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Budgeting for mean lean times

Developing Effective Budgets in Lean Times
MultiMedia Schools Nov/Dec 1995

No doubt about it, schools are in some tight economic times. An increasingly conservative political agenda, a national spirit of taxpayer discontent, a public demand for increasing the accountability of educational institutions, and every larger demands on schools are all beginning to force educators to make some hard budgetary choices. Too often some of those hard budgetary choices are made at the expense of the media technology programs.

So what is a media specialist or technology coordinator to do?

First, don’t give up hope!

No matter how poor a district may be, odds are that it has at least one exemplary, well-funded program. Maybe it’s science, maybe it’s the debate team, or maybe it’s girls tennis. It may as well be the media/technology program. By following some good budgetary practices and a few backyard political strategies, it is not only possible but probable that a media specialist can make his or her program the district’s shining star.

Second, recognize that good budgeting is your responsibility.

Building media specialists will play an increasingly larger role in determining the funding for their programs as many school districts move toward decentralization. As funds are given to buildings, site teams will determine staffing and resources. District media supervisors, superintendents, and even principals will have less ability to support or protect programs.

Finally, recognize that just making a good budget can increase the effectiveness of your program even if the effort does not result in increased funds.

As much as I hate sounding like a Republican, I have to say more money is not always the answer to better services to staff and students. A good budget requires planning, prioritizing, and accountability. When those things are done, better programming is the result - even without an increase in funds.

Here are some tried and true fundamental ways to improve your budget writing and fund acquiring effectiveness:

1. Know where your organization’s money comes from

Schools get funding from a variety of sources. The percentage that any one of these sources contributes to a budget can widely vary from state to state, and even from district to district. But nearly all public schools get some funds from:
• A state aid formula is usually a baseline amount paid to all districts on a per pupil basis. It comes directly from the state budget.
• Local revenue, often from property taxes, is often a large percentage of many states’ school budgets. It is this source of revenue which can create large funding disparities among districts.
• Special bond levies are usually passed to fund new buildings or sometimes large investments in technology. These usually require a public referendum.
• federal funds in the form of block grants, Chapter grants or special grants. These monies are a small percentage of most school budgets, but are critical to specific programs.
• Private dollars from educational foundations, parent organizations or endowments are becoming increasingly important to districts with lots of community involvement and some wealth
• Private and government agency grants can be a source of revenue for specific projects which address specific needs. Competition for large grants is becoming increasingly fierce, and good grant writing takes time, experience and talent
• Fund raisers can make small amounts of money for those who wish to hold them. Book fairs, candy sales, and car washes are best sponsored by a “Friends of the Media Center” than directly by school personnel.

Budget makers need to exercise caution if they rely too heavily on funding sources from outside the regular school operating budget. If media and technology programs are to be viewed as core to the educational process, then funding for them should be from the regular school budget.

2. Learn about your district’s budget

How much money does your school operate with each year? Where exactly does that money come from and where does it go? How much Block Grant money is available? What other special levies or grants are around? What is the budget for staff development?

Your school’s business manager can help you determine these budgets. They are by law public information. Visit with your school board representative and get his or her perspective on finance and the budget.

Take some time to learn how local tax rates are determined. Be prepared to take some time if you seriously want to understand these often Byzantine formulas. Learn the difference between capital funds and general funds. Know what tax abatements are. Take a school finance class at the local university. You will be able to amaze your friends, baffle your enemies, and never have to worry about running out of stimulating conversation.

Like other media specialists, I have taken my budget requests to my principal and been told there is no money in the budget. My follow-up questions then asked, “Is there money in the budget for textbooks? for band uniforms? for the office copier? for summer school?” If the answer to any of those questions was yes, then both the principal and I knew that the question was no longer one of “is there money in the budget,” but “how do we chose to spend the money in the budget?” An important difference that opens the door to budgeting for reasons rather than tradition.

3. Learn who controls the budget.

Does the superintendent in your district traditionally distribute funds? The building principals? A hands-on kind of school board? Is the money allocated to buildings on a per pupil basis, and then controlled by a site-based decision making committee? Is there a Block Grant committee?

In my experience, the happiest schools use groups to make budget decisions. While it is often an administrator who chairs the group, provides information, and guides the group to consensus, it may be department chairs or the site-based council who has the real say in dollar allocation. Find out.

