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Budget Hold’em for Schools Helps Memphis Principals Redesign their Budgets

School staff from nearly 30 schools engaged in this interactive exercise designed to put students at the center of the budget

It’s 3:00 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and school leaders from nearly 30 Shelby County schools are playing cards. But this is for the good of students—and there are no kings, queens, or aces in sight.

This professional learning session is filled with principals, assistant principals, and other key school staff. They represent the “early-adopter” schools that will be among the first to pilot student-based budgeting (SBB) in Shelby County Schools. In most districts, schools receive a set number of staff and a prescribed set of resources to serve their students. Under SBB, schools receive money based on their enrollment and their student needs—for example, how many of their students are economically disadvantaged or English language learners. Schools have the flexibility to use those funds to develop a staffing plan and a budget that best fits their needs.  

For early-adopter school teams, this requires thinking about the school budget in a new way—not as an inherited balance sheet that they adjust slightly from year to year, but rather, as a set of longer term strategic investments chosen to meet the school’s needs and goals. A small but growing number of cities around the country are moving to this model.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Angela Whitelaw welcomes the group with a dose of inspiration and motivation, “This funding system is very new for all of us—so we’re going to need your help to make it work for all schools and students.”

Education Resource Strategies is partnering with Shelby County Schools to support these and other schools in the transition to SBB. In the Friday afternoon professional learning session, school teams are engaged in an interactive exercise called Budget Hold’em for Schools.

In Hold’em, teams are dealt cards containing potential investments and savings, on topics such as talent management and teacher leadership, personalized learning, Common Core-aligned curriculum and assessments, general efficiency, and more. They read a case study about a fictional school with student and teacher needs that are intentionally similar to what their schools face. Then they must sort the cards into “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe” piles. Every card shows how much that investment or savings is worth as a percent of budget, as well as an estimate of the student impact. That information is drawn from the research base as well as ERS’ long experience working with schools. Teams work together to select a hand of cards that reaches their student impact and budget goals. 

Making tradeoffs is challenging, but the exercise helps leaders stick to their priorities and uncovers new ways to use resources to address them. One school team is tempted to play the card “Provide a double block of math and English Language Arts to support struggling students.” Yet in the fictional school, the teacher corps is young and inexperienced, so adding more instructional time might not make sense. The team instead opts to invest in more time for collaborative planning and to support teacher leaders.

Another group considers the option to add another ELA teacher to lower class sizes. They decide this would be strategic if they target the 6th grade, which the case study highlights as a priority. This investment would give incoming students more individualized attention to close reading gaps. They also discussed a cost-neutral option, which was to deliberately assign some of the school’s most effective teachers to that important grade level. 

School leaders find that the game encourages them to consider new possibilities. One leader comments, “The best part is seeing the budget numbers—a lot of actions don’t cost anything. Often we say ‘We don’t have the money’, but really it’s just the effort of thinking things through.” Another likens the experience to grocery shopping, “When you’re on a limited budget, you have to think carefully about the quality of what you buy. But when you’re hungry, you might just grab a bunch of things you don’t really need or want. That’s what we did in the past.” Budget Hold’em for Schools forces teams to talk about what the case study school—and therefore, their actual school—really needs.

Assistant Superintendent Whitelaw summarizes the task for schools, “There is no cheat sheet. You have to think about your urgent needs for your school. You need to think outside the box.”

As school teams grapple with their new budgets this coming year, they have to negotiate much more complexity than the Hold’em cards, including communicating with their stakeholders, parents, students, and teachers. Hold’em is an important exercise that brings leadership teams together on the why and the how first. “Can I keep these cards?” asks one school leader. “This game brought to light so many new options to consider.”

Budget Hold’em for Schools is available online, along with Budget Hold’em for Districts, which focuses on decisions embedded in the districtwide budget. Even in a district that is not using student-based budgeting, Hold’em helps open up conversations among leadership teams about what is possible, with the resources they have.



Budget Hold’em for Schools Helps Memphis Principals Redesign their Budgets
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