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Finance Team Support for Principals

How can the finance & budgeting teams best support principals to be strategic and transformational?

The pandemic has forced districts to grapple with a triple squeeze on resources:

  • greater depth, breadth, and inequity of student need,

  • even greater financial pressure than before, 

  • and ongoing constraints to safely providing instruction and student supports 

...and at the center of these tough decisions are school principals. 

This has made a common question for many central office teams more urgent: How do we better support our principals so that they can best support their students with the resources they have? As owners of the budget development process, district-level finance and budget teams play a crucial role in providing key insights to principals as they align their budgets with the school’s plan and make adjustments throughout the year.  When done well, budget teams work collaboratively with other central office teams to help organize resources in strategic ways that best meet the unique needs of schools and students. 

How can finance teams better support principals? The CFO & Team Principal Support Framework describes the key levers needed to help principals be both strategic and transformational in their use of resources.  Depending on a district’s vision for principal flexibility and autonomy, these levers may take the form of more technical supports or more strategic supports. In general, technical support is a “must have,” and as principal autonomy increases, strategic support becomes increasingly important.  Just as principals work to  align their resources with their schools’ priorities, budget teams should align their technical and strategic principal support with their district’s theory.of action. 


How can teams use this framework? This framework was developed by ERS through our work with districts striving to improve the ways they use resources, and this framework is the foundation of our Strategic Budget Partner Retreats.This fall, ERS hosted two of these retreats (now in their sixth year) focused on building district staff’s (primarily from budget, human resources, and academics teams) knowledge, skills, and mindsets to effectively support school leaders as they make decisions about resources. During the retreat, participants were introduced to tools and processes for supporting school leaders during these unprecedented times, and together we explored how finance teams can best support Strategic School Design. Participating districts collaborated through shared problems-of-practice and reflected within their district teams about how to continuously improve the services they provide to schools. Across the two sessions, 66 participants from a total of seven districts grappled with the Principal Support Framework and used it to make connections to their teams’ work.

Reflecting on their district’s recent efforts to support principals, one participant shared, “We had a great start [to the year] in expanding the view principals are able to see of their projected budgets, which will lead to better strategy.” Prior to the retreat, their district had focused their efforts around improving support to principals by providing technical support, such as sharing guidance on how much data to provide and which cuts of the data to display.  By the end of ERS’ retreat, their district’s team was discussing concrete ways they could move to more strategic support, such as providing case studies of high-performing schools as examples of effective practices to learn from  The Principal Support Framework helped their team identify their district’s strength (technical support) while also providing them with guidance around what types of support would be beneficial to focus their efforts on moving forward.

Our team at ERS was lucky to work with the following districts at this retreat:

Beaverton School District
San Francisco Unified School District
Fresno Unified School District
West Contra Costa Unified School District
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
Chicago Public Schools
Denver Public Schools

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