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Survey: Oakland principals like to control their own budgets

By Katy Murphy
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009 at 3:00 pm in finances, initiatives, school reform.

THURSDAY UPDATE: You can find the memo here.

A survey of Oakland principals by a local advocacy group found support for the district’s unorthodox, largely decentralized school budgeting system, known as RBB; it also found that one-third of the principals surveyed didn’t feel prepared or equipped to run their entire school budget, as they’re expected to do.

A memo to the superintendent and school board, which contains the survey results and recommendations, was led by Think College Now Principal David Silver and Esperanza (at Stonehurst) Principal Sondra Aguilera. It was staffed by Great Oakland Public Schools, a coalition that supports greater school autonomy, so I would have been surprised if the survey found that principals disliked the model. About half of the OUSD principals completed the survey.

Here is a summary of the findings, straight from the memo:

• 93.3% of principals surveyed value having decision-making authority over their school site’s budget
• 93.1% of principals surveyed responded that if budget cuts have to be made, the principal with the school community should have the primary responsibility for making these decisions
• 86.4% of principals surveyed prefer to have control over the number and type of positions at their schools (principal with community decides staffing instead of according to central office formulas)
• 82% of principals surveyed believe that changes to OUSD’s budgeting system are necessary
• 77.8% of principals surveyed believe that General Purpose dollars should be equitably distributed among all OUSD students
• 67.3% of principals surveyed feel that they have the ability, or are prepared, to completely run their entire site budget, including personnel decisions

The Oakland school district has a different way of dispersing money to its schools than most districts. To put it simply, the district doles out the dollars based on how many children attend each school, on average, each day. The principals, in turn, decide how to spend those funds — whether to hire a part-time librarian, for example, or an extra reading coach. Some schools receive more grant money than others, but you get the idea.

Unlike those in most other areas, Oakland’s schools must cover the cost of their actual salaries and benefits from the money they receive, so schools with newer, cheaper teachers typically have money left over to spend on other things (like extra training for the newbies).

Schools with declining enrollments often struggle under this formula, which the superintendent and the school board plan to tweak in the near future. 

As I mentioned yesterday, Silver and a few other principals spoke against the idea of giving schools more or less money based on their average class sizes (and how those sizes compare to the district’s target size). In the memo, they propose creating a floating pool of money into which schools with more than 400 students and/or below-average staff salaries can contribute 1 percent or less of their general purpose funds.

What do you think? I hope to post the whole Word document soon, but I’m dealing with some technical problems.

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  • Jessica Stewart

    I totally support the principals on this one. Decisions about schools should be made as close to the students as possible. One school might need a counselor while another needs a literacy specialist while another needs a math coach and another needs a family outreach coordinator.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    From what is reported here, this study needs more depth. There are too many variables and no controls.

    For one, it would be important to know how many of these principals had ever worked with the previous style of budgeting. If they had never personally experienced both forms, a comparison would mean very little!

    If vanilla ice cream is the only flavor you’ve ever tasted, you might say it’s your favorite one!

    Could it be that there are pros and cons for both systems which few, if any, principals remaining in OUSD are capable of elaborating upon? When RBB was instituted, what specifically was gained; what specifically was lost?

    As for the one-third of the principals who didn’t feel prepared or equipped to run their entire school budget, it reminds me of the time I attended the first School Site Council of the year, and the new principal came right out and confessed that she “didn’t know a thing about budgets,” but that she had been given three coaches to help her. I’m glad she was honest, but learning this wasn’t particularly confidence-boosting.

  • Gordon Danning

    The problem with giving principals control over budgets is that we are asking principals to be effective administrators AND effective leaders AND effective instructional facilitators AND effective parent liaisons AND effective disciplinarians AND, now, effective CFOs as well. The pool of people who can be all of those things is pretty close to zero. The more we ask principals to do, the less effective they will be at any of them. Is it any wonder that so many schools had problems finding principals this year?

  • Jim Mordecai

    Measure G finances with local parcel tax money approximately $20 million a year in funding.

    According to a recent hand out on OUSD budget, from CFO Hal, $14,873,932 of Measure G monies is used for RBB monies allocated to the school sites.

    I assume that this does not count the Measure G money spent on elementary prep period or teacher benefits payments. These cannot be RBB monies because the site has no control over the money.

    Point here is that of course principals want control over their budgets, but all money is not equal and can come with restrictions.

    Restrictions are placed on state and federal monies and restrictions are supposed to be placed on Measure G money and there is a board appointed Citizens’ Oversight Committee that must rule on how the money is spent.

    Unfortunately, during the state take-over Measure E/G money was spent for purposes that the voters had not authorized. If the newly appointed Oversight Committee is not as lax there will be less money to support RBB coming from Measure G parcel tax.

    If the current contract with the teachers is to be settled in the current environment of state imposed cuts, the amount of money allocated for RBB will have to be reduced.

    The question for RBB is not just who gets to make decision on how money is spent, but how will RBB continue to be financed?

    Ending RBB will not make principals happy but it will help to cut costs that almost all other school districts do not have.

    In addition, it is hard to justify cutting teachers when RBB needs to fund coaches to make it work?

    Gordon’s point about RSS is asking too much of principals is well made.

    Jim Mordecai

  • TheTruthHurts

    The sad thing here is that the discussion is about who controls the pieces of an ever-shrinking pie. Principals are making tradeoffs that our students shouldn’t have to suffer. This is not MetroPCS vs. Verizon. It’s a counselor or a math coach. Many of our students need both. That’s the shame of this all and it’s not the fault of the budgeting system, but “the system.”

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