Budgetary Season is Upon Us – Tips for Boards

By Timi Tullis, AASB Associate Executive Director

This column was inspired by an article by Mark Snyder, New York State School Board Association

School budgets are not easy to understand. Every school board member has to grapple with topics including declining budgets, negotiated agreements, wants, and needs of students, community members, and staff. 

Be sure to listen carefully to the reports from your Budget Director and your Superintendent and then ask good questions:

  • How is the proposed budget aligned with our district’s vision and goals?
  • What assumptions were made in revenue and spending estimates?
  • Are we on track with our long-range financial plan?
  • Are we addressing building upkeep?
  • What capital projects are on the horizon?

Try to understand the numbers behind the numbers. For example, if you ask this year about the number of teachers and staff who are at or near retirement age, you will have insight into the likely direction of some key lines in future budgets. 

Board members would be wise to avoid these six budgeting mistakes in the budget development process:

Only budgeting for “right now” 

A balanced district budget should lay the groundwork for future needs and direction, not just getting through next year. 

Not preparing for ‘the unexpected’ 

Most districts have a certain level of reserve fund balances. Boards need to set aside money for heating system failures, unexpected building maintenance, transportation issues, and other surprises that often arise at the worst times. 

Overstepping the role of the board

The line between oversight and overstep or ‘meddling’ is a tough one. The professional staff has the responsibility to develop a proposed balanced budget, bearing in mind the expressed priorities of the board. It is the board’s responsibility to hear public concerns, give feedback to the administration, act on the administration’s recommendations, and, ultimately, present the public with what has become the boards’ budget proposal. 

Inadequate public participation

School boards will host a budget work session, but the superintendent and the board must outreach to ensure attendance at the work session.

Not having a district-wide Strategic Plan

Not having a plan leaves the administration with no direction as to where to build budgets. If there are no goals set by the community on what they want for their schools, the focus is left up to those developing the budget. A Strategic Plan lays out 3-5 key areas to include in the budget.

Not understanding financial issues that affect the district

The board needs to stay on top of enrollment counts, unfunded mandates set by the legislature and grants awarded to the district can all have an effect on the budget. 

As the process comes to a vote, the board needs to remember that it is THEIR budget, and they must own it and be ready to defend it to the public. 

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