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The Buzz Around School Budget Hold'em in Connecticut

Connecticut School System Leaders Re-Think the Budgeting Process

“What should our priorities be?” asked one school official from a rural Connecticut district.

“Well…student performance is an issue,” observed a school board member across the room.

“What’s the scope of our recommendation? Are we only thinking about this budget year, or for the long term?” queried an urban superintendent.

“Ok, let’s stop and look at our options. What else do we need to do to raise student achievement, that we haven’t done?”

 

Such was the buzz of conversation at the LEAD Connecticut Summit on May 28, in the session lead by ERS’ Randi Feinberg around the interactive tool School Budget Hold’em. LEAD Connecticut is a new state-sponsored effort to develop principal, central office, and superintendent leadership across the state. Through engaging with School Budget Hold'em, over 70 district superintendents, school board members, and other high-level school leaders challenged each other to step outside of the constraints of their day to day decision-making, and think of budgets as an expression of their dreams and visions for their school system.

School Budget Hold’em—as many colleagues of ERS know—is an interactive exercise based on a deck of cards that represent savings and investments a typical school district might face. The object of the game is to select a hand that combines strategic budget reductions and includes investments for improved performance. In the past two years, over 6,000 school leaders across the country have played the game as way to stimulate creative conversations about school strategy, educate the community about budget realities, or even shake up the dynamic of contract negotiations.

At the LEAD Connecticut Summit, there was spirited conversation all around the room as groups from different parts of the state grappled with common concerns and trade-offs. One group felt they could afford to reduce special education aides if they coupled it with adding PreK for half of Kindergarten students (a big ticket item) and invested in a Response to Intervention (RTI) program. Another group wouldn’t touch Special Education, but decided to eliminate Cost of Living (COLA) increases for teachers. Some groups saw Hold’em as an idealized exercise—an opportunity to choose only the things they felt would work best for students, without the realities of union negotiations or local politics. But others decided to heed Feinberg’s suggestion to “be bold” in their choices. Superintendent of New Fairfield Public Schools, Alicia Roy, commented, “If there is any moment at which we could seriously have these kinds of discussions—it’s now. You can’t keep doing more with less, and I think school systems are really grappling with that. Now is the time to look at new ideas, in an era of budget shortfalls.”

Some of the participants may have been inspired by the lunch speaker at LEAD Connecticut, Rick Hess, who urged the school leaders to be “cage-busting” leaders—those who refuse to see constraints as permanent, who seek creative solutions and ask hard questions. The goal of School Budget Hold’em is not to dictate specific investments or cuts, or to encourage districts to necessarily take on drastic measures. It’s to give participants the experience of tying budgets to strategic priorities, matching investments with cuts, and freeing the budget process from the routine of spreadsheets and incremental reductions.

Mary Roy, a school board member at Suffield Public Schools, said, “It’s great to incorporate more interaction into a budget discussion. The Finance Board always wants to focus solely on the bottom line. We don’t often get a chance to consider the trade-offs that go into it. I’d like to have them play this game.” Roy also hoped to play with PTA groups and other community members.

Ann Gruenberg serves on the Board of Education in Hampton, CT. She admitted that she approached School Budget Hold’em with skepticism at first. “After recently going through a budget process where a 0% budget was voted down, the idea of playing a game, well, I had some resistance to that. It seemed a little silly.” But she said the actual experience was different. “I liked the structure of School Budget Hold’em. It was refreshingly therapeutic. I’m recharged to go back and engage again in the process.”

Across the room, groups could be heard debating hard choices in the language of trade-offs, not of wins and losses or “making due” with less. One participant observed after a series of choices were made, “We’re at a wash budgetarily, but we strengthened the educational experience for students.” Another was heard to muse, “I would love to include that program…but then what would you cut?”

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