The October 6 post at this blog made the case that superintendents – wearing the “Chief Governing Process Designer” hat – are well-advised to work with board committees in designing processes for engaging board members in a meaningful fashion in shaping such important governing “products” as the annual budget document. Why? Very simply because meaningful engagement fosters feeling of ownership, and owners make for far more reliable partners than audiences for finished staff work. The following real-life case, which appears in my book Governing at the Top (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), tells how one district engaged board members in shaping the annual budget
At one of the more interesting school board standing committee work sessions I’ve sat in on recently, the board’s strategic and operational planning committee, along with the superintendent and associate superintendent for planning and development, spent 2 ½ hours finalizing the budget preparation process for the upcoming year, paying special attention to the board’s involvement. Actually, the work session involved all five board members, sitting as the virtual strategic and operational planning committee of the whole. This was the second of two intensive sessions. At the first session, six weeks earlier, the virtual committee had spent a couple of hours reaching consensus on the key outcomes that committee members wanted the budget preparation process – and the budget document ultimately adopted by the board – to produce and on the issues that should be addressed in updating the budget preparation process.
The outcomes discussion that took place in the first work session had been eye-opening to committee members, who hadn’t previously given much thought to outcomes that the budgeting process and the budget document itself were intended to produce, beyond the obvious need to have a detailed annual plan for district expenditures that were in balance with projected district revenues. As they brainstormed outcomes, it became clear that budgeting was a kind of Clydesdale of governing processes, with a powerful back capable of carrying a tremendous amount of valuable district luggage. For example, on the budget process front, committee members identified such outcomes as: clear, measurable district performance targets; the identification of major operational issues facing the district – both opportunities and challenges – and the development of innovative operational projects intended to address them within the annual budget framework (for example, putting together an innovative grant-funded program to promote more effective teaching of English as a second language in response to projected growth in non-English speaking students); and wider understanding among administrators and faculty of the factors driving expenditures. Two very important budget process outcomes were somewhat indirect but critical: the kind of strong board member ownership and faculty and administrator esprit de corps that could only come from proactive, creative involvement in the process.
Brainstorming outcomes that the budget document itself might produce in the first work session was especially exciting since the question hadn’t even been raised in the past. For example, everyone agreed pretty quickly that the adopted budget – at least in summary form – could be a powerful tool for educating the public at large and key stakeholders like the chamber of commerce and city and county governments on district priorities, goals, and finances. And they could see that, if properly presented, the budget document might also promote the district’s image as a prudent steward of precious financial resources and as an efficient, well-managed public institution. It wasn’t a big jump from local stakeholders to regional and national foundations, which might be more receptive to district funding proposals on the basis of a well-crafted budget document that painted a picture of an innovative, accountable, soundly managed educational enterprise.