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Alborn: Schools Need More Detailed Budget

OPINION 

I am a Strategic Planning practitioner (retired). As for bona fides, I was trained in strategic planning methodology while at Texas Instruments Software. I went on to apply this methodology to both government enterprises and Fortune 500 businesses for about fifteen years. That’s why I was happy to accept Prince William County Board of Supervisor’s Chairman Stewart’s appointment to the last two Prince William County Strategic Planning teams.

Thanks to a well trained county staff and motivated volunteers from the Magisterial Districts across Prince William County, I think we did a good job creating a strategic plan that represents a consensus view of what Prince William should look like. I am also pleased to notice that the Prince William County Strategic Plan informs the budget process, and is recognized as the road map to creating the annual budget.

As anyone who follows my column knows, I have been particularly interested in the budget process, or where our taxes and fees actually go. The budget executes the Strategic Plan, establishes measures, and defines government. While people of good will may disagree over the details, nothing happens unless there is money to pay for it.

Most people pay attention to Prince William County’s budget, but not so many people pay attention to the county School Board budget. In the past, it has been an obscure process that spends around a billion dollars and change of our money. Prince William’s public schools receives money from various county, state, and federal sources. It’s all our money.

I watched Chairman Milton Johns present the School Board’s Advertised Budget Fiscal Year 2014 to the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors Tuesday. As a Strategic Planner, I couldn’t help but notice that the budget presentation focused on money, not educational outcomes.

Slide one of the presentation listed major budget factors, or those things considered in doing the math. When I cross-walked these to the latest Prince William County Public Schools Strategic Plan FY 2011-15 (revised January 2013), I couldn’t help but notice that the School Board’s budget apparently has no relationship to its Strategic Plan.

That’s a problem.

As a taxpayer, I can only wonder why the school system bothered with the Strategic Plan if it is not the road map to the School Board’s budget. The major budget factors listed were certainly important; however, they are not (by the school system’s own judgment) “strategic.”

What I heard for approximately three hours on Tuesday was a discussion about the numbers, comparisons to what other jurisdictions spent, how the numbers moved up or down, demographics, and other interesting charts and graphs. What I didn’t hear was how the billion dollars and change was going to be spent to achieve the strategic goals defined by the county residents who crafted them.

Now to “connect a couple of dots.” The Prince William County Public Schools Strategic Plan FY 2011-15 (revised January 2013) actually does a pretty good job of defining community priorities and measurable results. It defines specific targets by year for performance improvements. The School Board’s budget focuses on things it builds and maintains, people it pays, supplies, etc. If you don’t do all of the latter within the context of the former, you can spend a billion dollars and still fail.

A budget that spends the public’s money must be created within the context of the strategy that the community created. This may happen at some level; however, it is important that a skeptical public understand how the School Board plans to spend our tax dollars to execute the strategy and achieve community defined goals.

Right now, I don’t think we do.

I would suggest that taxpayers should be interested in seeing a School Board budget that maps to its own Strategic Plan to demonstrate how our tax dollars will be applied to achieve community defined strategic goals. While many things easily map to the goals, budget items that have a tenuous relationship are easier to identify, and delete from the budget.

Salaries and benefits are 82.5% of the Prince William County School System budget. That’s good to know! I browsed the school system’s website for the next level of detail, at least roughly mapping this to the strategic plan I just couldn’t find the connection.

I want to see “the connection.”

I want to know, for example, how the FY2014 budget allocates those salaries and benefits to ensure that at least 40% of graduates will have received a qualifying score on one or more advanced exams, including Advanced Placement (AP) exams, International Baccalaureate (IB) exams, or Cambridge AICE exams (Objective 1.1.5) or reduce gaps among students in elementary schools (Objective 1.2.1), or the other objectives established in its Strategic Plan. You may read the full set of measurable objectives here.

Another slide tells me that 77.5% of the budget focuses on instruction. That’s a “warm fuzzy” number, but what exactly does that mean? How is it being allocated to help the School System achieve its strategic objectives?

What’s “in there”?

When we are talking about a billion dollars of our money, we want to see where it is going. I want to see a level of detail consistent with the detail provided by Prince William County’s Office of Management and Budget.

Mapping budgets to Strategic Plans is how those we elect ensure that our money goes to those things the community has defined as important. Its part of that “transparency in government” thing. To do otherwise eliminates transparency.

 

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