The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Let’s Look Again at School Budgeting

on February 22, 2017

Recently, I‘ve read several articles about how tight school budgets are in many states, including, Oregon, my home state. Since I was a school principal from 1974 to 2000, in two different states, I think I know quite a bit about school budgets and how to manipulate them in order to make them— morally and legally —  serve well a school and its students. Although I can’t include descriptions of everything I did with budgets over so many years, what I wish to emphasize is the independence I had to budget for the things we needed, rather than following the preferences of superiors and state officials.

P.S Because my husband will be having surgery this Friday, I will not be able to post anything here for the rest of the week and, perhaps, the beginning of next week.

 My first experience in manipulating a school budget came when I was the English department chair at a Wisconsin high school. Our district had adopted a new set of high school English textbooks, but they were not what our teachers wanted. They felt that their students would be better served by choosing and reading good modern fiction books available in paperback. So, I ignored the recommendation to buy new textbooks and put our allotted funds into the category of “Additional classroom Literature.” Our request was approved and we got the literature we wanted instead of the textbooks. As a result we had several years of eager student reading and lively discussions. Since we still had old English textbooks on hand, we were also were able to use them when students needed to read poetry, essays, or short stories

Later, as an elementary principal in the same school district, I was able to avoid purchasing reading textbooks and workbooks, and instead to get a variety of high quality children’s literature. In addition, because most of the paperbacks purchased wore well over time, we were able buy more new titles in the following years and to discard the few old books that had not been popular. We also had enough money left  to buy newspaper and magazine subscriptions for all classrooms.

When I moved to Oregon I obtained a job as the superintendent/principal of a small rural school district that had only one elementary school and one middle school. There, I had considerable freedom to manipulate our school budget. At that time the overall amount allocated to our schools was decided by our school board and voted on by the community; so I was careful to explain each year what we were purchasing and why. It was very important to maintain the community’s respect and trust for our use of their money.

Our patterns of purchasing materials in Oregon were very similar to those in Wisconsin. Teachers at all levels wanted modern literature for students of different ages and abilities, not commercial textbooks or workbooks. Wherever possible, they also wanted some literature that fitted in with our curricula in history and geography.

As for math, when I came there teachers were used to producing their own student materials to supplement old textbooks.To bring them up to date in the field, I provided a week-long summer seminar that covered new ideas and processes in mathematics. Afterward, we bought some new math textbooks for teachers only.

Because we did not spend money on student textbooks or workbooks our school budget had considerable slack in it for us to spend on extras that would make our classrooms more appealing and useful to students, such as an aquarium and floor cushions.

Only once did I have a problem with budgeting. That year we received a small government grant that I planned to use to buy student reward items for our end of the year school auction; and I reported my intentions to the department that gave us the grant. I believed that my intentions were legitimate because the students who would receive the new items had learned important skills and behaviors in their school jobs that would serve them in the future.

Shortly after submitting my report however, I was visited by two state representatives who told me in no uncertain terms that I could not spend the grant money as I intended. It was meant for educational materials that would remain in the school for all student to use, not given over to particular students. If we did not plan to use the grant funds properly we would have to return them to the state.

At first I argued for the legitimacy of my actions; the items to be purchased would certainly benefit the students who received them. But I lost that argument and finally agreed to move the grant funds into our library account and use it to buy books and other library materials that would serve all students. At the same time, however, I moved a similar amount from our regular library funding into the account for our school auction. In the end our revised budget was approved and we were able to keep our grant and use it properly.

Although I am aware that school funding is tighter today than it was back then, and that school principals do not have as much leeway as I had, I can’t help wondering if schools couldn’t find more slack by reconsidering how they spend their allocated funds. Could they not cut back in areas that eat up tons of money and provide so little benefit, such as student workbooks, or figure out better ways to distribute what students truly need, by housing such things as reference materials in the library rather than in each classroom?

Beyond those changes, couldn’t states cut back on such things as the length and frequency of student tests, the number of supervisors and coaches assigned to monitoring school operations, or the emphasis on collecting all kinds of data?

I am also concerned about the costs of “personalized learning”, which involves having much more technology in every classroom and many types of programs to fit the needs of different students, plus the re-training of teachers to be mentors of students and data managers. Is this concept really a step foreword in helping students learn better or merely another pipe dream?

Finally, I wonder if the basics of teaching and learning have really changed as much in the past 20 years as many policy makers contend. Although I don’t question the value of having various forms of technology or the reality of the increase in our ability  to communicate, I believe that the basics of human learning are eternal and that students respond best to teachers who are well educated and sincerely dedicated to their intellectual, moral, and social development.

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