I try not to overestimate my role as school principal. I know that it's the teachers and support staff that do much of the heavy lifting in the building on a day-to-day basis. Through my years as an administrator, I know there are benchmark moments in the school year where I am asked to make key leadership decisions that will strongly influence the life of the school and those same teachers and staff which commit so much. One of these moments is budget time.
I highly respect the way our district allows principals to make the important decisions for their schools through the budget process. The simple explanation of the process looks like this - the school is allocated funds based on a variety of factors, but primarily projected student enrolment. From this allocation the principal then leads the decisions regarding staffing for the school. The entire district knows this as RAM time (with RAM an acronym of Resource Allocation Method) and planning begins in earnest in April.
While teachers and staff have an understanding of the process, it does not make times any less worrisome. If the school population is likely to stay the same, staffing will likely look similar. If population is projected to increase, there is a good chance that additional staff will be hired. Finally, if a school population is on the decline, hard staffing decisions need to be made. Staff will often begin to predict the budget implications and it's impact on their position almost immediately.
As a leader, these are the difficult times. As I have talked about in my previous blog posts, the school staff become a family of our own. Everyone puts their heart and soul in their work for our students and school. We come to know each other as professionals, and as friends. While I am fortunate to receive amazing counsel from my administrative team, it is ultimately the principal that signs off on all budget decisions. I'm not going to lie, these difficult decisions are heart-wrenching. In the end, I rely on some key principles to guide me through these times:
1) Students First - the first step is to work with the current staff and school administrative team to determine the needs of the students moving into the next school year. Key elements in this stage are ensuring class sizes start at right numbers, and that students with complex needs have support staff available to assist.
2) Listen to the Staff - beginning as early as February we begin to analyze school needs as a staff. It often occurs past the mid-way point of the school year, which is enough time to determine the value of decisions made for the current year. No one knows better than the staff what needs to stay the same and what needs to change for the next year.
3) Staff over Stuff - when you value relationships as part of student learning, you know that investing in the relationships and the people that build them is essential. At the school level, we can often look at alternative options such as limiting copying and paper use, or forgoing tech purchases, in order to keep the staff that matter at our school.
4) Deliver News Directly - when bad news is coming it becomes evident right away and everyone knows it. There is no need to delay the delivery of news. My way of working is to talk with staff directly in a one-on-one manner. I also don't delay the news or "sugar coat" what's coming. I say what needs to be said as straight as I can and, if needed, provide the rationale for school decisions.
5) Support Staff Through the Process - Delivering bad news isn't the last step, and in my view it's just the beginning. Frequent check-ins afterward are important, and it's even more essential to find out what the preferences of that staff member are toward their next steps. From there, I try and reach out to colleagues in order to gauge the possibility of a match for our displaced staff. I remain on their side, always.
Being a leader in good times is pretty easy. I've been in the position to add staff throughout this process and to ensure everyone at your school has a guaranteed position and to welcome in new people into the fold can be exciting and fun. Leading through a lean budget isn't easy at all. As I muddle through the series of difficult decisions the common refrain from friends is "oh well, that's why you get paid the big bucks". I am fully aware that my decisions impact people in both their professional and personal lives and I don't take that responsibility lightly. My only hope is that my guiding principles make the process a bit easier for those impacted.