Sunday, February 04, 2001

City schools testing budgets

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the first time since Cincinnati's public schools gained the power to craft their own budgets, parents, teachers and principals can have some fun. This year every school gets the chance to spend some money, instead of making budget cuts.

        Schools are able to add programs, buy materials and hire new staff, thanks to the $35.8 million a year that will be generated from a new 6-mill tax.

        The 3-year-old process is called student-based budgeting. It's about decentralizing and equity.

        No more edicts from the central office.

        The power is in the hands of those on the front lines. Teachers, parents and community residents decide how to spend more than 70 percent of the district's general fund budget.

        “It's a labor of love,” said Gary Browning, principal at Sands Montessori. “But what's good about this is we decide.”

        Budget decisions are not easy to make.

        In the district's 75 schools, that could mean reducing space for art and special education to reduce crowded classrooms. Or a school might decide to forego supplies to keep a teaching position.

        The schools are making final adjustments to their budgets for the next school year.

        A look at how Sands handles the process offers a glimpse into how schools decide to budget their money.

        Schools receive money from the district based on the size of their building, the number of students enrolled

        and the types of programs offered, said Mike Geoghegan, district treasurer.

        A Montessori school costs more to run than a neighborhood school, for example.

        Schools receive a specific amount of money for each student.

        Next year, that figure will be roughly $4,097, although that could change.

        “We're working hard on this so schools have more control over how they spend their money,” Mr. Geoghegan said.

        How schools decide to spend that money is a lengthy process.

        In most cases, there are numerous meetings and versions before a final budget is agreed upon.

        Sands has $3.6 million to spend on 684 students.

        The process started with Mr. Browning proposing six different budgets.

        Those ideas were hammered out into a final budget with help from teachers and two committees:

        • The ILT is the school's instructional leadership team. This group of parents and teachers determines what and how students will be taught.

        • The LSDMC — the local school decision-making council — is a group of parents, teachers and community members that hires the principal and helps govern the school.

        The new money means Sands teachers will be able to update materials - some of which are 25 years old, said Pam Schall, who teaches ages 6-9.

        “The first round of this was very difficult,” Ms. Schall said. “We had less money to play with and the immediate impact was severe. I'm happy we are back on track.”

        Students will now receive serv ices that teachers and Mr. Browning say they should have been getting all along.

        Sands will hire a new teacher to ease crowding, spend $20,000 on materials for a new Montessori classroom, give teachers $1,000 for new materials and spend $5,000 for new library books.

        The school will spend $20,000 on summer school and hire a full-time assistant principal, a counselor and a library assistant. A new early-literacy center will also be created.

        Fourth-grader Tadjh Brooks said he's excited about new library books and more computers.

        “Sometimes we get new books, but mostly they're old,” Tadjh said. “And sometimes, you have to wait to use the computers.”

        Jenny French, president of the Sands Montessori Parent Organization, said she likes student-based budgeting because a variety of people get involved.

        “We've been trying desperately to update our Montessori pieces and materials,” Mrs. French said. “Now we have a chunk of money and every classroom can have what they need to do proper lessons.”

        But the new classroom and literacy center mean other things must go. The school will dismantle its special education center and it might have to consolidate two art studios into one.

        Tough decisions like that are part of the process, said Lynn Marmer, a school board member in charge of finance.

        “The process is something that's novel and unique because you don't have the central office deciding on how schools have to spend the money,” she said.

        “We've seen schools make dramatic payoffs, like giving up their supply money to save a staff person. We want to make sure plans tie into student accountability.”


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