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Understanding the District Budget in Under a Week

Rapid Budget Diagnostic in California's "District Y"

District Y is a small urban school system located in northern California, serving about 2,400 K-8 students in its seven schools. Like many districts in the state, it faces significant enrollment decline and with it, a worsening budget deficit. District Y students have high needs - in every school, more than 80% of students live in poverty, many students have experienced trauma, and the district’s special education population is higher than the state average.  In early 2019, leaders wanted to better understand current spending patterns and how to reallocate scarce resources to support their key strategies for student success.

In that context, District Y called upon ERS for a quick turn-around analysis of the district’s resource use that we call the Rapid Budget Diagnostic. The project is based on ERS’ nearly fifteen years of experience working with school systems around the country, where we typically undertake an in-depth, months-long analysis of financial, human capital, and school-level data. This rapid diagnostic, however, was accomplished in under a week.

Over four days, the ERS team worked intensively to gather, analyze, and make meaning of both quantitative and qualitative data from interviews as well as district financial, HR and student information data. ERS’ analysis highlighted the following takeaways, among others:

  • Low per-pupil funding: Through District Y appears to have high per-pupil funding compared to others in its county, after accounting for student need District Y appears to be the lowest-funded district in the county - counting on $1,400 less per pupil than average.
  • High costs: District Y spends more nominal dollars than average largely because of:
    • The extra staff needed to educate its high-need student population -  including - including special education and reading recovery staff, psychologists, guidance counselors, and additional teachers.
    • The high fixed costs of small schools. These schools are not intentionally small, but rather have been reduced due to enrollment drain.
  • The design limitations of small schools: Having unintentionally small schools can limit schools’ ability to provide collaborative planning and feedback time for teacher teams, making it harder for teachers to improve their teaching practice. This also presents an opportunity to make school sizes more effective, perhaps through consolidation.

Insert link to the full anonymized deck here - though remove the slide with the image of the Bay Area (too easy to figure out what the district is)

The ERS team also identified opportunities for District Y to reallocate resources toward their priorities. These include:

  • Retaining excellent teachers: District Y can improve its teaching force by proactively encouraging the best teachers to stay and offering them leadership opportunities that increase their impact on school wide teaching and culture, as well as working with principals to find creative ways to increase teacher team time
  • Better supporting novice teachers: District Y can use a variety of scheduling and team options to ensure rookie teachers have the support they need through a lighter courseload and access to coaching
  • School planning: District Y can more effectively support principals in yearly school planning - which will allow those leaders to identify and implement new schedules and provide more teacher leadership opportunities

The findings above are typical of those the ERS uncovers through the Rapid Diagnostic.  Both ERS and the districts where we have conducted the diagnostic have found that it can be a powerful - and streamlined - way for districts to uncover quick answers to important questions about their resource use and to identify opportunities to use resources more powerfully. 

Next Steps: The Strategic System Snapshot | Mini is a 10 minute online assessment that asks district leaders to compare their resource use to best practices found in research and at high-performing districts from around the country. Completing the Snapshot | Mini is a good first step to understand further areas of inquiry in a Rapid Budget Diagnostic or other analysis.

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