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School Finance Literacy and Community Engagement

A brainstorm to improve budget meetings grew into a hands-on learning activity used across the state to explain school finance and budgeting.

By Scot Ecker
A confused, bored, overwhelmed, and glassy-eyed audience—that was what I was trying to avoid in an upcoming budget presentation.

Like most states, Wisconsin has a school finance system that is difficult to understand. The complex and ever-evolving school funding formula is based in large part on student enrollment, property values, and the consumer price index. Furthermore, the revenue and expense streams of individual school districts in our state can vary substantially, depending on a community’s demographics and historical spending choices.

Each year, school districts in Wisconsin are required by statute to hold a community-wide annual meeting or budget hearing. Often, large groups of constituents attend these annual meetings and then vote then and there on a local tax levy for the year. The local school business official has the task of presenting a complicated school budget and the proposed tax levy to the audience.

In preparation for this annual meeting, I wondered whether I could present this crucial information in a way that would be easily understood by a broad range of stakeholders, regardless of their financial knowledge. What could I do that would evoke discussion, generate action, and inspire change? There had to be something better than PowerPoint.

Financing Our Future
At ASBO International’s Annual Meeting in September 2010, I attended a breakout session called “Financing Our Future: A Tool for Community Engagement.” Presented by Dan Romano, it explored ways to create and use authentic community engagement and introduced a teaching/learning tool focused on school budgeting and finances.

A discussion with two colleagues from my state who also attended the session led us to agree that the tool seemed to have potential for teaching stakeholders about—and engaging them in—school district finances. But it would need to be customized for individual school districts, which would be cost prohibitive for each of us.

During the next several months, though, I began to wonder whether the tool could be customized to meet the needs of the entire state, yet be localized at the school district level and made available to all school districts cost-effectively.

At the time, I was a board member of Wisconsin ASBO, and I pitched the idea to our executive director and the other board members. During the winter of 2010, they gave me the go-ahead to explore the opportunity, which I did. In June 2011, I invited ASBO affiliate members (both practicing school business officials and service affiliates)—as well as representatives from our state’s school board association, school public relations association, and the state department of education—to an information session. About 40 people attended.

In August 2011, our ASBO affiliate hosted another preview event, and some core believers emerged. This initial group of practicing school business officials and representatives from the state ASBO affiliate, state school board association, state public relations association, and our state’s department of education became the project development team.
 
Spreading the Word
We began working with Dan Romano, who presented the session at the ASBO Annual Meeting, to develop Wisconsin’s first-ever statewide school finance learning tool, Investing in Wisconsin’s Public Schools. What began as a brainstorm to improve budget meetings grew into a hands-on learning activity used across the state.

We launched Investing in Wisconsin’s Public Schools in March 2012, and it was adopted quickly. In just over a year, more than 500 parents, community members, board members, teachers, and school administrators have participated in the learning sessions.

Wisconsin ASBO and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards use the tool at state conferences and conventions. Thirty-three school districts (nearly 10% of the districts in the state) and several regional cooperatives use it for learning and community engagement. Several universities have added it to the curriculum in their graduate programs for school administration.

Because this tool can engage a broad base of any population, it provides a new platform for building a solid foundation between the community and the school district.
 
Timeless, Functional
We spent a great deal of time designing this tool so it could be used statewide. We know that every school district and every professional education organization in our state can use it.

The tool consists of a visual presentation, facilitation of small-group work, and discussion. A 3-foot by 5-foot poster sets the stage pictorially so participants can easily learn about school finance regardless of the extent of their knowledge of finance. A trained facilitator, with guidance from a handbook, engages the participants (in groups of 8–10) in dialogue designed to lead to self-discovery, experiential learning, and insight into other stakeholders’ perspectives. Topics include:

  • Who are our stakeholders and what do they contribute to the schools?
  • What are the various sources of public funding?
  • What are the various expenses of public schools?
  • What are the ramifications of having insufficient revenue?
  • How does the effectiveness of public education affect stakeholders?
  • How would you balance the budget?
We were purposeful in making the content timeless and functional for many years to come. We were also deliberate in our efforts to create a nonpartisan learning experience—and were surprised, yet pleased, when our state teachers union purchased multiple sets of the tool for training. We believe other states can replicate our work with just a few tweaks.
 
Building Support
Like most states, Wisconsin is at a crossroads in education, with shrinking funding, increasing mandates, and politics. These issues, rather than student achievement, often take center stage. Many people have strong opinions about public education, but they often lack clarity about school finance issues. All too often, many district residents merely lament the cost of education, which continues to steer conversations away from improving student achievement. But a school district’s financial health strongly influences student success, and understanding that fact is crucial to ensuring a thriving environment for students.

Participating in the learning experience is transformative. Before a session, participants (who inevitably have varying degrees of knowledge about school finance) participate in a word association exercise for the term “school budget.” Responses most often heard are “complicated,” “taxes,” “confusing,” “overwhelming,” and “ambiguous.” When the exercise is repeated at the end the session, recurring responses are “community,” “student,” “engaging,” “complex,” and “interactive.”

By building an understanding of our schools’ finances, we convert former naysayers into champions of our school districts. This tool not only helps community members develop a strong bond with their school district, it also fosters a deeper understanding of the ways in which financial decision making affects the quality of their children’s education. It encourages the kind of thoughtful dialogue that inspires change and action on the behalf of students.

At the end of the session, participants often ask, “What can I do to help our school district?” When we hear that, we know that we’ve met our goal to provide an engaging learning opportunity. By building literacy in school finance, we have empowered the community to participate in local discussions about how to improve its public schools in a financially sustainable way.

We have created multiple opportunities for school district leaders to become trained facilitators; Wisconsin ASBO facilitates the training. Statewide, we now have more than 100 trained facilitators representing 76 school districts and reaching every part of our state.

Facilitators are volunteers—most are district school business officials. Facilitators survey participants after each Investing in Wisconsin Public Schools learning session. Feedback from this broad range of participants has been positive. This collaborative effort benefits school districts across the state in two primary ways:

  1. Accessibility and affordability. Wisconsin ASBO initially funded the development of the tool and deployed it statewide. It is available to all school districts at a price that’s manageable for even the smallest district.
  2. Consistency. One teaching methodology for all stake holders statewide promotes consistent learning outcomes.

The organizations and districts that have used the tool report that they have saved time and budget dollars by using this at-the-ready resource, minimizing the decades old frustration of trying to convey the complex finance issues of school districts to people who don’t have a strong grasp of finance.

After Investing in Wisconsin’s Public Schools was launched, I still wanted to improve my annual meeting presentation. In October 2012, I put the tool to use at our district’s annual meeting and created a web version for community members who could not attend. The web version is available for viewing on YouTube.