Transformative Engagement in School Budgeting

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Harford County (Maryland) Public Schools (HCPS) faced a number of serious challenges – class sizes were increasing, employees hadn’t received pay increases in six years, and employees and the community generally felt that resources were not well managed. Faced with the likelihood of additional cuts, the superintendent of HCPS decided to take a new approach to the district’s budget development process, consulting the community to determine the district’s priorities.

The effort, which began as a way to reach out to employees at all levels for feedback, quickly grew to include parents and the general public. The district started by taking suggestions and educating stakeholders about the budget challenges, in part by making budget information available on the district’s social media platforms and website. The online budget information was accompanied by links to an interactive budgeting tool that allowed employees and parents to allocate resources under various scenarios, providing that the bottom line remained the same. The public was also encouraged to e-mail suggestions directly to the district’s finance department after using the tool. Although the value of the feedback varied widely, the process accomplished an important goal: giving parents who could not attend budget meetings an opportunity to be heard. It also generated a surprising number of good suggestions.

The district also used virtual channels of communication to advertise its traditional, in-person budget hearings, increasing attendance and improving the feedback shared there. To further expand access, HCPS also held budget hearings at locations throughout the district. The hearings had no set agenda other than answering questions and discussing options with the public. They were kept short – roughly 30 to 60 minutes – making it possible to hold multiple hearings throughout the district. To help increase the level of meaningful feedback, the district also used an existing 16-page publication, Community Guide to the Operating Budget, as a supplemental resource to educate the public at these hearings. The booklet was available online, and it was distributed to community and business groups, as well as being available at county buildings.

Overall, the effort helped create understanding and consensuses among stakeholder groups, leading to an endorsement from the Parent Teacher Association for pay increases and a prioritization of compensation and management of class sizes within the budget.

For more information about Harford County Public Schools, click here.

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