A fun way to balance budgets?

So maybe “fun” is a bit of an overstatement, but those smarty pants at Education Resource Strategies have certainly put together an engaging tool for gauging the relative costs and savings to districts when looking at effective ways to align school resources.  The web-based tool, School Budget Hold’em, uses the conceit of a card game to highlight research-based strategies for getting the most out of precious — and in most districts shrinking — school dollars along with the projected impact those strategies will have on the total budget.

The timing couldn’t be better. As Jim Hull’s aptly titled report Cutting to the bone makes clear, school districts across the country are in financial dire straits and the situation is not likely to change soon. This is forcing school boards to make very difficult choices about where to invest their resources and where they may need to cut.  

School Budget Hold’em works like this. You select how much you want to increase or decrease your budget (eg., -2%, -5%, +2%, etc). A series of “cards” are then displayed for varous strategies. For example, you select increasing your pre-k enrollments by 50% under “investments.” You find that this will increase your budget by +1.0%. You then look at the “savings” side and see a range of choices, like increasing class size by 2 (- 1.6% savings) or furloughing teachers for 3 days (- 0.7%). The tool keeps a running tab on your investments/savings, and your cards can be played and unplayed until you hit your target.

What I like most about this tool is the “why” button. In addition to the projected costs/savings, each strategy has an explanation of its potential benefits to students based on research.  This enables players to explore return on investment in terms of outcomes as opposed to budget implications alone. Some strategies, like “eliminate summer school,” come with a big alert, basically telling players, “you don’t really want to go there.”

The ERS tool isn’t going to replace the hard work school leaders face in re-allocating scarce resources.  But it’s a good starting point for thinking about the trade offs and might even be helpful when defending these decisions to the community.

You can get started here: http://www.erstrategies.org/resources/details/school_budget_holdem/ — Patte Barth 

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