The Cleveland-ERS Experience
Over the course of 2013 and 2014, CMSD partnered with ERS to design and implement SBB paired with a focus on Strategic School Design. ERS worked with district leadership on all steps of the process, from defining funding weights in the SBB model, to creating enrollment projections to sharing Strategic School Design templates. ERS also provided training and intensive coaching on Strategic School Design to two cohorts of schools—19 altogether. The focus of this design work was to create school plans that better matched their resources to their core strategy and vision. For example, among the 10 schools in the second cohort:
Through our partnership with CMSD, we have learned from the roll-out of this special SBB-Strategic School Design model. After reflecting on the achievements and challenges of our work thus far, we identified the seven critical “success factors”, explored in the paper that follows. We hope these guidelines provide a roadmap for any other district that is interested in using SBB as a tool to improve student outcomes.
- Eight schools planned to increase structured and supported teacher collaborative planning time
- Eight planned to implement targeted and dynamic student grouping strategies, such as tutoring, more deliberate regrouping across grade levels, push-in of specialists, and targeted class size reductions
- Six planned to implement supports for social and emotional learning (SEL), such as peer buddy programs, SEL programs, and adding school-based social-emotional staff
Place academic or school-support leaders in charge (not Finance)
With a name like Student-Based Budgeting it may seem natural to put the budgeting department in charge. But as argued above, SBB and Strategic School Design must be linked; one is not as powerful without the other. Therefore, ERS recommends that districts approach SBB-Strategic School Design as an academic reform strategy. This means that the Academics department (or another department with a substantial connection to schools, such as school leadership support) must direct the effort and ensure it aligns with district-wide academic priorities. The Finance department remains a key partner, however: understanding the ins and outs of the budget, making allocations based on enrollments, and handling other aspects of technical execution.
CMSD’s experience in design and implementation of SBB illustrates the importance of leadership by Academics. Initially, SBB was driven by the CFO’s office, with the Academics office expected to play an important but supporting role. As a result, school supervisors—those staff who guide school leaders—were not an integral part of planning for SBB. They reported feeling unprepared to support their principals on SBB or Strategic School Design, and unsure how to juggle this new paradigm along with many other academic priorities. In reflecting on its experience, CMSD decided to assign a member of its Academics team to direct SBB/Strategic School Design moving forward, charging this person with responsibility for engaging school supervisors in the process. Additionally, CMSD planned to embed school design in the capacity-building plan for school supervisors, before they need to support principals the following year.
This school-level, academics-oriented expertise should be leveraged throughout implementation – from informing SBB policies, to providing Strategic School Design support for principals and school supervisors. When the district is building its SBB model, academics and school-support personnel can provide expertise as to what flexibilities will be most useful for school leaders, better identify Strategic School Design best practices already in the district, and credibly provide training and accountability for school leaders. If an academic leader or school supervisor leads this work from the beginning, the entire enterprise becomes about how SBB enables Strategic School Design – and not just a funding exercise meant to distribute funds differently.
Choose resource flexibilities that best support Strategic School Design and enable principals to make meaningfully different choices
When school districts build their SBB model, they must define what part of each school budget is “locked”—i.e. managed by central office—and what part is “unlocked”—i.e. available as part of the SBB allocation that school leaders can use freely. However, it is not enough just to push money into an SBB formula for principals to control. School leaders must be given flexibility over the resources and choices that will actually impact their school designs. Instead of simply trying to unlock as much money as possible, district leaders should prioritize resources and choices that create the greatest flexibility for Strategic School Design. They can also consider unlocking resources that are not core to Strategic School Design, but which free up funds that can be transferred to instructional priorities, based on individual school circumstances.
For example, it is generally strategic to give school leaders control over their instructional staff and scheduling. CMSD took this route by giving principals the flexibility to choose the number and types of instructional positions at their schools, consistent with collective bargaining requirements. They also allowed some flexibility over the length of the school day. This lets a school leader decide whether to use her resources for another English teacher, or to extend the school day, or group students differently to provide greater individual attention. Moreover, CMSD gave principals control over the substitute budget. While this resource is not core to Strategic School Design, it is a pool of money that school leaders can tap to support other strategic choices. For example, before SBB, Cleveland principals had no direct incentive to lower their substitute expenditures. Now, principals can actively encourage teacher attendance and use those freed funds to invest in their designs (like smaller class sizes for targeted groups of students, etc.)
