Donovan Group Insights

How to Have Productive Conversations About Funding Cliffs

For many school districts, help came at exactly the right time. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred the Department of Education to launch the ESSER funding program, which helped fill many gaps in district budgets. Although most students have returned to the classroom, superintendents still feel the effects of the pandemic, particularly as they relate to school finances. These effects are exacerbated by the fact that ESSER has led school districts to the edge of a funding cliff.

ESSER has come to a close, and now districts face challenges in funding their schools. It’s the responsibility of district leaders to be transparent and forthcoming in discussing these challenges with their stakeholders. By initiating candid conversations about your district’s financial situation and demonstrating how your schools provide value, you’ll be more likely to benefit from a positively engaged community.

Explain your district’s financial situation

Initially, stakeholders might wonder why the school district is asking for their support. The community needs to be in the loop about their district’s financial situation to understand the increasing demand for school funds. Superintendents have a greater chance of garnering financial support from stakeholders when they explain why they’re asking for additional funds in the first place.

Many school districts face funding cliffs due to the discontinuation of the ESSER program. Start by explaining ESSER and how the program positively impacted your schools during the pandemic. Help stakeholders understand that ESSER was a one-time federal program, and while the grants were a tremendous help, the discontinuation of funding has left gaps in your district’s budget.

Emphasize that your district’s current financial situation isn’t the result of poor financial decisions. Schools have largely the same needs as they had before the pandemic, but because ESSER is now in the past, superintendents have no choice but to rethink how existing funds can be prioritized to best support schools. In giving your stakeholders an accurate picture of your district’s finances, you have an opportunity to demonstrate how their tax dollars are being put to use in effectively achieving the district’s strategic aims.

Put school finances in layman’s terms

As you explain the situation surrounding the funding cliff in the wake of ESSER’s discontinuation, it’s important to speak with stakeholders in a way that’s easy to understand. Remember that most stakeholders don’t have a financial background. School finances are complex, even for community members who work in the financial field. Speaking in layman’s terms builds trust with stakeholders because when they can understand you, they know you’re not hiding anything.

While it’s important to remain transparent, you don’t want to overwhelm stakeholders with too many details. Increase stakeholder engagement by compiling data into short and concise presentations. The data you choose should focus on how much money the district needs, where it’s going and how the community will benefit from it. You’ll also want to highlight financial information that’s relevant to stakeholders’ wants and needs. Various groups make up your school community, so develop specific messages that are pointed at the right audiences.

You can further engage stakeholders in financial decisions by providing resources on your district’s website. Upload documents that cover the basics of school finances, including a glossary of terms and other background information necessary for participating in financial discussions. Gather questions from stakeholders at open houses and board meetings, then create an FAQ page that provides answers all in one place.

Provide a breakdown of the budget

Stakeholders want to know exactly where their money is going. You can put their minds at ease by publicizing financial reports that explain how leaders are allocating funds throughout the school district. Stakeholders tend to respond positively when they believe their district is being transparent and responsible about how taxpayer money is being spent. An itemized list of expenditures can reassure stakeholders their money is going where it can best support the district in achieving its strategic priorities.

Stakeholder engagement isn’t just about what you communicate, but how often you communicate it. Stay transparent with stakeholders by providing regular updates about your district’s budget and financial decisions. Stakeholders have more trust in school districts that regularly share new information. These updates encourage stakeholders to become active participants in the district’s financial plan. As a result, they can offer timely feedback and gain some control over the decision-making process.

Consider all your options for communicating with stakeholders. One method is to create an easily accessible page on your district’s website that contains reports, budget summaries and other financial updates. You could also send print materials home with students that provide valuable information about the district’s finances. Remind stakeholders of the dates of board meetings, and create an option for virtual attendance. Videotape and upload these meetings to your district’s website so stakeholders can view them at a later time if they’re unable to attend.

Show the value of public schools

District leaders need to be able to demonstrate to stakeholders that school funds are being put to good use. Explain how stakeholders’ tax dollars make a positive impact on public education and the community at large. Stakeholders are more enthusiastic about funding their school district when they feel confident their money is being used in service of meeting their district’s strategic priorities. While everyone will differ to some extent in their ideas of which of the district’s priorities are most important, it’s important to convey this value to all members of the community.

For instance, families of current students are likely most concerned about how your school district will use funds to directly benefit their children’s education. It’s easy for these stakeholders to understand the link between school funding and student outcomes because they have a direct connection to your schools. A family’s contribution to taxpayer funding of schools comes right back to them by way of a better educational experience for their children.

But other community members have a financial stake in your district, too. These include non-parents, business owners, civic groups, alumni and families of graduated students. While they don’t have children in the district, these stakeholders understand how quality public education feeds back into the broader community. Their taxpayer contributions to the district’s budget help schools enhance academic performance and boost the graduation rate. This increases the recruitment base for business owners, which in turn supports the local economy.

Reiterate the value of your schools

When you engage the community in discussions concerning school funding, it’s critical to remind stakeholders of the value your schools bring to students, their families and the community at large. This value gives stakeholders a big reason to feel good about funding the school district through their tax dollars. It’s important to emphasize this value all the time, regardless of your district’s financial situation.

Create a positive association between funding and student outcomes. Bolster your district’s communication efforts with newsletters, short videos and social media posts that share what’s happening in your schools. When you regularly promote your schools’ accomplishments and success stories, you boost public perception, and stakeholders will need little convincing when the time comes to ask for additional funding through a referendum or ballot measure.

The federal relief that helped schools get through the pandemic has left superintendents staring over a funding cliff. Districts need to be proactive about demonstrating to their stakeholders that schools are providing value to students and the larger community by putting taxpayer funds to effective use. With transparency and a demonstrated commitment to your district’s strategic priorities, you can inspire stakeholders to take pride in their local schools and trust that their contributions make a difference.

Leave a Comment