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Budget Preparation

Americans Gain an Average of Eight Pounds Over the Holidays Each Year. Before you switch over to a fad diet, consider a bigger weight loss goal: $122 billion. Since the beginning of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) we have been warning that when FY24 arrived Executive Leadership Teams would need to be ready to shed initiatives they can’t sustain and report on their Return on Investment (ROI). Teams also need to maintain those initiatives that produced Learning on Investment (LOI).

As we travel the country, we’ve been increasingly worried that Superintendents and Boards are waiting too long to confront the upcoming fiscal cliff. The reporting season is here as the US Department of Education just released financial reporting dates as early as March 2024 for all states. Chief Financial Officers and Grants Administration leaders have been patching budgets with one-time fixes as school returned from pandemic disruptions. Year-to-year, short-term solutions are not only avoiding hard decisions about the loss of ESSER funds but, we’d argue, are masking deeper, longer-term crises such as declining student enrollment, a educator workforce that is too large to sustain, and instructional offerings that are too diffuse to close learning gaps. It’s like taking on a fad diet, rather than making the necessary lifestyle changes.

Like getting to a healthy and sustainable weight, you’ll need to adjust both your intake and your level of activity. This starts with communicating a compelling vision of success shared with a wide range of stakeholders will ensure better results, more satisfied families and educators, and predictable fiscal planning.

Measuring Investment

ROI is a financial metric used to evaluate the profitability or efficiency of an investment relative to its cost. ROI is measured by dividing a company’s net profit by its initial investment and then multiplying the result by 100 to express the ratio as a percentage. But how to measure learning on investment (LOI)?

An LOI measure divides net student learning gains by the investment needed to generate that gain. This is a versatile process that can be applied to various scenarios, such as evaluating the performance of academic interventions, assessing the effectiveness of training programs, or comparing curricula. It guides decision-makers as they allocate resources effectively and informs choices about where to invest time, money, and effort. It also identifies initiatives that need to be strategically shed to make room for fresh approaches based on the current needs of students, families, and our workforce.

The Fundamental Challenge of Public Services

‘Public services’ – road maintenance, public safety, and K-12 education, for example – don’t have a ‘profit motive’. That absence makes it challenging but not impossible to measure the effectiveness of a public service. Historically, a particular public service will expand in scale or scope in response to political pressure and will be reduced or constrained when resources (usually tax dollars) are limited.

This push-pull dynamic can be seen as back-and-forth between resilience and efficiency. Resiliency in this context is the ability to respond quickly to things that aren’t predictable, such as an influx of multi-language students or post-pandemic student learning loss. Efficiency is simply getting the ‘most bang for the buck’ in the most expedient ways.

There’s a negative correlation between resilience and efficiency: when one goes up, the other goes down. Think of restaurants: they plan for efficiency, but customer volume is unpredictable and some diners want to change what’s on the menu. School systems are facing similar changes with volume (enrollments) and modifications (requests for new services such as intervention and student well-being). That’s the challenge presented by the fiscal cliff.

ESSER was intended to improve the resiliency of K-12 operations, providing for 1-to-1 technology, increased staffing, facility upgrades, and innovative methods and materials. The narrative of ESSER’s expiration is: “We gave you additional resources to help you through the pandemic and return to school. These resources improved your resilience but reduced your efficiency. That’s not sustainable. Now we need you to continue moving toward a ‘new normal’ by improving your efficiency and to do that, we need to reduce your resilience.”

This Superintendent’s Challenge

While CFOs and Federal Programs Directors have done a good job guiding districts through the last 3 years of budget-tailoring, now it’s time for Superintendents, Cabinet members, and Board members to take a longer-term, strategic approach to ensure that only the most effective strategies – those with the strongest LOI – are retained as resilience is drained from the system.

Researchers of corporate governance refer to this as “repositioning the core” of the business. LOI is not as clear cut as ROI. Superintendents are subjected to more public scrutiny and political pressure than corporate CEOs. As such, it’s important to design a comprehensive decision-making model, maximize appropriate stakeholder engagement, push for data-driven decisions, prioritize equity, and communicate a clear and compelling vision of the future emphasizing the investment, not the reductions. This will test even the most experienced Superintendents. In our next issue, we will offer practical, actionable ideas on how to get this done. But, before you stop eating all carbs, push your team to show the data wins for each initiative. It will become very clear quickly: if you can’t put it on a scale, it’s going to derail the weight-loss.