On the other hand, it is less important to unlock resources that are unlikely to be used any differently when schools control them. For example, self-contained Special Education classrooms represent a significant amount of total school spending in CMSD. However, because those services are highly prescribed by students’ IEPs and state-mandated staffing ratios, CMSD’s SBB design team—the group charged with shaping the systems and policies of SBB—determined that “unlocking” them was unlikely to change service delivery for the vast majority of schools. They thought it was better in the first phase to give flexibility over staff that serve low-need Special Education students—to encourage more inclusive Special Education placements and innovative co-teaching scenarios that serve more students, and better align special education resources to students’ needs.
Finally, it is important for districts to try out flexibilities and get feedback from school leaders. In 2014, ERS and Boston Public Schools asked principals across the district their opinion on resources flexibilities. At least half of principals surveyed said they wanted flexibility to define staff job descriptions, make final decisions on hiring and exiting staff, and choosing interim assessments. They did not want to contract with food service vendors or transportation partners. This study was invaluable to Boston’s future thinking on school autonomy. In Cleveland, the district piloted school flexibility with nine high-performing schools, called the Transformation Schools Pilot, before implementing SBB. These nine schools had greater flexibility over their budgets during the 2013-2014 school year, allowing the district to understand the types of changes principals wanted to make, to test if central functions were ready to support them in this way, and to plan how to offer better support in the future. In addition to this pilot, the SBB design team included nine principals and seven central office staff. This input from both principals and central office staff was critical to understanding how to prioritize resource flexibilities.
Connect budgeting to the school planning process
In many districts, the central office hands down most of each school’s budget and staffing allocations in the spring, before principals even get to school planning closer to the summer. This means that school leaders end up creating new school plans based on what they did last year—instead of first identifying their school’s fundamental needs and goals, and building a budget and plan shaped by awareness of those needs.
In an SBB-Strategic School Design district, budgeting and strategic school planning would be integrated. First, the district should support principals to begin school planning before they receive their budgets. This means helping them identify their school’s needs, goals, and resource priorities—just as Dr. Tamea Caver and Victoria King did in CMSD. Once the school leader understands the needs of her school, then she can work with central office experts and her instructional supervisor to figure out how to make her plan work given her school budget and staffing options. This may happen before or at the same time as the district calculates next year’s enrollment and budget allocations to schools. This process is iterative - school leaders can start planning early, but then revise as they receive more budget information.
It is admittedly difficult to get this process exactly right due to conflicting timelines. For planning purposes, the school planning process would ideally start as early as possible, potentially December or January. This would allow school leaders to identify their school’s academic needs and goals early, prior to getting school budgets. Budgets would then be released early in the year, by the end of January, so that schools could create final staffing plans by early March, allowing the district to jump start the hiring process early in the spring. This would give the district access to a larger pool of potential candidates, allowing them to better recruit to meet the needs of their schools.
In reality, however, it is difficult to finish this process early in the spring, as school leaders and central office staff are still only partially through the current school year. In December through March, school leaders will not have complete information about their student achievement and teacher effectiveness, making it difficult to know exactly how to plan for next year. Similarly, the district budget is likely still in flux, as the district must wait for federal, state, and local revenue to be finalized. With all of these hurdles and tradeoffs, the point is not to plan perfectly from the start. The point is to start planning earlier as much as possible, and integrate it with budgeting so that that the needs of the school and the design priorities of school leadership shape the budget—rather than allocating resources separately and disconnectedly from school leadership’s vision for improving student outcomes.
In 2013-2014 CMSD made significant changes to integrate school planning and budgeting. First, they created a new template to guide the school planning process. Principals created their 2014-2015 school plans—including identifying the vision and strategic uses of people, time, technology, and money—in tandem with their final budget and staffing plan. To facilitate this, CMSD set up Network Support Teams, made up of representatives from budget, Human Resources, Special Education, and academics. Each team was assigned to work with schools in a particular network based on shared concerns/needs. School leaders met with their Network Support Team as they first identified strategic priorities and set the vision for their school, as they created strategic school plans, and as they aligned their plan with their available budget. The Network Support Team thus helped make school leaders’ plans come to life.