School board members across the United States play a critical role in the financial oversight of school districts. After they hire school district leaders to make decisions about resource allocation ( teachers, support staff, technology, etc.), they then vote on budgets that they believe are best for kids, schools and communities. Given that approving school and school districts budgets are a huge responsibility, one would think that these officials would receive extensive training. Unfortunately, new research uncovers a shocking reality: most school boards do not undergo financial training.
Furthermore, some states that require this training, such as Kentucky, only call for “three hours of school finance training each year for local board members with three years’ experience or less.” But three hours of financial training for new board members is hardly enough time to fully equip leaders to be able to competently analyze whether schools are getting the most bang for their buck or whether kids and schools are being funded fairly.
Just as we expect teachers and support staff to have a certain amount of preparation and support, we should also expect sufficient financial skill and training for school board members dealing with millions of dollars in educational funding. This training would help these decisionmakers effectively allocate resources, figure out if they’re getting a good return-on-investment for expenditures, and ensure financial sustainability.
The consequences of not training a district’s financial decision-makers can lead to a massive waste of resources.
One example of how boards could look into the best use of education funding would be professional development programs for teachers. Research says these programs “appear ineffective in supporting changes in teacher practices and student learning.” While the intent is to help teachers, and thus students, not all of these programs lead to long-term enhancement in the classroom. As such, it would be fair for school boards to identify best practices or to ask why this money isn’t going to more effective programs or even directly into the classroom.
Another example of potentially misused funds in schools can be seen in their pricey technological investments. Most educators would agree that there are perks to having technology play a role in the classroom. With that being said, spending money on educational technology isn’t always the best investment. Not only are many financial decision-makers ill-equipped to analyze whether certain technology is helping students, but their lack of knowledge about technology and the rapidly-evolving industry can lead them to buy expensive name brand products that cost much more than what is actually needed. Financial training for decision-makers could alleviate many issues regarding resource allocation in schools and lead to more productive spending.
School boards should have a better, more in-depth and diverse knowledge of individual schools they’re dealing with.
Contrary to popular belief, principals are not the all-powerful school leaders that they are portrayed as and most spending decisions are made by school district officials. The fact that principals, unlike board members, are on school grounds every day dealing directly with issues (i.e. – poor student performance, ineffective programs, personnel) means that they have a unique insight into the needs of the institution. Locking them out of the financial decision-making process of the schools they run—as most school districts currently do—ignores valuable local knowledge. It is also impossible to truly hold a principal accountable if a school board or district officials are making most of the budgetary decisions for them. In order to both capture localized knowledge and to fairly hold school-level leadership accountable, principals must have a greater say in their school’s budget. And yes, that means they should receive financial training too.
Properly training the school boards and bureaucrats who are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in education funding would improve our schools and student outcomes.