New financial reporting should illuminate issue of equity

On Board Online • February 20, 2017

Timothy G. Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

A new financial reporting requirement should prompt thoughtful, strategic discussions about the allocation of resources in your school district.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will require school districts to report 2017-18 per-pupil spending for every school in the district.

While boards won't have to issue school-level reports in accordance with ESSA until June 30, 2019, it's important for school boards to start talking about this coming requirement now.

Just to be clear: That's per-pupil spending in every school, not just the school-district level.

School board members should welcome this development. It's an opportunity for every school board member to gain insight into budget planning, as well as provide assurances to members of your community that their resources are being distributed fairly and productively throughout the district.

We often talk about equity on the macro level. As a society, we face the challenge of ensuring a high quality education for every student regardless of gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin. There can be no expectation of educational excellence without educational equity. We cannot resolve achievement gaps without eliminating the equity gap. The state purportedly seeks to achieve equity through the foundation aid formula, which takes student need, local wealth and poverty measures into account.

As a locally-elected school board member, you have to be concerned about equity at the micro level - yes, that means even at the building level. How is your district divvying up the dollars it has to spend from school to school? Do all students in every school have access to a high quality education, regardless of where they live? Are all schools properly serving English language learners, students who have special needs and students who live in poverty?

Most likely, your board doesn't fully recognize whether one school receives less, more, or about the same level of funding relative to other schools in your district. Nor do parents see the distinctions because such information is probably never officially reported. The release of building-level per-pupil expenditures naturally will result in questions from parents and community members about how funding is allocated to schools, and why one school may receive more or less funding than another.

Answering questions to the satisfaction of residents won't be easy. While school board members know that a multitude of factors can contribute to building-level per pupil expenses, "equal" is easier to explain (and defend) than "equitable." Providing equity will cause the board to make potentially controversial, but needed, adjustments that by definition will steer more resources to those schools that need it most.

Sharing the information with the public in a clear and understandable way will be an enormous communications challenge requiring a very thoughtful and careful explanation. Who is going to praise your budgetary decisions after they see the building-level reports?

More to the point, which staff, parents and taxpayers will not be pleased? All parents understandably want the best for their own children. They may not happily accept that School A spends more than School B, and your board could be getting an earful.

That's why the focus needs to be on equity. It shouldn't be the goal of the district to spend the same amount in every school. The goal should be that resources are allocated where they are needed most and will do the most good. To justify a budget aimed at achieving equity, school boards will need to redefine budgets to meet current community needs and highlight the specific steps taken to ensure that every student in every school building has an opportunity to achieve his or her potential.

But equity is not about inputs only. School board members - and the community - will want to see a return on their investments in terms of academic results. Results matter, too.

If we can use the new reporting requirement to make sound spending investments that increase student achievement, then all of us - school board members, administrators, parents, teachers, and especially students - will be better off.

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