A few years ago, I worked on a consulting team that was just beginning to help a relatively large urban school district with some financial analysis. I asked what I thought was a straightforward question: “What’s your operating budget?”
It took us a month to figure out the answer.
Why was it so hard? Like in many districts, the leadership team never considered the budget as one single bucket of resources. Rather, they thought of it in terms of revenue streams (for example, tracking what money came from the federal government, the state, and grants) and naturally the CFO had oriented her team to comply with the incredibly long list of strings attached. We were working with a fantastic CFO—smart, dedicated, and a great asset to her district. But sadly, the system had asked her simply to comply, rather than manage.
I wish that I could say that this instance was isolated. In my last decade of working in and around large urban districts, often on issues related to resource allocation, too often our efforts seemed a labor-intensive workaround to a broken system. We wanted to spend our time asking meaty questions: Where is the district getting the most return on its investment? How can we align resources (people, time, and money) to best support the instructional vision? Instead, we spent far too much time trolling through arcane, siloed, and often inconsistent data sets, trying to piece together where the money is and how people and time are actually being used in the current system. We were swimming upstream.
This summer, three organizations came together in an effort to address this problem. Education Resource Strategies (ERS), the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) will form the Partnership for Strategic School Management. Our goal is to identify and promote strategies that states can use to help districts effectively manage people, time, and money in pursuit of improved student outcomes. Our initial focus will be on learning and research as we speak to people across the country to more precisely diagnose the problems faced by districts and explore possible solutions that could be offered by states. At the end of our first year, we hope to embed the initiative within an existing non-profit or launch a new organization.
We chose to focus on states because we believe that they are uniquely positioned to help district leaders access data and tools that give insight into their organizations. While we will always need smart leaders and managers at the district level, the state has the opportunity to support those individuals through data systems (which can leverage existing data collection, and might not make sense economically for individual districts) as well as state policies (to give flexibility for districts to innovate).
I am delighted to be spearheading this effort. I hope that in the future, the CFO and leadership team I worked with back then will be able to spend their precious time focused on things that really matter—not just compliance, but rather the strategic allocation of limited people, time, and money to improve student outcomes.