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Budget Hold’em for Districts

The Trade-off Game to Transform District Budget Challenges into District Budget Best Practices

Budget Hold'em for Districts is more than a game—it’s an interactive exploration of the thoughtful trade-offs school system leaders must make in these challenging budget times. Playing the right cards can help guide your district’s budget best practices to transform your district to make the most of every dollar, while increasing student success. Based in ERS' 12 plus years of experience working with district leaders, Hold'em is an excellent way to build consensus and spark innovative thinking before developing your annual budget, building district budget best practices, writing a strategic plan, or communicating with stakeholders such as school boards, parents, unions, legislators, and more.

Hold'em encourages districts to move from default ways of cutting budgets to really rich conversations about district budget best practices regarding where to invest to drive dramatic improvements in student learning.

Registering for a free ERS account
lets you easily save, share, and compare your results with colleagues. Remember to save your hand at the end!

Or, Play in Person


The online version is a great introduction to the game, but we have found that districts reap the most benefit from an in-person workshop. In-person group exercise leads to the most powerful changes in budgeting culture and district budget best practices. Our Facilitator's Guide explains how.

Download the Guide

Thanks to the support of our funders, we can offer online Hold'em for free. To play in person, you need to order a deck. Decks cost $19.95 to cover the cost of production.

Hold'em was first released in November 2011 and updated in October 2017.

Please note that due to the COVID epidemic currently facing the US, ERS has largely moved to a telecommute policy. As a result, your Hold'em order may be delayed by up to a week. Please reach out to Becca Luberoff if your order is large or urgent, and we can expedite on an as-needed basis. Thank you for your patience and flexibility in these unusual circumstances.

How to Play

Take the perspective of a school system leader, like a Chief Financial Officer, Superintendent, Chief Academic Officer, or Chief of Schools. Hold'em works best when you play in a group representing different departments, including finance and academics.

Keep in mind your school system's most important needs, priorities, and aspirational district budget best practices.

In the game, you'll receive "deals" of cards describing potential investments and savings. Choose to "play" cards that fit your priorities, increase student achievement, and help meet a budget target. Be realistic, but also open-minded and bold.

In the final round, you'll find more information on the resource strategies you chose, which you can apply to your own districts’ budget best practices.

Why Play Hold’em?

School systems can't afford to just cut - or to layer new money onto old strategies. If we want to improve student achievement, education leaders must think differently about how to balance reductions and investments. This means working across departmental "silos" to craft a budget that reflects the district's key priorities, takes into account the "return on investment" of new strategies (in terms of student achievement) and thoughtfully pairs strategies to have the greatest impact and develop district budget best practices.

This tool uses real district data and scenarios based on ERS' work from over 15 years in districts nationwide. It has been played by over 10,000 people in person and online, and continues to be used by district leadership teams, board members, teachers, and more.

How have districts, education advocates, legislators, and more used Hold'em?

  • Is Your Budget Designed to Accelerate Student Learning?: The background on Hold'em, tips for playing, and the story of how San Francisco Unified used the tool

    Excerpt: Seven years ago, Education Resource Strategies tried an experiment. We were working with New York's Rochester City Schools, which faced low student performance, increasing student need, and a growing budget gap. The district was considering across-the-board cuts, but ERS team members Regis Shields and Betty Hsu Chang wanted to help leaders consider fundamentally new ways of organizing resources, making difficult trade-offs that might lower costs and improve student performance, and developing district budget best practices. They had an idea: why not present investment and savings options on a deck of cards, and allow teams to select a “hand” of cards that met district priorities and the budget target?……

  • Learning When to Hold’em and Fold’em in Memphis: Memphis City Schools used the concepts behind Hold’em to revamp and improve their district’s budget best practices and budget development process

    Excerpt: If your school district is facing a budget issue, it might surprise you to learn that the solution might very well lie in a game of cards. That certainly was the case earlier this year for the city schools of Memphis, Tennessee.
    The game is called Budget Hold’em, and it was developed by Education Resource Strategies (ERS) of Watertown, Mass., in 2010, after what ERS director Regis Shields describes as “a regular, yearlong resource mapping process” conducted on behalf of the Rochester, New York, school district. The previous year, each department in the district had been asked to cut 10% from its budget. While each duly complied, almost all also added new favorite projects or programs—with the result that, at the end of the process, the district had a net gain and a set of district budget best practices rather than a reduced proposed budget……

  • The Buzz Around School Budget Hold’em in Connecticut: District superintendents, school board members, and other high-level leaders from throughout Connecticut play Hold’em to consider new resource strategies and district budget best practices

    Excerpt: “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 and district budget best practices for their school system……

  • In Cleveland, School Budget Hold’em Breaks the Ice: Leaders from Cleveland Metropolitan School District and teachers union representatives play Hold’em during contract negotiations

    Excerpt: In the back of a sports bar in a Cleveland, Ohio, three groups gathered around decks of cards. They were trading different options—one person adding money to the pot, another taking it away. They were discussing strategy for district budget best practices, considering big risks for big rewards. There were chicken wings, French fries, and beer. People from different teams were working side by side, exchanging dug-in positions for possibilities……

  • Making Tradeoffs to Fund Expanded Learning Time: Over 200 principals, teachers, district leaders and staff from the nonprofit Citizen Schools played Hold’em to find ways to fund expanded learning time

    Excerpt: On Friday July 12, Principal Associate Randi Feinberg and Associate Nisha Garg met with over 200 principals, teachers, district leaders and Citizen Schools staff from across the nation at the third annual Citizen Schools Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Partnership Summit. The group came together to consider how programs offered by Citizen Schools, a nonprofit organization which works with low-income public middle schools to provide a longer learning day, can enrich students’ academic experience—as well as how such programs can be funded within district budget best practices. ERS’ Budget Hold’em for Districts game was a centerpiece of the discussion……

  • Hold’em and the Massachusetts Urban Superintendents Network: Urban superintendents play Hold’em to learn how to engage different constituencies in a new conversation about budgeting and district budget best practices

    Excerpt: The week of October 15, 2012, Karen Baroody and [Rob Daigneau] presented School Budget Hold'em to the Massachusetts Urban Superintendents Network, a group of 24 superintendents who meet monthly to network and share district budget best practices.
    This group has been meeting with each other and the state DOE for several years to collaborate on breaking down barriers to district transformation. The current fiscal climate, combined with political realities, has made it difficult for these superintendents to make the investments and district budget best practices they would like in teacher collaborative planning time and targeted individual attention. We presented Hold'em as a tool to engage different constituencies within their districts in a new conversation about budgeting and the difficult tradeoffs it often entails……


Looking to plan, focus investments, and navigate tradeoffs in spending your ESSER dollars? Play ESSER Hold'Em to spark rich conversations about ESSER planning that inform investments and drive dramatic improvements in student learning.

Using ESSER Hold'em, you can focus on the important questions such as:

  • How can we sustain the real change and innovation we’ve created?
  • How best can my district spend an influx of dollars while also balancing that with the impending revenue cliff we’ll see in 2 years?
  • How do we cut through the noise to focus on most important changes we need to make?

 Play ESSER Hold'Em

Budget Hold’em for Districts
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