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Budget Hold'Em in Action

Building Consensus and Making Decisions in Real Districts

Making tradeoffs is challenging, but Budget Hold'Em helps leaders stick to their priorities and uncover new ways to use resources to address them. As school teams grapple with upcoming budget decisions, they have to negotiate the complexity of communicating with stakeholders, parents, students, and teachers. Hold’Em brings senior leadership teams together on the how and why of budget decisions before it’s time to make them, and the exercise can be adapted to a district’s needs to help them make real life trade-offs when time is short.


 “We’ve got a lot of decisions going on, but no consensus,” says Fairfax County Public Schools COO Marty Smith, leaning over a table scattered with cards. He looks around as fellow members of FCPS’ finance team examine their options, from double-blocking classes to changing school bus schedules. Around the room, representatives from other districts are engrossed in the same process, sorting through a hand of cards and debating each one’s merits.

This was the scene at ERS’ Strategic Budget Partners Retreat, as finance leaders from districts across the country played Budget Hold’Em, an interactive exercise that builds shared understanding around how various financial decisions can set students up for success. ERS has been playing Hold’Em with districts since 2011, and we’ve found that it helps leaders think about the trade-offs required in making a budget and how much impact financial choices can have.

In Hold’Em, teams read a scenario about a district or school that is trying to meet specific student and teacher needs. They are dealt cards containing potential investments and savings in areas spanning from teaching, to curriculum, to facilities management, and everything in between. Every card shows assigns a point value to what each investment or savings is worth as a percent of budget, as well as a numbered estimate of the impact on students. The information is drawn from research and ERS’ many experiences working with school districts.They must sort the cards into “Yes”, “No”, and “Maybe” piles. Teams work together to select a hand of cards that reaches their student impact and budget goals.

Back at the Retreat, Stacey Schobert, another FCPS finance team member, counts the cards in their “Yes” pile. “We’re currently at a 14 impact with a savings of 2.6,” she tells the group, and they look back at their case study to compare to their goals.

When the team at Fairfax County Public Schools returned to their district, it was budget season--and they found themselves faced with requests much higher than the amount they had available to allocate. With only one day to review over $100 million of requests, Department of Financial Services Assistant Superintendent Leigh Burden came up with a solution: an adaptation of Budget Hold’Em.

“We called it our Budget Decision Process,” she told us. We made cards with all the pertinent information, gave each senior leadership member their own set, and had them go through and identify, “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe.” Then budget staff set up a spreadsheet to rank the “Yes” votes. Our work was done in 8 hours!”

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