Budgets Are Declarations of Belief

Blogger side note: Sometimes if you procrastinate on a blog post long enough, you get to write the original post and the follow up post all in one go.
So...that’s fun.

Why Is No One Else Excited About This?

I seem to really like doing a part of my job that my coworkers and peers in other districts seem to dread.  I am a first year administrator, the Director of Educational Technology in Alisal Union School District; I am also originating the position.  Budgeting and budget projections have become a thing I like doing.  To me there are so many positive and intellectually engaging things here.

It’s like a puzzle where what I want to accomplish and what I can (theoretically) accomplish come together and I have to make the pieces fit.  I like puzzles and problem-solving.  We’ve been asked to do 3 years of projections and in each year we have to cut by 10%, by the end of 2019 - 20, it will have been reduced by 30%.

So this seemed like a critical but interesting challenge.  It was also a gut-check moment: What do I really believe my students and teachers need, and how am I am going to put resources into that when resources are diminishing?  But on an emotional level, budget projections and action planning, especially around edtech, are what one of my favorite authors, Sarah Vowell, describes as a “snowball moment.”

Vowell, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike, 2009. Print; pg 54.

Yes, budgets carry real effects and mean choices, impacts, and sacrifices. These are not always fun. But, to me, when you’re doing the projections, the harder parts have yet to happen.  The plan hasn’t met reality yet; the mistaken suppositions haven’t come to light, errors and emergencies have yet to happen.  Budgets, despite all the constraints and must-dos they are required to have, are a votive list in which we as leaders say, “this is what we believe in; this is what we are going to support; this is what we promise to do!”

Who wouldn’t be excited by that?

I didn’t realize I was kind of alone in this mindset this until I had a conversation like this with a fellow director before a school board meeting.

HIM: You have a good day?
ME: Yeah! Me and my team spent the afternoon doing our 3-year projections with those cuts we were asked to put in!
HIM: (groans) Ugh, budgets.  You seem excited by that.
ME: Yeah, I think we got a really good plan…(dawning realization) Wait, you don’t like doing that?
HIM: No.  I hate budget projections.  In fact, you’re the only one I know who has ever said they liked doing this...especially during [budget] cuts.

I am, however, undeterred.  As an administrator, I don’t have a lesson plan anymore.  I have an action plan and it’s accompanying budget.  These are a statements of what I know in my bones to be the best solutions for our students and teachers to become fluent in 21st century learning and teaching, and ultimately to become engaged citizens of the connected world.

Being a leader, I now get to do everything in my professional power to execute, to make those solutions a reality. ¡Ándale pues!

The Follow Up - Round 2: Is It Still Fun?

In California right now, we’re not exactly having hard times, but we’re heading into what looks like a few years of budget reduction.  This is because STRS (State Teachers Retirement System) and PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) contribution rates are going up, and will continue to go up as far as the 19- 20 school year.  So even if our budgets are leveling off, the mandated costs of those items is going up dramatically.  For me this involved a couple of complications.

We have a new fiscal director who pointed out that we’d been making some errors in our budgeting practices.  While we were putting in our salary costs for stipends and timesheets--“supplemental salary” (which make up a large portion of my professional development budget), we’d been leaving off the associated benefit costs. We were accounting for paying our folks their extra income, but we didn’t realize that the extra money that goes into retirement and medical for them ALSO had to come out of those budgets.
You know, the budgets we’d spent all that time cutting by 10% year over year.

If the first one was an interesting puzzle and a gut check this was kind of a body blow.  In real numbers, this was an additional 2% in 17 - 18, 3.5% in 18 - 19, and 5% in 19 - 20 in cuts that I had to find, while maintaining all the beliefs and hopes for efficacy I talked about above.  The absolute dollars were the same, but how much of them I was going to be able use went down each year.

When you have to do this, it’s just you and the spreadsheet and the math.  There is no negotiating, no pleading; like Shakira’s hips, numbers don’t lie. You’re either within the limit, or you keep finding cuts.  But I wanted to be a leader, and this was a leadership moment.  And I don’t mean to be too melodramatic, but when you’re trying to build a program, there’s a lot of attachment to it.

I admit this time I was less eager.  This time, “stuff got real.”  It’s not that I didn’t take it seriously before, I absolutely did. But it was a thing I thought I was done with for a while.  I still viewed it as an engaging puzzle, but this time was more serious, somehow. The deadline was closer, the amounts higher, but I still didn’t dread it.

“Like” is maybe not the right word for how I felt about it, but positive definitely is.  I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to do it.  My ardor was not reduced in any way.  I know my professional convictions; I know what I think is the right path in edtech. If anything the creative constraints got tighter and I wanted to do it more.

This budget is my promise to my team, and the teachers and students of this district, “This is how we’ll prepare you for the future of education.” Why wouldn’t I be excited about making and keeping that promise?