It’s that time of year again: JCPS is starting to put together its budget. As always, this is a complicated, technical undertaking, involving predictions about how strong the local economy will be (which affects how much local tax revenue will come in) and how many students will enroll (which affects how much state money the District will receive), as well as guesswork about what our friends in Frankfort and Washington might choose to spend.
This is also the time of year when the first steps toward spending commitments are made and the District determines spending levels for schools. Later stages of the budget process will consider spending on central services, human resources, facilities and all other JCPS activities; the process starts with school level spending because that’s what Kentucky law and the practicalities of the calendar require.
What’s unusual this year is that the early, technical stage of budgeting has attracted a lot of attention and discussion, both among JCPS principals and central administrators, and in the broader public. I think this is a really good thing; let me explain.
Improving the Budget Process
For years, JCPS budgeting and spending have been shrouded in mystery and nearly impenetrable. Multiple outside audits have criticized the District for a lack of clarity in how spending was tied to claimed objectives, and criticized the school board for not understanding the budgets it approved. The District has taken those recommendations to heart and changed its process to allow for more transparency and input – all good things.
The District created a “Citizen Transparency” website (accessible here) that lets any citizen view, at any time, budgeted and actual spending at both the school and District level, with the ability to drill into contracts and even individual employee’s salaries. The board established a working group that included community experts to help map out the budgeting process and shine light on how money decisions are made, and hired a new Chief Business Officer to drive alignment between spending and goals.
We’re starting to see the fruits of these efforts. For the first time since I’ve been on the board, I’ll have the opportunity to vote at the beginning of the process on spending choices that I understand, after several clear presentations from JCPS’ finance team and healthy input from colleagues and the public. For the first time I have a clear understanding at this stage of budgeting of which costs are truly fixed (by law or contract), and which are discretionary in the sense that they might be shifted to different priorities.
This very real progress has resulted in passionate debate about where and how JCPS spends its money at the school level: Should all schools have the same student:teacher ratios? How much flexibility should reside with site-based councils versus central decision-makers? Are there teachers in non-classroom positions, or extra administrators, whose time would be better spent elsewhere?
These are hard, important questions. Healthy organizations engage in this sort of debate at budget time with intensity and zeal, so that the clash of defending the status quo and proposing change yields better results than either centralized diktat or decentralized inertia. I’m seeing more intensity this year, and I believe that is healthy. (The only unhealthy piece has been some confusion and misinformation about whether spending is being “cut,” which it emphatically is not – spending on teachers will rise under all contemplated budget scenarios.)
Later this year the budget process will consider other areas of spending – central services, human resources, facilities – with the focus on aligning every dollar of spending to the District’s improvement strategy via “zero base” review, so it’s important that the District strengthen this healthy capacity to make tough budget decisions.
Those still awake after these comments on the inside baseball of budgeting are surely asking, “So what? Why should we care, and why on earth should we be pleased that the budget has created more commotion this year?”
We should care because developing a budget is the first step in executing the District’s strategy for reaching the more-than-half of its students who today are not getting a good enough education. This strategy, just adopted in December and framed in the words “Vision 2020: Excellence With Equity,” calls for doing things differently in order to get different results.
This strategy (which I wrote about here) calls for moving beyond standardized academic testing to evaluate and teach students; for adding resources in children’s early years so that all read on grade level by the end of third grade; for personalizing education, especially to overcome the impact of social factors like poverty that challenge so many students; and more. I believe, with all my fellow board members, that this strategy can change many lives for the better and change the trajectory of our school system as a whole.
But strategies come to life only if real people, with real salaries, are tasked with action. And this means the strategic initiatives require money.
JCPS can get money in two ways: It can bring in new money or reinvest money it’s been spending elsewhere. Ideally we’d do both – but no one I know expects Frankfort or Washington to step in to fund Louisville’s priorities in the near term. Nor are board members’ inboxes filled at tax time with pleas to raise taxes to improve our schools.
If we want Vision 2020 to be more than pretty words on paper, Louisville must take the lead on Louisville’s needs. We have to evolve and move our money to solve our problems. Our students and our city’s future depends on JCPS’ improvement.