A recent school board retreat and ERS’ new game School Budget Hold’em are helping the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) turn a 10% gap in the budget into an opportunity to do more with less. Rather than resign itself to deep and debilitating cuts, the CMSD leadership team is actively investigating alternatives with Hold’em, an interactive exploration of the thoughtful trade-offs school leaders have to make in these challenging budget times. The game is becoming a valuable learning tool for school boards from Illinois to Virginia and Georgia, changing the way districts are thinking about dollars and resources. With an emphasis on both investment and savings opportunities, Hold’em is keeping the door open to sustainable school improvement during tough fiscal times.“Hold’em helped our board see how we could invest in critical educational areas while still making reductions,” summarized CMSD Chief Financial Officer John Scanlan, who organized the recent session in Cleveland. The Board of Education Chair Denise Link said that the board members were encouraged to think outside of the box when it comes to linking programs to finances. "This budgeting exercise brought some life to what can often be a rather dry discussion," she said.
A More Strategic Approach to the Budget Process
The current financial pressure and backdrop of looming deadlines prevent most district and school leaders from thinking long-term about best practices and improved outcomes. They look for the most expedient cuts, hoping to make minor adjustments to the previous year's budget, preserve existing positions, and perhaps purchase some new materials. There is little opportunity to combine budgeting with school planning.
Introduced to School Budget Hold’em at a meeting of the Aspen Institutes network of urban district CFOs, Scanlan saw the exercise as a way to create a more holistic and strategy-driven approach to budgeting in CMSD. “Rather than jump to specific dollar solutions, the game allowed us to discuss strategic resource decisions as part of our support for a new academic strategic plan,” he said.
Understanding the Tough Trade-offs
Hold’em simulated for the CMSD school board the difficult decisions required during the planning and budgeting process. Setting a budget reduction target of 10%, they selected from a deck of over 50 investment and savings cards, trying to find card combinations that promoted teaching and learning within their declining budget. Each card includes the percentage increase or decrease to the bottom line, explanations, cautions, and related investments so players can see the rationale, controversy, inter-relationships, and impact of the various card choices. Scanlan said that the game really showed the board how much things cost and the savings that some items delivered. “We used it to help the board become aware of the difficult trades the staff struggles with as we build our budgets in light of the significant shortfalls we are facing," he explained.
Building a Common Agenda
School Budget Hold’em has the potential to unite the thinking and efforts of school boards and leaders, who often come to the table with conflicting positions and priorities. Scanlan said the CMSD board realized that spending money meant cutting it from somewhere else, and that they need to be on the same page about programming decisions and clear about priorities. "We had the teams brief one another to see what other board members felt to be important," he said. "We then created a summary of their results to share as a group to look for common areas when we build our budget.” In addition to Cleveland, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, a small district near Grand Rapids, Michigan, has planned to use the game to help with the budget process during these tough times, as have Georgia's Hall County School District and Treutlen School District. Hold'em was also well-received in Texas at a recent forum, winning over leaders from some of the state's biggest districts, including Houston, Dallas and Austin.
Hold’em is a welcome addition to a district’s arsenal because a united school board, administration, and community are essential to safeguarding the needs of a diverse student population and investing in a sustainable vision for the future.