This exercise is about deciding on what is important and making the necessary trade-offs to achieve your instructional goals in the context of budget tightening. We have found that the game format enables district leaders and others to step outside of the constraints of their day to day decision-making to look at program and budget choices in a new and more integrated way. The lessons can then be applied to transform their own district strategic budgeting process.
It's best to start by articulating your priorities. What items and programs should be fully funded and protected from cuts? Where are your particular needs? Do you want to make sure you improve your teaching staff? Or does your district need to improve technology? There are many different hands to play and they can all be good. You need to determine what's right for you now and then make the difficult trade-offs to start making that vision a reality.
The percentages are "educated estimates" based on ERS' work over the past 15 years with urban districts and on NCES national statistics. They are meant to give you an idea of the relative impact that different decisions will have on a typical district budget. Obviously, the real numbers for your district will vary. But don't let that stop you. Suspend your disbelief for a moment, because the real value of the game is helping you and your colleagues think in new ways about the challenges and opportunities you face.
Because this tool is designed to facilitate learning about the impact of decisions and strategic tradeoffs, it was purposefully not designed to be customized to particular district types. If the relative magnitude of a savings or investment option doesn't seem right for your district you can choose not to use that card or track the change off-line. Future iterations may allow for more flexibility around the choices available to enable some adjustment for particular district situations.
ERS' "Practical Tools for District Transformation" are both a series of online self-assessments and in-depth guides to help districts reallocate their resources to improve instruction and make every dollar count. What are the common mistakes? What are long-term and short-term actions to take? How can districts accurately measure what they're doing now? ERS guides are available to download at no cost or for purchase on edweek.org.
It's hard to think about investing in improving your district when faced with the stark budget cuts most districts are dealing with today. But this exercise can help you to:
Our hope is that this exercise will help to reframe your budget process from cutting to meet your bottom line to creating a list of priorities and making tough trade-offs to get there. You are going to have to cut and make difficult decisions. But at least when you're finished you will be making choices that lead you to investing in long-term and short-term improvements.
ERS has used various versions of this game with some of our district partners and a cross-district network of CFOs and CAOs. We are making this more broadly available based on feedback from these districts on how it helped them to approach strategic budgeting decisions. Duval County and Rochester leadership used versions of this game in a group to think through tough budget decisions in 2010. In addition, the Memphis CFO adapted a version of it for a very successful leadership team budget strategy offsite. Read about it here. This is the first online version so we're just learning how it can be helpful. If you have suggestions or comments, please let us know!
The more than 50 cards affect teaching and leadership effectiveness, time and attention, operational efficiency, and more. Investment estimates range from 0% to as much as 2.0% of the budget. Savings cards can yield from as little as .1% reduction in the overall budget to as much as 2.0%.
Some cards are easy to implement. Other cards require changing legislation, contracts, and the mindsets of key stake-holders. Although controversial, these actions are possible and have been taken by actual districts. Your own district's priorities and needs should drive the choices worth seriously considering, regardless of the obstacles.
If you're having trouble seeing all the text on some cards you need to adjust the text size in your browser. This can generally be accomplished by pressing Ctrl and Minus keys at the same time on a PC, or Command and Minus keys at the same time on an Apple computer.
School Budget Hold'em is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Complete list of ERS funders »