Volunteer or run for governing committees. I am always shocked by how few individuals in an organization want to be decision makers. Serving on these bodies always takes extra time. But hey, one learns to love those 7:00 am meetings.

If you have a chance to take a decision making role and do not, don’t you dare whine about the choices that are made for you.

4. Learn how to write an effective budget.

There are a variety of ways to create budgets. Alice Warner describes six:
    • lump sum
    • formula
    • line or line item
    • program
    • performance or function
    • zero-based (Warner, 1993)

While it is good to know the distinctions among these budget types, they can basically be divided into two groups - those that are arbitrarily created and those that are outcome driven. How does budgeting work in your school: Are you given a sum of money and then told to make the most of it, or do you develop an effective program and then ask for the money to support it? If you are doing the former, change to the latter.

Get out your spreadsheets, and clearly show decision-makers how much money your program requires if it is to be effective. How can anyone give you what you want, if you yourself can’t determine it or communicate it? Be sure they know the consequences in terms of student learning of an unfunded or underfunded budget.

Know and follow district budgeting schedules. If your capital outlay requests are due February 15, then have them in on the 14th.

Determine all items for which you are responsible for budgeting. These things might include:
•     materials like library books, prerecorded videotapes, and computer software
•     computer, equipment, and library supplies like lamps, printer ink cartridges, and mending tape
•     periodicals and indices - both print and electronic
•    on-line service fees
•     licenses and maintenance agreements
•    staff development workshop and conference fees for media personnel
•    equipment
•    special projects
•     personnel
Good program-driven budgets have three major components:
•     goals - this is the effect my funded program will have on student learning
•     specificity - this is how much money I want, and this is exactly how I will spend it
•     assessment - this is how I will be able to tell you if the money you give my program helped it met its goals

Too often budgets have relied on state or national standards as a rationale for funds for resources and collection building. (The Colorado study shows..., Information Power says..., School Library Journal reports...) Just as there is cynicism about the political process across the nation, so is there a general distrust in statistics. The belief that statistics don’t lie, but liars can use statistics is deeply and widely felt. (After all, 90% of all statistics are made up.)

Rely instead on a budget which is justified because it supports the specific needs of your individual curricula, students, and teachers. The fact that Mrs. Green’s science students need more current and varied resources for their solar system unit will carry more weight that any state rule or national standard.

Relate your budget to your district’s or building’s long-range plans. If you don’t have them, start writing.

Remember also that media budgets which come as a recommendation of a media/technology advisory committee carry more weight than those developed by the individual media specialist. Who wants to turn down a whole group, especially if that group includes parents, students, and teachers?

There is only so much money in a school budget. David Lewis calls the public budget picture a “zero sum game,” and states that decision makers can’t give programs money they themselves don’t have. (Lewis, 1991) In tight financial times, I believe school districts with inadequate budgets should drop some programs totally rather than watch all programs become mediocre as a result of 10% cuts year after year. You may have to make a case for the media/technology program strong enough to take money from other departments. Prepare to make enemies. You had better sincerely believe that your program offers to children knowledge and skills and opportunities no other program in the school can. You’ll need a professional mission and the courage to do the right thing.

5. Work with other groups
There are other groups in schools which have educational goals and political agendas, some of which may be closely aligned with those of the media program. Our district has a legislative committee which meets during the sessions. We formulate a list of three or four items we feel are of particular importance to our district, and find ways to let our local legislators know about them.

Nearly all state and national associations with educational affiliations have legislative platforms - the school board association, administrators associations, parent-teacher organizations, the NEA and AFT, etc. These organizations often hold forums for local politicians. Attend, get informed and get active.

Our state library and media organizations sponsor a yearly library legislative day which gives librarians and media specialists from around the state a chance to visit with their legislators. Usually the school media people are scarce at this gathering. Join us.

Is one of your faculty, a neighbor, or church member in the legislature? Schmooze. Write letters. Send e-mail.

6. Participate in local politics.

County political party meetings and fund raisers often give you a chance to visit with a variety of local politicos. It’s always nice to be able to start a conversation with your senator by saying, “As we were discussing at the fall fund raiser...”

Help pass bond issues and elect school board members. Members of the community who have children in school and therefore a vested interest in schools are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the total population. It’s therefore taking increasingly more work to get referendums passed and progressive board candidates voted in.

Offer to give short talks at service groups like Kiwanis, Sertoma, and Lions. Inform the community about your program, and fill the talk with specific times your program helped individual students.

