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Metro Schools' Budget Shift Gives Principals More Authority

ERS mentioned in The Tennessean

This article originally appeared on The Tennessean website. View that version here.

A big complaint among educators over the years has been the inability to handle budgetary decisions despite taking the brunt of the criticism for a school's failures.

This budget year in Metro Nashville Public Schools that all changes. In a shift to how it dishes out finances, the district has set the onus of budgetary decisions on the principal by allocating money based on student needs, meaning the central office has less control over individual school decisions. The new funding model is expected to allow leaders to then have the ability to install programs, teachers or aid in high-need areas, but will be speckled with challenges to overcome.

"It's a change of expectations," said Chris Henson, finance officer for MNPS. "And it will create a more equitable distribution of money through the schools."

This is the third year the district has used the budgetary process, but in a limited fashion. Next year, the district's 139 schools will use the system. Of that number, 18 will use the funding distribution in a more limited way.

The process is used by about 10 of the largest districts in the country and seeks to improve school funding equity, increase spending transparency and allow principals flexibility, according to a presentation Tuesday by the district.

"Our goal is to give principals and school leadership control over as many resources as possible to personalize their school design," the presentation says.

Based on the new model, $4,250 is allocated for every student. The district then sends extra money to the school based on numerous student characteristics that include whether the child is in poverty or an English language learner. The goal is to send the same money to a school for each student's differences.

This means the district will need to be very accurate in its student population predictions.

"Details really matter on this kind of change," said Jonathan Travers, a partner with Education Resource Strategies. The group has been working with the district to provide guidance in the transition. "This means getting as close to right as we can ... if you are way off, you will under resource some schools and over resource others."

Under the more traditional method of funding MNPS uses, the district sends money to schools that dictate what staff positions and programs are needed. A principal has about 5 percent control of the budget, according to district numbers.

Under the new model, a principal will have control of up to 80 percent of the money sent to the school.

The student-based budgeting model will place an increased amount of work on school leaders, and it is yet to be seen if all can handle the challenge. But the district says principals have been trained extensively and that training will continue.

Overton Comprehensive High Principal Shuler Pelham, who uses the new budgeting system, said it has been tough, but a welcome challenge. Overton High is an extremely diverse school that has challenges other schools don't.

The different budgeting system has been perfect to meet those many needs, Shuler said.

"The ability to look at school needs is critical," he said. "And what we use at our school might be different than another."

Also, to increase transparency, the district says it has an audit system in place and will use software to help leaders track budget changes. Federal funding counselors will also work one-on-one with administrators.

"There are checks and controls," Pelham said.

And money can be shifted to other resources throughout the year as the need arises, meaning a budget isn't set once it is drawn up at the beginning of the year.

Shuler reaffirmed that statement, saying an employee left mid-year and instead of filling the position, he looked to add components elsewhere.

"If money is freed up," Henson said. "Principals can look at things differently with what they have left."

Reach Jason Gonzales at 615-259-8047 and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.

Metro Schools' Budget Shift Gives Principals More Authority
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