Minneapolis Public Schools leaders are holding public meetings to discuss allocating funds in a different way. Called student-based budgeting, or SBB, the method is designed to make school spending more transparent and accountable. The state’s third-largest district has an operating budget of $577 million, with 89 percent going directly to schools.
SBB directly targets dollars to individual student needs — among them special education and English language instruction. Schools with the largest concentrations of those needs are likely to receive bigger budgets than other schools.
The new allocation system has some advantages, but also some challenges. As the plan is discussed, district leaders should candidly consider and address the concerns.
School officials want to use SBB to redirect resources to where they are needed most and where they will have the most impact on achievement gaps. They’re hoping the community meetings will help clarify the difference between equal funding and equitable funding.
One advantage of SBB is that students with the same type of needs would get the same amount of funding, no matter which school they attend. This is in contrast to the typical “staffing formula” approach, in which schools get educator positions based on preset student-teacher ratios. That can unintentionally cause inequities because the arrival or departure of a single child can trigger the addition or elimination of a position.
SBB districts can provide different funding levels within a category of special-needs students. A Minneapolis official used the example of a Level 1 vs. a Level 4 special-education student. The two currently receive the same amount of funding, even though the Level 4 student is much more costly to serve.
Additionally, SBB budgeting can give building principals more flexibility to tailor resources to fit their schools.
Among the challenges posed by SBB is the fact that some schools would experience budget cuts. In draft plans given to principals in March, the more affluent Lake Harriet Upper Elementary School would lose $302,000, or 10 percent of its 2015 budget. By comparison, the higher-poverty Pillsbury Elementary School would gain up to $223,000, or 7 percent of its budget.
Many parents say they support giving more resources to schools with more low-income students (as state and federal education funding formulas already do), but not at the expense of school programs they’ve worked hard to build for their children. Some already conduct fundraisers for their schools — and having to raise even more private funds could drive some to choose private or charter schools, or to switch districts.
District officials must find ways to balance needs. School officials say the budget numbers are still too much in flux to be widely distributed and are already different from what was presented to the principals, though they wouldn’t give specific numbers.
Another challenge to consider is the potentially difficult transition from one system to another, which would require major changes in administration structures. The “central office’’ culture would have to adjust to serve schools, rather than simply telling them what to do. At the same time, the administration must make sure that schools are compliant with state, federal and contractual requirements.
While there could be benefits to the budgeting change, district officials must carefully address potential concerns as they consider adopting the plan.