Of course one can always make the ultimate sacrifice: run for office. We all wanted to know about the skeletons in your closet anyway!

No time to create that meaningful, specific budget? No time to serve on the site based committee? No time to learn about district finance? Then you should certainly hope that your budget never grows. How would you ever have time to select, order, processes, and integrate all the new materials and equipment you’d finally have the funds to buy?

Tools That Increase Professional Credibility

Actions do speak louder than words! What better way to convince decision-makers of the power of information technology, than by using technology when creating and presenting a budget. These tool are ones which every budget maker needs to master:

1) A spreadsheet

While they come with a variety names, features, and price, all spreadsheets basically do two main tasks for budget makers:
• they allow you to easily add and subtract numbers
• they allow you to display those numbers in readable columns and rows or as charts and graphs

Budget makers can create easily “what-if” scenarios using a spreadsheet: If books average price changes to $14.50 from $14.00, what is the impact on the total budget? What if we order 50 computers with 8mg of RAM rather than 4mg of RAM?

Spreadsheets are also an efficient means for keeping track of the money you have allocated. A simple bookkeeping system which records the date, purchase order number, vendor, item and amount can do wonders in solving any discrepancies between your records and your business office’s accounts.

For most purposes, the spreadsheet included in an integrated software package like ClarisWorks or Microsoft Works has all the features you’ll need, and it is an easy tool to learn.

2) A word processor

One of the most popular refrains in writing classes has always been, “Does neatness count?” It did, and it still does.

A clear and readable narrative of your budget helps “sell” it. Good organization, correct grammar and spelling, and a clean layout are all more easily accomplished using a word processor. A sophisticated user can create use bulleted items for eye appeal and ease of reading, select appealing fonts for impact, and add graphics for illustration and interest. Robin William’s classic book The Mac is Not a Typewriter is an excellent primer for effective document layout (Williams, 1990).

Again, the word processor in most integrated software packages has enough features to create professional-looking documents. Good integrated software also makes it easy to add spreadsheets and charts to the budget narrative.

3) A presentation program

When pitching your budget to a decision-making group, a computerized presentation program can help your audience literally “see” the points you are making.

Full colored slides containing text, illustrations, graphics, charts, animation, and sound are created on a computer and then displayed on projection screen using an LCD panel or projector. These are displayed as the presentation is given. Sophisticated presentation programs give you the ability to create lists of bulleted items which “fly” onto the screen to create a “build,” create links to other slides or other programs, and use a variety of dissolves when changing slides. The stand alone presentation programs also include ready made backdrops, layouts, chart makers, and clip art.

While you can create a slide show using ClarisWorks, this is one application that calls for the features of a stand alone program. Claris Impact, Aldus Persuasion, and Microsoft Point-to-Point all give the presenter the ability to make effective shows. These programs also come with “wizards” which help new users create new presentations.


  • Lewis, David W. (1991, September 1). Eight Truths for Middle Managers in Lean Times. Library Journal, 116 (14). 157-8.
  • Warner, Alice. (1993, May). Library Budget Primer. Wilson Library Bulletin. 44-6
  • William, Robin (1990) The Mac Is Not a Typewriter. Berkeley: Peach Pit Press.

Doug's Magic? Formula for a Maintenance Budget

Here's one way to calculate what funds you should be spending to keep your resources up-to-date:

Maintenance budget = replacement rate X total number of items X average cost

(replacement rate = 100%/number of years in the life span of material)


If a school has 50 VCRs which cost $300 each and have a life span of 10 years,
    then the maintenance budget for VCRs should be 10% X 50 X $300 or $1500.

If a media center has 15,000 volumes with an average cost of $14 per volume with an average life of a book at 20 years,
    then the maintenance budget should be 5% X 15,000 X $14 or $10500.

(Remember the replacement rate is 100%/life span or 1.00/20 or 5%)

Here's one for you to try:

A school has 40 computers with a life span of 8 years. The average replacement cost of a computer is $1500. How much should be spent each year to maintain the computers?

Replacement rate =   1.00/ _______ years

Maintenance = ___________  X ____________________  X ____________________
                  Replacement rate    Total number of items        Average cost of an item


Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 02:25PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

Hi Doug,

I remembered this equation from when you gave it at the AISA conference last October! I am using it for our budgeting this year. Just wanted to say thanks. If it flies, it will mean an increase of 3X what we got last year!

Thank you!


June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim

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