We are getting ready for two seasons: holiday season and budget season. In both instances, Superintendents, Cabinet members, and Board members can take time to reflect on what has worked in the immediate past and what needs to get adjusted. The final fiscal year of ESSER invites us to do this by crafting a compelling vision for well-resourced schools with improved efficiencies. There are some predictable trends in this invitation to adjust, based on our results and system’s response to the influx of these resources.

More often than not, when the K-12 system gets additional funding it responds by spending that money on labor: new positions, new support roles, and increased compensation (including, as we saw, retention bonuses). We see this investment show up across school district strategic plans. In 2023, we conducted a national scan of large urban school districts and found labor initiatives as second only to instructional interventions in over 80% of these plans. As pressure increases, districts also put funds into “promising practices” or innovative approaches intended to make things easier or improve performance. During the pandemic, these practices included facilities upgrades, new technologies, social and emotional learning activities, and high-quality instructional materials. Each of these expenditures need to be tested using the Learning on Investment (LOI) measure.

We offer these suggestions, based on our work with dozens of states and school systems.

  • Map Wins – Rigorously assess the LOI of each ESSER expenditure. In most districts these include new interventionist positions, enhanced after-school and summer school offerings, increased student support, and the scaling of instructional technology. Find sustainable funds for those with a high LOI and ‘strategically abandon’ those with low LOI. As strong innovative practices get institutionalized (e.g., science of reading, instructional technology), intentionally reduce the high initial costs of innovation and launch such as training and equipment purchases.
  • Go Lean – Step back and take a hard look at ongoing – and often redundant – costs you’ve built into your budget as various assessment and information systems have been adopted. Just as cable and cell phone plans take up an increasing percentage of our personal budgets these annual costs often receive too little scrutiny in district budgeting. (Note: These redundancies create other ‘costs.’ For example, duplicative assessment and reporting practices take time away from student learning and burden staff.) These cost savings can fund some of the high-LOI activities originally funded through ESSER.
  • Rethink Walls- No doubt the hardest and longest conversations will be about the size of your educator workforce. Nearly every district and school has unfilled teacher and paraprofessional positions. Even with grow-your-own approaches and increased state flexibility, it is unlikely that our current educator workforce is sustainable at the national, state, local, and school levels. Right-sizing the workforce is likely to consume the remainder of most Superintendents’ careers and the loss of ESSER is an important trigger. Solutions will likely include: adopting innovative instructional and staffing models that ensure that all students are taught by expert teachers; reducing course/program offerings in secondary grades; increasing class sizes; and closing schools.
  • Listen – Design and routinely use stakeholder engagement activities – not just at the governance level conducting parent engagement, community and business partner meetings, and at the school level – that encourage family engagement to understand the LOI and the trade-offs of budget choices. Routinely report on these activities and how they are informing your strategy.
  • Landscape – Move beyond annual budgeting by using scenario planning to take a ‘what if’ approach. Scenario planning smooths out short-term decision-making and helps stakeholders better understand the trade-offs. The capacity to project student enrollment by sub-group, teacher retention and recruitment by certification, capital needs, and fiscal resources by source will be needed, but these will build a system-wide culture of data-driven decision-making.

In the wake of ESSER close-out, the need to improve efficiency will certainly be painful, this is a normal cycle of rebalancing similar to the one many of us experienced when the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expired. Resilient school systems are those that adapt,innovate, and become agile enough to overcome challenges. We think though that this cycle is exacerbated by the acuteness of student learning loss and the growing threat of the teacher shortage. The latter is an opportunity to prepare for another season: hiring. In the coming months, we will spotlight how states and districts are thinking about recruitment and retention in compelling ways and getting results.

Remember the adage, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” If you oversee resource allocation, now is the time to admire the view from the cliff and find a safe path down to the valley, not step off.

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