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6 Questions for the CFO: Student-Based Budgeting Takes Root in Atlanta

During the 2017-18 school year, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) partnered with ERS to design a student-based budgeting model that aims to make the district's funding more equitable, transparent, and flexible.

At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO Int'l), ERS team member Betty Chang presented with APS's Chief Financial officer, Lisa Bracken, about how APS changed funding allotment formulas to systemically address challenges, while still emphasizing school-level autonomy. Here, we asked Lisa six questions to learn more about APS' process developing and implementing their Student Success Funding Model. 

1. How does SBB relate to your district’s broader strategy or theory of action?

At Atlanta Public Schools, our theory of action for student success is the following: if local school communities (including principals, parents, and school-based leadership teams or GoTeams) are empowered to make more site-based decisions that are impactful for students; and that if they are supported from a central office of subject matter experts; then they will make the best decisions that ultimately impact student outcomes and prepare them for college and career.

SBB fits into that framework because it supports school leaders’ autonomous decisions around school budgets and financial resources, but also helps build the collaborative relationship between central office staff and principals. However, we understand that schools ultimately must use that autonomy to actually implement innovations that drive outcomes for the specific needs of their specific student populations, and in that vein we are still thinking about how we can improve flexibilities and support conversations that drive those innovations at the local school level.

2. What were the most important things the central office did to support principals in the first year of implementation?

We had many members of central office on our Student Success Funding (SSF) formula task force very early in the implementation process. It was so important to get their feedback on what programs should be pushed out through SSF, those that would need to still rest on top of SSF, and also in developing the guidelines and manuals for supporting principals and GoTeams in making decisions with those dollars. Also throughout the budget development process they acted as subject matter experts and consultants to principals and provided pros and cons for principals’ decisions.

Some of our most successful examples from the implementation of SSF are where central office program managers fully embraced the process and leaned in heavily to their new role of providing best practices and documenting those decisions of flexibility that principals were making.



Atlanta Public Schools CFO Lisa Bracken presented at ERS' Student-Based Budgeting Summit in July 2018.


3. What were Board member questions/concerns about SBB initially? What did you do to address them?

I think for this first year of implementation, our board members were most concerned with our communication strategy and ensuring that we had communicated with various groups and received feedback from all those impacted parties. Also our board was concerned with ensuring a balance of equity and stability that would minimize disruption at some of our schools that were losing additional funds. As such, we included narrow transition strategies that minimize how much any one school could gain or lose in this one year because of the new funding formula.


4. What do know about SBB now that you wished you had known about SBB before you implemented it?

I wish that we had created more opportunities for program managers to serve as subject matter experts for principals during the budget development process. For those that took the initiative to facilitate those conversations on their own, we saw great success. I think one of the takeaways for us is that we will need to drive more of that conversation from the budget office.

The other thing that I wish I had known is that the principals’ own reservations would keep them from making any really wild decisions. We were concerned that it would be the wild west, but instead very few flexibilities were leveraged and we didn't see the level of innovations that we were hoping for. Going forward, we plan to offer budget strategy sessions leading up to the budget process where principals can think creatively about their bucket of resources without the pressure of their actual money on the line.


5. What has been, or what do you anticipate being, the biggest benefit to your schools and students?

My hope is that through SBB, more principals and GoTeams realize what sorts of flexibilities they have and see how impactful being innovative with those financial resources can be for students. My hope is that SSF fosters an environment of collaboration and shared problem-solving that really leverages autonomy to maximize limited resources and ends up with some really awesome decisions for kids.


6. What’s next for SBB in APS? Where do you plan to take it from here?

For this immediate next budget cycle we plan on increasing the level of supports to schools around budget strategy and how to think differently with those same buckets of funds. We will likely make few changes to the allotment formula for this upcoming school year although we are interested in pushing out some additional buckets of funds, especially those for early intervention programs and remedial supports. We will also continue to look at how we weight for poverty. In the current funding formula we are looking only at direct certification to drive the weight, and it's come to our attention that because of that we might be missing out on some subgroups of populations that might not be available for federal resources. For that reason, we will likely look at incorporating a free and reduced lunch poverty weight as a part of the direct certification weight. But continuing with our theme of balancing and equity, innovation, and stability with support, we will likely make small an incremental changes each year. We're also discussing and developing accountability measures so that we have a better understanding of how school site-based flexibilities ultimately impact kids, and we can make recommendations for changes based on outcome data.

6 Questions for the CFO: Student-Based Budgeting Takes Root in Atlanta
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