School-based budgeting gives power to the principals

“Knowledge about the needs of students is greatest closest to the student… School leaders require the ability to make decisions based on their knowledge, expertise and professional discretion.”

In a world of principal autonomy and school-based decision making, what is left for the central organization of a modern school district? Where does it fit in, and what role does it have to play?

Here in Nashville, the role of central office is changing dramatically. The top-down management structure is disappearing. In its place is a knowledge and support organization designed to provide central services, study and share innovative practices, develop leaders and keep schools accountable. In fact, this change is already reflected in the district budget and in a pilot program working in 15 schools right now for school-based budgeting.

What is school-based budgeting, and what does that look like?

At these 15 schools, principals have direct control over $6,300 per student (on average), meaning they can spend that money as they see fit. That number is expected to increase over time. The rest of the money goes to central services like transportation, food services, human capital, textbooks, building services and more.

SEE the school’s individual budgets.

The idea is to bring powerful decision-making power right into the schools, where the most knowledge about individual students lives. Next year, this program is expected to expand to 50-60 schools and could go district-wide by 2015-16.

During that time the whole concept could go even further, putting 100% of per-pupil funding on school level budgets. That would greatly expand the level of flexibility and discretion given to each principal and ensure funding is distributed equitably based on individual student need. In that scenario, school leaders would “buy” central services from the district, and there would be certain non-negotiable services like the Board of Education.

This is a culture change, moving central office to a system of specialized support for schools and giving more decision-making power to principals.

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What does a bank executive think about being principal for a day?

by Connie White, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Fifth Third Bank

As I walked up the stairs to start my first morning as Principal for a Day at East Nashville Magnet School, I wondered what the walls of this 80 year old school would tell me if they could talk. After my visit, again, I was curious what these walls will tell us in the next five years.

My prediction: I believe they will talk of the seniors who are better prepared, academically and socially, to be active members of society. I believe that 100% of the seniors will graduate, and even more students will gain and seize the opportunity a college education can bring. Yes I believe the walls will talk about reaping the harvest from the seeds sewn by the MNPS Paideia Lead Principal, Steve Ball, staff and teachers, in just a few years.

Why is this data geek (me), making a prediction without reviewing test scores? Engagement. Respect. Collaboration. Caring. Pride.

Yes, I saw all of that and more, when I recently had the privilege of visiting East Magnet Middle School and High School with Principal Steve Ball. I saw a team all focused on learning in an environment where students are encouraged to express their ideas and opinions. I saw students who were actively engaged and were taking responsibility of their quest for knowledge.

I wish you could have seen the fifth graders smile as they proudly gave articulate narratives about the outcome of a recent project using Power Point, posters, and props to make their points. Or if you’d seen every hand in the room eagerly waving to answer questions in science class, you might understand the level of enthusiastic engagement I saw. If you could hear the pride in Principal’s voice announcing in the morning call that two more seniors gained their college acceptance letters, you’d understand the caring for students. Or if you’d heard the students making their way to their next class continuously saying, “Good morning Principal Ball,” you could witness the mutual respect I experienced.

Admitting that I’d never seen such an engaged student body that seemed to have more interest in learning than social exchange at that age, I asked about it. “These students want to be here to learn,” said Principal Ball. I was somewhat astonished because in my high school days we thought about our dates, parties, and attire and talked about how we couldn’t wait to graduate to be on our own.

As we talked more, I learned that Principal Ball was responsible for bringing the Paideia education process to East Nashville Magnet Schools, a process where students actively engage in intellectual discussions and learn from each other. Using this process to discuss current issues, students also learn the art of collaboration as they learn to listen and value many ideas and opinions. I came to respect this process and understood that students could practice this process to learn throughout their life’s journey, whether in school, the business world or their community.

If you ever gain the opportunity to visit East Nashville Magnet School, I encourage you to go. I promise you, it will be worth every minute of your time to witness a team that focuses on equipping children with a good academic base, social and learning skills for life… and the academic knowledge to exceed national test scores.