How can school districts benefit from a zero-based budgeting model?
People work for 30 plus years to retire and then expect a return on their time investment. This might include a combination of savings, pensions, annuities, royalties and social security. In a stiff economy, school districts are faced with budgetary shortfalls. They are looking for innovative and efficient ways to improve student achievement while managing tight budgets.
So the questions to be asked: How can school districts benefit from a zero-based budgeting model? How should the zero-based budgeting model be created to show a return on investment? How does the expenditure budget differ from the zero-based budgeting model?
According to research, zero-based budgeting is defined as a “technique whereby each manager’s budget must be justified from scratch or zero for all existing and newly requested programs.” This process is conducted each fiscal year compared to budgetary decisions being based on previous year’s funding level.
To get a better understanding of zero-based budgeting model, I interviewed Superintendent Kelt Cooper of Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District in Del Rio, Texas. As superintendent with experience in multiple school districts, Cooper says that the zero-based budgeting model “analyzes human materials and data to determine if there is value” in activities being funded. He believes that all activities must have a purpose and desired outcome. School leaders must be able to defend their reasons for spending. They must measure the effectiveness of the activities to determine if there is a return on investment.
In order to show a return on investment, Cooper says that the zero-based budgeting model must critically analyze whether the activities being conducted are meeting their intended objective in the most efficient way. He explained that many schools organize staff development activities just for the sake of having activities to satisfy federal guidelines. Cooper provided an example where a school district spent almost $15,000 to promote a district-wide parental involvement activity at a community civic center, however, less than 20 percent of the parent population attended the event. In addition, the activity was a duplicate to an open house activity meaning the budget could have been spent in some other capacity and at a cheaper cost. In a similar case example, Cooper talked about a Quilting Club that had a sizeable stipend and functioned for eight years without any students. The return on investment was nil yet the principal was maintaining the program on the books and transferring the funds to his student activity account.
Through the zero-based budgeting model, Cooper says that there are baseline facts you cannot ignore, such as teachers’ contracts. However, he believes that you still can look at efficient ways to budget activities to meet the needs of the organization.
When newly appointed Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson of DeKalb County School System was questioned about how she would address spending at a recent roundtable meeting for faith-based leaders, she said the county will implement the zero-based budgeting model and focus its attention on what is best for children with regards to spending. Atkinson further noted, however, that she has to first staff on non-negotiable items and train principals to be good leaders in spending funds.
In contrast to the zero-based budgeting model, Cooper says that most school districts use the expenditure model by simply reviewing the revenues and expenditures from the previous year with the understanding that everything is fine. These districts engage in cutting activities from the budget without little or no consideration of what can be cut as oppose to assessing the effectiveness of programs from year to year. They fail to review every budget item at school and determine if the activity was successful or not. Cooper believes that the school budget should be tailored to the needs of students. It should include things that you can measure and evaluate periodically and annually.
Cooper cautions schools from budgeting for one thing and then spending on another. He says that if you budget items for football equipment, then the funds should be spent for football equipment, not pizza. In addition, Cooper cautions schools from cutting funds from the budget when items have already been approved. He says this is a disservice to the school and contradicts the zero-based budgeting process.
Cooper’s favorite slogan regarding the zero-based budgeting model is that, “if it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing exceptionally well.” He believes that people should view the budgetary process as if they were spending their own money. He believes that school districts should treat the zero-based budgeting model like a business allowing the business plan to drive the process. On the same note, Cooper believes the school improvement plan should drive the process for planning, implementing and measuring school activities for their effectiveness. He emphasizes that if the activities provide favorable outcomes, they demonstrate a return on investment and, consequently, get reinstated for the subsequent year.
So, just as a person working for 30 plus years expects a financial return on investment of those years, the school budgeting process must take into account what is the most favorable return on investment for the dollars being spent. Thus, school leaders must assess the best use of taxpayer’s dollars and budget the money as if they are handling their own investments for the future.