have been expended.    Maintenance projects have been deferred year after year.  Furlough days and salary cutbacks have been implemented.  What to cut next?

How districts choose to reduce budgets can be very revealing. When under pressure, a district’s true colors come out.    Let’s look at some of the most common ways that a school district might approach budget reductions.

Across-the-board cuts

One of the most common is an across-the-board simple percentage cut of all budgets.  For example a district might cut all school budgets by 10%.  This kind of cut can be politically expedient; it treats every budget and program equally, and has the appearance of being even-handed.  What an across the board cut does not account for are the goals of the district.  If a district has a goal of getting all students to learn and use twenty-first century skills, an equal cut to all budgets will reduce the funding on programs that support this goal and the programs that are unrelated to the goal equally.

Targeted cuts

Another common way to reduce budgets is to target specific programs for reduction. Ideally, the long-term goals of the district are used to select which programs will be eliminated.  On the other hand, such cuts may be linked to certain personalities or to local politics.  For example, an easy way to eliminate a personality conflict is to transfer or lay off the person at the center of the conflict.  It is an old budget axiom that in tight budget times, “dead wood burns fast.”  Targeting programs for reduction can be a beneficial to an organization if it goes through a period of reflection and makes choices that increase the efficiency of the organization as a whole.

Turning down the flame

“Turning down the flame” is budget reduction strategy in which programs are reduced to a level where they are kept alive but are not given the funding to be particularly effective.  The organizational statement here is that the program is valued, and there is hope that when funding returns the program can be rejuvenated.  To implement a turning down the flame strategy, each program is evaluated to see the minimal level of funding that it it would need to survive.  Each program is given a reduction based those calculations.  Such calculations are time-consuming and difficult to predict. What appears to be the minimal level to one observer might appear very differently to another.

Focus on the future

Finally a district might choose to focus on the future.  In this method a district would fully fund the programs that link  directly to the most important goals of the district first, and then reduce other programs.  In this method the district commits to achieving stated goal, even at the risk of doing damage or eliminating other programs.  A district at a turning point might adopt this approach, because it is essential that strategic goals be accomplished regardless of the ramifications. This is a very difficult approach to implement and requires strong leadership and vision and clear goals linked to a shared vision.

Insights into decision-making

Each of these strategies provides insight into the decision-making of a school district.  They are indicators of how a district functions, what it values, and the goals it is setting for the future.  Perhaps a number of these strategies are employed.  An observer might examine the motivation and inspiration for each.  Interpreting how a school district chooses to reduce  expenditures in hard times is like reading tea leaves at the bottom of a the cup—a skilled observer will see more than tea leaves.

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Bob Blackney

Bob Blackney is currently Director of Technology at Azusa Unified School District. He has worked for over 35 years to build his understanding of how to use technology to improve education, and sees it as an essential element of learning in the 21st century—if used correctly.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Tea Leaves in Tight Times”

  1. I haven’t heard it before but think it is an accurate phrase: In tight budget times, “dead wood burns fast.” Thanks for helping to shed some light on the tea leaves!

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