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Hold’em and the Massachusetts Urban Superintendents Network

The week of October 15, 2012, Karen Baroody and I presented School Budget Hold'em to the Massachusetts Urban Superintendents Network, a group of 24 superintendents who meet monthly to network and share best practices.

This group has been meeting with each other and the state DOE for several years to collaborate on breaking down barriers to district transformation. The current fiscal climate, combined with political realities, has made it difficult for these superintendents to make the investments they would like in teacher collaborative planning time and targeted individual attention. We presented Hold'em as a tool to engage different constituencies within their districts in a new conversation about budgeting and the difficult tradeoffs it often entails.

During the Hold'em session, participants were given the scenario of “District X” – an urban district struggling with subpar performance while at the same time faced with a 5% budget cut. Teams worked to select a series of savings and investments that would meet the needs of students and teachers while also hitting the targeted budget reduction. The game forced groups to think hard about difficult tradeoffs. Realizing that her group was not on target to hit their budget reduction, Dr. Mary Bourque, Superintendent of Chelsea Public Schools, asked, “What are our biggest priorities? We can’t afford to do everything.”

The superintendents found that Hold'em reflected the difficult decisions they often face. Brockton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Matt Malone noted, “The cards correlate with hard decisions – those that we struggle with all the time.”

Others noted the game’s benefit of quantifying the budgetary impact of different strategies. John McDonough, the Chief Financial Officer of Boston Public Schools, said, “The hardest part of my job is teeing up tradeoffs. This exercise quantifies what those choices are.”

Hold'em can also help participants think differently about how they approach the budget process, with one superintendent noting that the word “maintain” did not appear on any of the cards. Instead, they focused on “investing” in some areas, and “cutting” in others.

Several superintendents were excited to share Hold'em with their school boards while others felt that it may be a useful activity to also use with their principals.

We’re very grateful for the opportunity to present Hold'em to this group and for the help of Andrea Condit and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for organizing the meeting.

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