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Balancing Limited Budgets for an Enhanced School District Experience

As we continue our look back at the top 5 TrustED stories of the year, here is story #3. 

Budget planning is one of the most difficult–and important–challenges any school leader must face.

In recent years, converging budgets and increasing cutbacks have made funding key school initiatives even harder.

The result? School leaders are becoming more discerning about how–and how effectively–they invest their limited funds.

While many school leaders remain laser-focused on academic programs, a growing number are also reporting increased value, and progress, in programs and trainings designed to measure and improve other areas of the school experience, including community engagement and customer service.

Despite uptick, school budgets still down

Since the Great Recession hit in 2008, school districts have faced historically low state and local budgets. Thankfully, according to data from the Census Bureau and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 2016 saw a recovery of sorts, with combined state and local funding approaching 2008 levels.

Despite the uptick, in 2016 (the last year comprehensive data was collected) overall state funding was still more than $150 per student lower than pre-recession levels, reports Michael Leachman, senior director of state financial research at CBPP.

Several states still struggle to provide adequate funding. Arizona, Oklahoma, Nevada–each of which faced teacher protests last year–join North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Idaho with funding levels at least 10 percent below pre-recession levels, according to CBPP. At least 12 states have approved cuts to “formula” or “general” funds, which support elementary and secondary schools, by a minimum of seven percent.

Experts say state and district obligations to fund public pension programs will apply even more pressure to state and federal education spending. According to the Hechinger Report, average school district payments for teacher pensions rose from $530 per student in 2004 to $1,312 per student in 2018.

The biggest impact

As school districts contend with shrinking budgets, a natural question emerges: “Where can limited funding make the biggest impact?”

In the test-heavy era of No Child Left Behind, funds were often prioritized for programs that would move the needle on testing or performance.

But, as ESSA expands the definition of school success, including new measures, such as school climate and quality, school district leaders are investing in other areas of the school experience.

School climate and quality surveys, technology to improve community engagement, and customer service and training for teachers and staff are among the emerging approaches appearing as line items in school budgets this year.

It’s a question of trust

For educators, it comes down to trust–and the thinking that, for students to succeed, parents, students, and staff have to trust their schools before they can be expected to achieve their full potential.

In a study first published in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, a group of researchers examined data from Michigan elementary schools, finding that the positive impact of social capital, or trust in schools, was three to five times more significant than financial capital.  

“Sustained interactions over time focused on children’s learning and effective teaching practice are the best way for people to build trust and build networks that are at the heart of social capital,” Roger Goddard, co-author of the study and a professor of educational administration at the Ohio State University, tells Ohio State News. “We need intentional effort by schools to build social capital. We can’t leave it to chance.”

Use what’s already there

If your school district is looking to build a culture of trust with limited resources, you may have more options than you think.

Several federal funding programs are available to fund communications and customer experience programs in schools. Here are just a few:

funding sources

For more on how to fund and implement a strong customer experience program in your district, sign up for a free consult with one of our school customer experience experts.